A closer look at urban water insecurity in an African context

Flooding in trading areas of Lusaka. Photo credit: David Ngwenyama.

The current public health pandemic in Lusaka, Zambia can be described as a function of extreme urban water insecurity, which takes into account important social factors such as public hygiene, water supply, waste collection, flood management (drainage), and public environmental health.

In Lusaka, urban water insecurity becomes apparent in rainy seasons when the water infrastructure is overwhelmed and stressed by the wheels of the hydro-social cycle. By hydro-social cycle, we refer to the intricate relationship between the hydrological cycle and social economic activities. It is not uncommon for socioeconomic activities in the central business district of Lusaka to come to a stand-still in the rainy season, largely due to the ageing or even non-existent drainage infrastructure – clogged drainage and flooded roads are a common phenomenon.

The consequences of an overstressed hydro-social cycle are manifested in the city’s public health system. The 2017/2018 season has been particularly challenging due to one of the worst outbreaks of cholera in almost two decades. While many rainy seasons in the past have been associated with cholera outbreaks, the current season has witnessed some records been broken.

The Ministry of Health declared an outbreak of cholera on 6 October 2017, following cases being reported in September. By 10 January 2018, 2,755 cumulative cases had been reported (see graph below). The majority of the affected households were located in the densely populated areas of the city with little or no water sanitation and supply services. These areas include informal settlements where the majority of residents engage in retail street vending as their main source of income.

On 30 December, in response to increasing concerns regarding the cholera outbreak, the Republican President of Zambia deployed the three wings of the National Defence Forces to control and minimise the spread of the disease by curtailing trading activities and gatherings in the city. This entailed restricting all vending activities in the central business district, demolishing unplanned structures, and quarantining disease-affected areas. To further curb the spread of the disease, the government postponed the opening of all schools and colleges.

The government’s efforts have, however, resulted in protests by residents in the affected areas who felt they were being denied their means of making a living through the sale of food and basic goods. The security forces, with the assistance of personnel from local government, were called upon to deal with the protests and restore social stability.

The outbreak of cholera in most parts of Lusaka illustrates the local governance challenge of urban water security. For a long time in Zambia, local government has been underfunded, thereby limiting its capacity to maintain public environmental health. The majority of the trading and residential areas are poorly serviced by city councils in terms of waste collection, water supply and sanitation. Poor revenue collection further exacerbates the problem as the revenue collected is often unable to sustain and support the operations of local government. In some cases, it is alleged that local government may be losing huge amounts of money due to illegal collection of revenue by local political cadres from public areas such as markets and transport terminals.

In response to the cholera outbreak, a number of measures have been implemented that will potentially provide future opportunities for achieving urban water security in Lusaka (in particular) and Zambia (in general). Some of these include:

  • Greater private sector involvement. In response to the outbreak, a number of companies from the private sector such as MTN Zambia and Trade Kings Zambia donated medicines, and bins for garbage collection. In the long term, the involvement of the private sector may provide additional financial support to local government to sustain municipal operations.
  • Increased social consciousness of public health. One of the outcomes associated with the outbreak has been increased public consciousness of public health issues. It has become common to see social media posts disseminating information about the importance of good hygiene and proper sanitation.
  • Zoning public restricted trading areas. Since the outbreak, there has been increased enforcement of local government by-laws regarding public trading areas. This is meant to regulate trading and vending to designated areas that are adequately supported in terms of sanitation and hygiene.
  • Revenue collection. In order to respond to the challenge of revenue collection, local government, through the office of the Major of Lusaka, proposed new revenue-raising mechanisms such as levies for waste collection.