Harare’s water woes continue to grow, with a range of laboratory reports now showing that a number of boreholes are pumping water contaminated by faecal matter although the causes of such contamination still have to be established, worsening the danger.
But we also have to keep the danger in perspective. It is highly likely that water from the worst borehole in Harare is safer than the water on any stream or river running through the city. In almost all cases, the contamination is low, in many cases too low to condemn the borehole as dangerous according to one laboratory, although many might not want to take the chance.
And shallow wells are very difficult to protect, so water from these is likely to be even worse than boreholes. For those with no option, but to use borehole water and since the Harare City Council still refuses to put in place a proper rationing scheme so all residents can have access to its treated water most of the time, there are many so reliant and they need now to think carefully.
What the tests reveal and what the publicity of the tests is meant to ensure, is an end to the assumption that all borehole water is safe to drink or cook without being treated or boiled. This is a fairly modern idea. In earlier decades people who had to rely on boreholes in peri-urban areas automatically boiled their water before drinking it, just in case.
So know health and other experts are urging all who use borehole water to boil it first before drinking or to chlorinate it and there are a number of very cheap and effective products on the market that will chlorinate water and ordinary domestic bleaches are also effective.
The main danger is that some might overdo the treatment, so following directions is just as important as taking action in the first place.
We also think that schools, hospitals, clinics and the like using borehole water should have their water tested, or have new tests done now. They may be in the fortunate group that has safe borehole water, or they may have to take precautions. But they need to know.
The sources of contamination are fairly obvious. It can be surface contamination and this might well not be of human origin. Many people keep dogs and a substantial minority keep chickens. With the sort of rain and run-off we have been experiencing it is probable that a borehole not effectively sealed from the surface will be contaminated by the sort of organic material now being washed around.
Underground contamination is also present in some places. Some sewers leak, even if just a bit.
And then most properties in the middle and outer ring of low density suburbs, those that used to have a rigid minimum plot size of 4 000 square metres or one acre, use septic tanks, that is they store and process their raw sewage on the property.
This should be safe, but it is harder and harder these days as densities rise to ensure that a borehole is far enough from the French drains of a septic tank, either the one on the property or the one next door. No one knows how water is flowing under their garden. It does not all go vertically down. Rocks, channels of drier earth and the like can all create underground flows.
So it seems the basic point is that no one should assume borehole water is 100 percent safe. It is simple to boil water for drinking or put in a few drops of water purification chemicals in a drum or take similar precautions. Obviously many cannot do without such water, but they can take the risk down to an effective zero with very modest effort.
And at the same time Harare City Council can start to think how to distribute water better than giving some people a continuous high pressure supply, some once a week if they are lucky and some none at all. We note that Bulawayo, with far worse water problems and a draconian rationing system, has escaped all these epidemics that hit Harare, simply because they take water more seriously.