Zimbabwe’s Troubles Continue to Mount as Drought Hits Drinking Water

26 August 2020 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, has halted running water supplies, after difficulties at two reservoirs. Zimbabwe is experiencing an ongoing drought, which has been made worse in Bulawayo by ageing infrastructure and outbreaks of water-borne diseases. The 650,000 residents of the city have been restricted to drawing tap water once a week since May, after reservoir reserves fell to 26 per cent of capacity.

Bulawayo is not the only part of Zimbabwe to have struggled with providing water recently. Kariba, a town near Lake Kariba (one of the world’s biggest inland lakes by volume), has suffered from intermittent water supplies over the last several weeks.


Mounting crises in Zimbabwe have left seven million people in both rural and urban areas in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, an increase of 1.5 million since last August. The World Food Programme (WFP) has predicted that around 60 per cent of the country (around 8.6 million people) will be food insecure by the end of the year. According to the WFP, Zimbabwe’s worsening food security situation is largely due to a devastating combination of severe economic recession, the Covid-19 pandemic and drought. Zimbabwe’s economic situation has been especially severe, with the collapse of the recently re-introduced Zimbabwean dollar and hyperinflation that has risen to over 800 per cent. Unemployment has reached an estimated 90 per cent.

As the Zimbabwean economy crumbles, it is uncertain whether there will be enough money or political will to fix the state of its water resources. At the Bulawayo dams in April, an independent engineering consultant concluded that the dams only held enough water for 14 months and that poorly maintained infrastructure was the reason for shortages (although official sources dispute this). Over 30 per cent of water in Bulawayo is lost in transmission, due to leaking pipes, and the network struggled to provide water to residents living on hills even before water rationing. Similarly, in Harare, the government failed to import chemicals to treat water, which along with drought conditions, left some parts of the city without tap water. As a result, cases of diarrhoea have increased, which has also led to poorer nutritional outcomes, especially among children. According to a city spokesman, Harare has gone without the chemicals as a lack of foreign currency has prevented Zimbabwe’s most populous city from importing more each month.

Zimbabwe’s multi-dimensional crises have also hit rural areas badly. More than 4.3 million people in rural areas are currently severely food insecure, in part due to drought. In January, drought caused over 44,000 cattle deaths and a number of areas experienced poor harvests in May, which has also limited farm labour opportunities.

It is difficult to imagine that the Covid-19 pandemic could have come at a worse time for Zimbabwe, but the pandemic has compounded the effects of an unfolding disaster. Lockdowns have caused unemployment to surge and unemployed migrants are returning to rural areas, without the remittances they once sent back from urban areas.

As Zimbabwe struggles to deal with the effects of drought, pandemic and economic collapse, a humanitarian disaster appears to be unfolding. If the WFP predictions are correct, the situation is only likely to grow worse in the coming months.

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