8 min read

The Chongwe Water Crisis

The Chongwe Water Crisis
Today's art for The Phoenix was created by Laila Arêde

by Fiske S. Nyirongo

I, unfortunately, could not sit down with officials in the environment and water supply offices within Chongwe. My calls went unanswered and I waited outside offices for hours. A journalist friend said that's the trend as we are heading to general elections countrywide. People are scared to talk to journalists.

My family moved to Chongwe, Zambia from Kasane, Botswana. Botswana is our neighbor. The funny part is that Kasane has got more consistent water supply even if they are in the Kalahari desert.

It is scary at times especially when you have no choice but to use the water from the Chongwe River. There are times when neighbors with boreholes are not home and we have to cook, bathe and drink water from the river. Some residents have resorted to buying water filters but these are not accessible to everyone. My family and I have decided that we will have to hire a borehole drilling company again after the first attempt was unsuccessful. I am still optimistic that things will change once we are connected to the well field instead of the Chongwe River.

Chongwe had an erratic water supply for 8 years due to river water levels dwindling by mid-year. Chongwe River was the primary source of water for the whole town and as the population of Chongwe grew and the rain season started arriving later in the year, the water level couldn't stay consistent.

This has seen an increase in residential addresses around Chongwe taking matters into their own hands, hiring private borehole digging companies. Sometimes this process takes several attempts, which is expensive for most people in Chongwe. For those who can afford it, they turn their borehole into a water buying scheme to try and earn back the money they spent on the borehole. This has created a deeper divide between the 'haves' and 'have nots'.

In my reporting, I wanted to uncover how both the people who own boreholes (and sell water) and those who don't have been affected by this water crisis. Is there resentment brewing silently between the two groups? Will this town be used one day as an example of what happens when more pronounced inequalities due to climate change are not handled early?

About 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered. For this reason, it is common for people with access to clean water to think that water will always be plentiful in the world.

In 2015, the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released a report that said otherwise. More than half of the Earth’s largest aquifers have been depleted without any recharge as a result of changing weather patterns.

Some places in the world are already dealing with a water crisis due to depleting freshwater resources. One such place is Chongwe, Zambia.

Chongwe is a town located in Lusaka province, Zambia, about 21 miles away from the capital of Lusaka. Originally the capital of the Soli tribe, Chongwe became a common destination for other tribes because of its connection to Lusaka city and cheap land prices. This migration of people from other areas of Zambia to Chongwe has increased the population of the town and has put a strain on resources, including the water supply.

Agriculture is the main economic activity in the district with agricultural activities in crop, horticultural and livestock production. These take place mostly upstream of the Chongwe River. Chongwe town and the water and sewerage plant are downstream. This means that every activity that takes place upstream, especially waste disposal into the river affects the clean water supply.

When my family moved to Chongwe from Kasane, Botswana in the summer of 2015, our house was connected to the local water supply. It was morning when we settled in, there was no water for most of the day until later in the evening.

When we opened the taps that evening to ‘clean the pipes’, we thought something had died in the pipes due to the brown color and pungent smell of the water. Days later, our neighbors told us that this was the quality of water everyone got from council water taps.

During the past summers, water would not be pumped into our homes and there would be water tankers driven by the Lusaka Fire Department stationed around Chongwe. The tankers have stopped coming around and Chongwe residents have had to find alternative sources of water.

I talked to Mrs. Moyo, a woman whose family has resided in Chongwe since the 1970s. They have had a borehole well for years.

“I decided to sink a borehole when I saw that the quality of the water been pumped into my home was not good. Some days we would have clean water, other days the water would be muddy and there was always an unpleasant scent that accompanied it. We decided that we needed to do something about it,” she said.

The Moyo’s have an electric powered borehole and are one of the lucky Chongwe residents who had a borehole sunk before the price increased and the Zambian government introduced a levy on residential boreholes. “We were charged a few thousand [Zambian Kwacha] then,” Mrs. Moyo said. [1000 Zambian Kwacha = $45 USD]

Mrs. Moyo’s house is on a hill that overlooks key government buildings like the District Commissioner’s office. When I asked if she is looking to start selling water like other borehole owners around Chongwe, she said, “I like my peace. I know people suffer, especially when the river dries but I am only a Chongwe resident. I can’t provide the whole of Chongwe with water.”

Most Chongwe residents cannot afford a borehole. I talked to two families without boreholes who look for clean water frequently even during the rainy season. I talked to Shekinah Zulu, a teacher who relocated to Chongwe town in 2008 with her husband and her children. They live a part of Chongwe called Dam Area. Their house is a few minutes away from the Chongwe River and the Chongwe Water and Sewerage Plant.

