Zim-China water, sanitation infrastructure cooperation could help fight diseases

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By Shelton Dzapasi

Zimbabwe is in the throes of a cholera crisis that has killed hundreds of people while thousands more have been infected across the country following outbreaks that began in the capital, Harare.

Cholera incidence – which also affects regional countries such as Malawi and Mozambique – is a regular occurence, peaking annually during wet seasons, while other waterborne diseases such as typhoid and diarrhoea also cause concern and death.

The situation is blamed on old, crumbling infrastructure which has come under pressure from a rising urban and peri-urban population. The key infrastructure include water sources, pipelines and sewer network.

For Harare metropolitan area, the main water source is Lake Chivero, which is heavily polluted as sewage is discharged into the lake and its tributaries and fed back to households as city authorities barely treat the water because of shortage of chemicals. They all but pump raw water into households and the water has typically a turgid, dirty look as it contains solid impurities; while it gives off a strong stench.

This single variety of water is available only on days per week in parts of the city. In many areas, now the majority, there is no piped water at all. Residents rely on boreholes and wells that are often contaminated as ground water gets mixed with sewage.

Unplanned and poorly regulated settlements that have sprung on the peripheries of towns do not have piped water or designated infrastructure and these are hotspots of disease.

Across the country, other cities and towns have a cocktail of problems that preclude their capabilities to deliver water or manage sewage, a situation attributable to shortage of foreign currency to purchase key water treatment chemicals while there is a publicly-acknowledged lack of craft competence among successive administrations in urban councils.

There is also the scourge of corruption, that has gnawed at service delivery.

Apart from the administrative boardrooms and structural issues, the issue of finance appears to be a key factor in the situation. Zimbabwe, facing severe economic challenges, does not have a lot of funds lying around for undertaking key infrastructure projects, owing to a number of causes, including sanctions imposed on the country by Western countries.

Case for Zim-China cooperation

About a decade ago, Zimbabwe got a loan facility valued at US$144 million for Harare City Council water infrastructure upgrade. However, the deal stalled after the initial draw-down of US$72 million which was apparently misspent with the local authority accused of misappropriating the funds, opting to buy luxury cars and iPads, at the expense of the core job.

In 2019, President Mnangagwa revealed that Harare City Council would get the remaining $72 million from the $144 million Harare Water and Sanitation Rehabilitation Facility from China-Exim Bank after he talked nicely to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

This has not yet materialised, four years on.

Whatever the case, and indeed the fate of this fund, there is need for new cooperation in th area of water infrastructure to assist Zimbabwe overcome the problems of what are sometimes derisively referred to as Stone Age diseases like cholera and typhoid.

A focus on water, sanitation and health financing could result in significant upgrades of infrastructure and systems that could go a long way in insulating the country rrom disease.

Already, China is involved in some projects such as sinking of boreholes while Chinese companies are constructing dams such in places such as Mashonaland East (Kunzvi) and Mashonaland Central (Bindura and Silverstroom). Other dams under construction in Zimbabwe are located in Matabeleland North and South as well as in the Midlands province.

China recognises the importance of water in Zimbabwe and has drilled 1000 boreholes across 10 provinces since 2012, benefiting more than 400 000 local people.

At the same time, many Chinese companies have drilled boreholes for local communities as d part of their Corporate Social Responsibility programmes.

Fundamentally, addressing source problems is a long strategy while provision of consumables and technical assistance will be necessary, all under guarantees that there should be sound and clean administration, in particular craft competence and accountability.

On the other hand, apart from water infrastructure, there are opportunities for cooperation in waste management and a drive towards a circular economy. China could be a source for mobility, recycling and reuse solutions that could assist Zimbabwe’s urban areas to get cleaner.

Related to this, taking a leaf from the Covid-19 pandemic, China could assist in upgrading medical facilities as well as provide medicines and consumables to treat diseases.

China also has medical expertise that it can share with its African counterpart, and has its corps – the China Medical Team – operating in Zimbabwe for the past 39 years and now the 20th batch.

*Dzapasi is a Researcher with Ruzivo Media & Resource Centre, a think tank organisation based in Harare.