Sanitation perspectives in the new Zimbabwe

Last updated: Wed, 11/10/2010 - 19:04

Zimbabwe has seen its ups and downs in terms of WASH services, and the newly signed Government of National Unity presents opportunities for the improvements in WASH. While we look towards the rehabilitation, development and expansion of water and sanitation infrastructure, there is a concern that social values, principles, standards and ethics will not have such an easy or quick fix. Services declined over a decade and an entire generation knows nothing but water shortages, unmanaged waste, and burst pipes. It is this generation whose WASH benchmark is skewed and who in the future will require much more than a quick infrastructure fix.
Zimbabwe presents an interesting case study in terms of the development processes particularly from a WASH perspective. The attainment of independence in 1980 coincided with the declaration by the United Nations of the Decade for Drinking Water Supplies and Sanitation. At that time the newly independent government came to power with a “zeal and zest to undo re-do the injustices of the colonial past”. This meant accelerated development in coverage of water and sanitation, housing, rural electrification, roads network agriculture, energy development, etc. In short, what Zimbabwe aimed to achieve was the development of structures and to meet certain standards. Guided also by the inherited British planning system known as the “city beautiful concept “of structured and formal development processes, the country’s goals were clear, ambitious and largely aiming at a socialist egalitarian society. Given the political climate of reconciliation, the country was a darling of the international community, leading to support being churned out to various sectors, including WASH.
Against this background, Zimbabwe developed an ambitious Integrated Rural Water Supplies and Sanitation programme whose aim was “to provide the entire communal and resettlement area population with access to safe adequate water and sanitation facilities by year 2005”. The general objective of the programme was to improve health conditions and the quality of life of the rural population. What was evident at the start of the programme was the emphasis on the provision of facilities and the use of acceptable standards in the delivery of that service.
The post independence era saw a boom in WASH, supported by a highly motivated civil service, generous external support, receptive communities who demanded services of certain quality and standard, and an enabling environment through national policies and strategies. From 7% coverage for rural sanitation, the programme recorded gains of up to 60% coverage by 1999 (JMP). For urban areas, coverage reached 99.9%, a result of city by-laws that demanded each newly built house be connected to a sewer using the waterborne system.
Twenty-eight years after independence, the country has experienced rapid decline in development and it is clear that the country will be unable to meet the Millennium Development Goal targets that it agreed to in 2000. Zimbabwe has seen a reversal in the gains that it has achieved in the many sectors, particularly in water and sanitation. The reversal in the gains has contributed to a large extent to the cholera outbreak and humanitarian crisis that have besieged the country since the first report in August 2008. To date, the official death toll stands at over 4,000, but could even be higher as there are unreported cases in rural areas. Cholera outbreaks keep erupting suddenly in the urban centres and some rural areas. While it is generally accepted that poor infrastructure, lack of access to safe water and sanitation and poor hygiene practices have led to this humanitarian crisis, one wonders if the problem has not been exacerbated by declining standards, values and levels of socialisation.
As we enter into the new Zimbabwe with a Government of National Unity in place, there is some optimism and excitement that the international community, once convinced, will again give support as it did from the late 80s to the late 90s. Guaranteed infrastructure development, rehabilitation and expansion is something that is doable with the right engineers, economists and social scientists planning together. The cities and indeed the rural areas will be restored to what they once were, though it will take time. There will be quick short-term interventions, and medium- to long-term measures for infrastructure development.
What is more worrying and uncertain are issues related to the restoration of values, standards, morals, principles and ethics. First, a child that is born in the past decade has already lost the ideal situation vis-à-vis WASH. To them water shortages and the lack of access to sanitation is more of a norm than an exception. Hence, they are used to open defecation, flying toilets and any other forms of unsafe and undignified sanitation practices. They do not have a value system by which they can measure themselves or aspire to live up to. Convincing this child who will soon be an adult is going to be difficult and there will be slow adapters to change.
The decline has not been confirmed to the hardware infrastructure alone but has also affected waste collection resulting in piles of rubbish across the cities. For children without much access to recreational facilities, these dump sites have become play grounds, and the puddles of waste water have become swimming pools. Again, they do not see anything wrong for they have never known anything better. This change in culture values and in principles will take much longer than infrastructure development.
Another worrying phenomenon in adults is how quickly we have all adjusted to unacceptable service, standards and principles. In the 90s, it was unacceptable to see sewerage flowing in the city, to go for hours without running water in urban areas, or to see heaps of uncollected garbage. Presently there is flowing sewerage, unacceptable smells, and uncollected garbage. In response, households have changed their benchmark and are adapting and learning how to cope in the best manner that they can. Most urban households are becoming self contained units where water is treated at household level, as is solid waste (burning or burying in pits). Excreta is also dealt with at the household level through various sometimes unsafe disposal mechanisms. Instead of demanding service of certain standard and level, households have learnt to adapt and employ other coping mechanisms. Mostly, however, they have simply lowered their WASH standards.
Currently, consultants, engineers, economists, financiers, and public sector professionals are in the process of developing short- and medium-term recovery plans for WASH. These plans will on necessity look at rehabilitation, expansion, development of new facilities, and yet the issue of lost values, standards, principles and indeed ethics cannot be dealt with in a recovery plan in the same manner as we deal with infrastructure. There is need for strategies that will focus on social values and standards for more sustained WASH and development.
Ms. Neseni is WSSCC's National Coordinator in Zimbabwe. For more information, please contact Ms. Neseni, Executive Director, IWSD,