“It’s a full-time job. It’s better in the rainy season we are in now, but we still have to use clean water for cooking, so I have to go and look for borehole water.” Mrs. Zulu has three school-aged children who have gone back to school since schools reopened on February 1st, so she is the only one who wakes up early to go in search of clean drinking water.

When I asked Mrs. Zulu where she usually draws water from, she did not point to her neighbor who has a borehole. Instead, she said, “Mostly I just go to DEBS.”

The District Education Board Secretary’s office has a borehole, and the guard allows people to draw water most mornings and evenings. It is also furthest from her house. When I asked how she feels about her neighbor not allowing her to draw water from their borehole, she said, “I feel bad sometimes but I understand why people with boreholes are keeping their taps locked. Look at the DEBS office, their tap gets spoilt by children and even adults who don’t know how to use them properly.”

Another Chongwe resident, Mr. Muhuma has recently had a borehole drilling company visit his house in preparation for a new borehole. Mr. Muhuma said that he has grown tired of spending money on containers of water drawn from his neighbor’s borehole. “Sometimes they are not in the mood to let people into their yard even if we have paid them,” he said, “and we have no choice but to look for water elsewhere.”

I found that most borehole owners hold the same perspective as Mrs. Moyo. They feel cornered that people are looking to them to provide water, even at a cost. But some borehole owners are making a profit from the crisis.

The owner of the borehole Mr. Muhuma draws water from agreed to talk to me on condition that I keep him anonymous because he fears being penalized for selling water. He said that his family initially started allowing people to draw water for free from their borehole but noticed that their pump needed frequent repairs as people increased in number.

“We did not have the money for it,” he said.

The family sat down and decided to start charging people 2 Kwacha [9 cents USD] at first for every 20-litre container and increased the price to 4 Kwacha [18 cents USD] last December. A few other houses with boreholes around Chongwe charge their neighbours for water and have made a business out of it in summers when the river completely runs dry. The summers of 2016 and 2019 were the worst for water supply.

On Friday, September 30, 2016, the Zambian Daily Nation newspaper reported that Chongwe had finally ran out of water. The Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company shut down the water treatment plant as soon as the Chongwe River was dry.

In 2017, the Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company launched the Chongwe Water Supply Improvement Project at Margaret Mwachiyeya, 17 miles away from Chongwe town. The project would develop a well field as an alternative source of water to augment surface water supply from the Chongwe River especially during the dry season. The project was completed in 2019 but was paused because holes were found in the pipes connecting homes in Chongwe. Lusaka Water and Sewerage Public Relations Officer, Mr. Muzungu has said that the repairs are underway. Some Chongwe residents were able to receive the water from the well field between October and December 2020, but water supply was switched to the Chongwe River when rainfall resumed.

The crisis is scary at times especially when we have no choice but to use the water from the Chongwe River. Some residents have resorted to buying water filters but these are not affordable for everyone. My family and I have decided that we will have to hire a borehole drilling company again after our first attempt was unsuccessful due to the first hole drilled being found to be dry. I am still optimistic that things will change once we are connected to the well field instead of the Chongwe River. Other Chongwe residents are hopeful that they will be a solution for the water crisis soon. The families I talked to are looking forward to not being water providers for their neighbors and not losing time searching for clean water.

What can the Zambian government and the international community do about the crisis? The Zambian government should be explaining what is happening to the people they serve. For example, I first heard that our water pipes had holes in them from a fellow resident. We did not know what was going on and why the water quality was still poor. They need to work on solutions but they should also communicate what those solutions are to every resident. The international community's job in my opinion is to act as witnesses — they should follow up on stories reported on Chongwe. It's the best thing they can do for Chongwe residents and journalists and activists reporting on the crisis.

Chongwe residents are hopeful that they will be a solution for the water crisis soon. The families I talked to are looking forward to not being water providers for their neighbors and not losing time searching for clean water.

UPDATE, October 29: The newly elected Zambian government, led by President Hakainde Hichilema, has announced that the national government will no longer charge a fee for borehole water well drilling for domestic use. There's hope that this could at least temporarily increase access to clean water in places like Chongwe, and reduce inequality over the right to this fundamental life-giving resource.

Fiske Nyirongo near the Chongwe River

Fiske Nyirongo is an author of fiction and non-fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2019 Kalemba short story writing prize. She is based in Lusaka, Zambia.