NEWTON SIBANDA, Lusaka
CHONGWE dam, which supplies water to the Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company (LWSC) treatment plant, is the lifeline for the district. Thus when it dries up, the effect is always devastating.
Last year, for the fifth consecutive year, the dam dried up, leaving 14,568 residents of Chongwe Town without a reliable supply of water for much of the year.
The shortage was partially attributed to low rainfall during the dry season, though a further cause of the scarcity is uncontrolled abstraction of water by farmers upstream.
Chongwe’s water supply challenge is further compounded by the severe pollution of Chongwe River by human sewage. The Ngwerere stream, which is a significant source of water for the LWSC treatment plant at Chongwe Dam, receives highly polluting discharges from overburdened wastewater treatment works in Lusaka.
Against this background, more than 50 percent of the population, over 107,914 people, in the rural areas of Chongwe still lack access to a safe water supply.
Through tracking the response of duty bearers to community actions, and convening with government partners at the national and district levels, the Fair Water Futures-a joint programme between Water Witness International and the local implementing partner, Action for Water, has gathered evidence of the underlying causes of the water crisis in Chongwe, and bottlenecks to policy implementation.
Action for Water is a Zambian non-profit organisation that works in partnership to advocate water security and governance for local communities, business and eco-systems.
According to Fair Water Futures, the water crisis in Chongwe is driven by poor management, illegal water use, lax regulation and a lack of policy implementation and accountability to water users.
The water shortage imposes severe hardship, extra expense and health risks on the residents.
“What we’re supposed to spend on food, we spend on water. We can’t do so much work because we are busy drawing water,” lamented Reverend Miriam Lumbwe, a Chongwe resident.
The shortage of water in Chongwe has also had a negative impact on business. As Amanda Mnakazwe, a local business owner who runs Chinsa restaurant attests:
“It’s been costly; we have to hire people to get water for us. We even delay in making food because we spend time fetching water.”
Inadequate water supply in Chongwe Town
The Water Supply and Sanitation Act requires water supply and sanitation utilities to provide efficient and sustainable water supply and sanitation services under the regulation of the National Water Supply and Sanitation Council (NWASCO).
The fact the water shortage in Chongwe has persisted for a long time raises serious doubts about the efficacy of regulation in the water supply and sanitation sector, and accountability to water users.
While there are plans in place to alleviate the water shortage in Chongwe by developing of wellfields in Chalimbana through the Chongwe Water Supply Improvement Project, this solution does not address the underlying shortfalls in regulation and accountability.
Unregulated water abstraction
The shortage of water in Chongwe Town is directly related to the abstraction of water upstream. While many have attributed the water shortage to climate change, a study by Chisola & Kuráž attributed changes to the flow regime in the Upper Chongwe catchment to human activities upstream, including abstraction for agriculture.
The upper Chongwe catchment has a high concentration of land under irrigated agriculture, with many farmers drawing water from the Chongwe River and its tributaries, namely the Ngwerere stream. Studies indicate that commercial farmers and small-scale farmers respectively abstract 15 million m3/a and 10 million m3/a from the Chongwe River and its tributaries. It is estimated that 90 percent of abstraction by commercial farms takes place during the dry season, when the flow of the Chongwe River and its tributaries is considerably reduced.
While the use of water for agricultural purposes is certainly legitimate and essential, the Water Resources Management Act states that domestic and non-commercial needs should be prioritised in water allocation.
Pollution of the Ngwerere stream
The Ngwerere stream, a major tributary of the Chongwe River, receives polluted discharges from the Manchinchi Wastewater Treatment Plant, and the Kaunda Square and Ngwerere waste stabilisation ponds.
The treatment facilities are run down and overburdened, and do not provide proper wastewater treatment. According to a report commissioned by LWSC:
A study by Gauff Ingenieure indicated that Ngwerere stream is grossly polluted by human faecal contamination.
The report notes that river water at Chongwe dam is green due to algal blooms caused by high nutrient content in the water, which is related to the inadequately treated wastewater.
Subsequently, the LWSC treatment plant struggles to treat the water to an acceptable quality, especially when water levels are low and there is little natural dilution.
Local residents complain about the quality of water. As Reverend Lumbwe noted, “sometimes it’s clean, sometimes it’s brown and smelly”.
. Inadequate rural water supply
In Zambia, according to the Central Statistical Office (CSO), the level of poverty in rural areas is three times the level in urban areas, and one of the key factors contributing to this is the lack of access to safe water and sanitation.
The National Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Programme aimed to improve rural water supply in Zambia, so that 75 percent of the rural population would be within 0.5 km of an improved water supply by 2015. National statistics indicate that access to water in rural Chongwe remains below 50 percent, meaning that over 107,914 residents are currently without a safe water supply.
As a result, they have to travel long distances to obtain water, and often resort to getting water from unprotected sources, namely shallow wells and streams, which pose serious health risks.
“Our women are the custodians of our water and in many cases they walk long distances to access water,” lamented headman Kapuka.
According to the Water Supply and Sanitation Act, local authorities are responsible for providing water supply and sanitation services in the area falling under their jurisdiction.
However, there are no regulations in place for the provision of rural water supply.