The joke in Harare these days is that more people per square metre are drinking bottled water here – in the drought-hit capital of Zimbabwe – than in wealthy Manhattan.
Harare has developed a huge appetite for bottled water. An estimated 300,000 litres change hands daily in this city of just over 1.6 million, with Zimbabwe’s finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, saying imports have reached “crazy” proportions.
Buyers include poor families as well as rich, and such is the upswing of demand that bottled water now outsells alcohol and soft drinks in some desperately thirsty neighbourhoods.
The reason for the boom is simple: what’s coming out of the tap in many homes and businesses is increasingly undrinkable.
“Municipal water is smelly. Often we see visible dirty particles floating,” Precious Shumba, chair of the Harare Residents’ Trust, the biggest civic pressure group in the city, said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As water quality declines, in part the result of worsening drought, some families who drink or bathe in what comes out of the tap are becoming sick with problems from rashes to typhoid, health authorities say.
The capital has grappled with problems providing clean water for most of a decade, but an extended drought, crippling power cuts, a cash-short municipal government and an exodus of qualified water engineers means the city now produces only about 40% of the water needed, Shumba said.
About half of the city’s water is lost through leaks in failing distribution pipes on its way to homes, and illegal connections are also a problem, water engineers say.
Residents nervous about what’s coming out of their taps have increasingly turned to alternatives for drinking water. Domestic refrigerators are packed with containers of imported or local purified water.
In many homes, the city’s municipal water is only used for bathing, gardening, laundry, or watering animals.
The surge in demand for bottled water has led to new business opportunities. Sheila Dezha (40) a widow, collects empty plastic bottles from bins and sidewalks, scrubs them clean and refills them with well water.
After refrigerating the bottles overnight, she sells them to passers-by near malls and restaurants or to motorists at traffic lights.
“Dirty municipal drinking water means big profits for me,” Dezha from Epworth, one of Harare’s poorest districts, said.
Her home-bottled water sells for a steep $1.50, bringing in a healthy profit. “On a good day I can sell 100 bottles of water,” she said.
“At first my neighbours jeered my business as shameful and deceitful,” she said. “I can afford to put my two children through secondary school. Now neighbours borrow money from me. On weekends I go around the community teaching women how to clean dirty bottles and sell fresh water.”
‘THE NEW GOLD’
As Zimbabwe struggles with a hot, dry summer, a growing number of people have become part-time bottled water vendors. Ice cream sellers, security guards and school teachers all can be found hawking water as a side business.
“I stock and hide 30 tubes of bottled water in my office every day,” admitted Rarami, a secondary school teacher in the city who asked that his surname not be used. “I sell to thirsty students for $1.10 a tube. It’s a marvellous secret profit.”
“Water is the new gold in Harare,” he said.
Supermarkets have opened new counters advertising “sweet drinking water by reverse osmosis science.”
“Business is delightful. Bottled water sales outstrip alcohol on a scale of 3 to 1, at least in our store,” said Naye Beta, a warehouse manager at a Pick n Pay supermarket, one of the country’s biggest retailers.
But not all of the water for sale on Harare’s streets is safe. Arnold Gokwe, a director for Still Waters Packaging, one of the water bottling companies in the capital, said touts refilling bottles with unclean water is hurting the image of companies like his.
“Fly-by-night sellers fill bottles with rain water and stick our brand across their bottles. This spoils our reputation,” he said.
Jimmy Sabelo, an infectious disease doctor who runs the private Everjoy Medical Centre, said the city has seen an upswing in health problems as a result of dirty water from taps and refilled bottles.
“Often I am treating over 10 patients with vomiting, abdominal pains and dysentery. Some of it is related to water issues, especially patients from the poorest suburbs like Mbare, east of the city,” he said.
‘SAFE BY FAITH’
Consumers face a number of problems in determining what constitutes safe drinking water. In Harare, shelves teem with bottles of drinking water that bear the face of popular Pentecostal Christian spiritual leaders who draw up to 10,000 worshippers at their meetings.
“The prophet’s drinking water is safe by faith. We don’t need stupid tests to prove it!” one devout shop owner said in an interview.
Charity Jerayi, 30, a “street water entrepreneur”, said many people who have lost factory jobs are selling unsafe water to make ends meet.
Gideon Shoko, the deputy secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, said he understands what drives the deceit. “The unemployment rate is over 80%. Anything sells for desperate people,” he said.
David Coltart, a veteran lawmaker and former government minister, said reckless issuing of building permits has destroyed natural wetlands that once helped purify the city’s water.
“Most families in the capital cannot pay for bottled water. This often has dire consequences for their health. It’s tragic,” he said.