Water resources in Zimbabwe are dependent on rainfall which is highly variable across most of the country. The country has over 10,000 small, medium and large dams. The main uses of the dams are domestic, agriculture, mining, fishing, recreation, industrial purposes and hydropower. The country relies on surface water resources for 90% of its requirements while groundwater supplies the remaining 10%. There are seven catchments in the country, namely Manyame, Mazowe, Gwayi, Runde, Sanyati, Save and Mzingwane [1]. Water availability in Zimbabwe could be tremendously affected by changes in annual precipitation [2], and it is estimated that the country will experience a decline of 38% in national water availability per capita by 2050 due to climate change [3]. Chronic water shortages are more pronounced in urban areas of Zimbabwe and are being experienced in a context of increasing water consumption needs [4].

Water pollution is a major environmental concern in both urban and rural areas. In urban areas discharge of raw sewage into municipal water supplies has resulted in water borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid. A cholera outbreak claimed more than 4,000 lives in Zimbabwe between August 2008 and July 2009 [1].

Inadequate access to water and sanitation infrastructure is a major source of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) related disease outbreaks such as cholera and typhoid. As of 2019, 77.1% of households have access to improved sources of drinking water (97.3% urban vs 67.9% of rural households), up from 76.1% in 2014. Harare has the highest percentage of households with access to improved water sources at 96.6%, when compared with 64.8% in Matabeleland South. Meanwhile, 67.8% of households have access to an improved not shared sanitation facility. As of 2019, 21.7% of the population (0.7% urban vs 31.3% rural) practice open defecation [4].


Insufficient water availability due to a predominantly dry climate, compounded by growing competition for water resources increases all sectors’ vulnerability to the potential impact of water shortages on production levels. Slow-onset changes in climate are already causing reductions in water supply. In May 2020, the Bulawayo City Council implemented a weekly 144-hours water-shedding programme following an acute shortage of water, when the Lower Ncema Dam was decommissioned after the water level reached an all-time low of 6.7% following an extended drought [3].

The main sources of water pollution are the discharge of untreated or partially treated industrial, mining, municipal, domestic waste and washing of agricultural chemicals into water bodies [1].


Key policies and governance approach

Water use in Zimbabwe is governed by the Water Act of 1998 and the Water Policy of 2013 [1].

The Water Act (Chapter 20:24) of 1998 is the principal law that governs water resources planning, development and management in the country. However, other Acts also have a bearing on Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) including the Environmental Management Act (Chapter 20:27 of 2002), the Zimbabwe National Water Authority Act (Chapter 20:25 of 1998), the Regional Town and Country Planning Act [Chapter 29:12], Urban Councils Act (Chapter 29:15), and the Rural District Councils Act (Chapter 29:13) [5].

The National Water Policy is currently guiding work being undertaken to address the challenges facing the water sector in Zimbabwe. The work is being carried out in two phases: the recovery phase and the normalised phase. The recovery phase concluded in 2020 and its intention was to rehabilitate existing infrastructure and restore service delivery in the sector. The normal phase, which is ongoing, is characterised by infrastructure development and growth in water service delivery. The National Water Policy includes sub-sectoral policies that cover Urban and Rural Water Supplies and Sanitation, water resources development and water resources management [5].

River System Outline Plans (RSOPs) are one of the cornerstones of IWRM in Zimbabwe’s seven catchment areas. The RSOPs are developed through a consultative process and have a 10-year life span. However, lack of resources culminated in delays in the updating of the RSOPs covering the period 2009-2019. Additionally, a lack of resources hampered with the implementation of some activities highlighted in the RSOPs such as the creation of Water User Boards (the lowest possible water user structures), data collection and updating of the water user database [5].

There are a number of legal frameworks that regulate water quality such as the Water Act (Chapter 20:22), the Water (Waste and Effluent Disposal) Regulations (S.1 274/2000), the Public Health Act (Chapter 15:09) and the Environmental Management Act (Chapter 20:27) as well as by-laws passed by local authorities [1].

The Government has approved a gender-sensitive Sanitation and Hygiene Policy which aims to create an open defecation free Zimbabwe by 2030 in line with the SDGs. To achieve this, the demand-led Sanitation Focused Participatory Health and Hygiene Education (SafPHHE) has been adopted and is being implemented in the 45 supported rural districts [4].


Successes and remaining challenges

More needs to be done to achieve some of the objectives set out in the National Water Policy especially in the areas of resource mobilization and regulation of the water sector. The main barriers to effective IWRM implementation in Zimbabwe include lack of financial resources to fund the IWRM activities such as infrastructure maintenance and water resources monitoring; overlapping roles and responsibilities of relevant institutions; low appreciation of policies and legal framework by some water sector stakeholders; a lack of national water resources management standards; non-payment of Water Levies and rates by some water users; and the full budgetary requirements for IWRM not being met due to their high costs [5].

The allocated budget only partially covers planned investments. For example, in 2019 US$152,950,000 was allocated towards the Integrated Water Resources Management Program. Out of that amount, US$136,000,000 was allocated towards financing new and ongoing dam projects and only US$3,000,000 was earmarked for dam maintenance. No allocation was made towards the upkeep of water resources monitoring infrastructure despite the fact that the surface and groundwater monitoring network is in dire need of upgrading [5].

Public sector investments in WASH also remain below sustainable requirements. Despite improved allocations, the current levels of investments in the WASH sector still fall below government commitments. At US$1.70 per capita and 0.4% of the total National Budget, as of 2018, WASH resources are 6.6% below the government commitment to allocate 7% of the budget to WASH as stated at the 2014 Sanitation and Water for All High-Level Meeting (SWA HLM). Additionally, public investment in WASH remains skewed towards Urban areas. Approximately 67.3% of the 2018 allocation is towards the Small-Town Water Supply project and Urban WASH. This is despite evidence suggesting that rural areas, particularly the marginalized provinces face significant challenges with regards to access to improved WASH. Against the background of low public investments in WASH, the country has relied heavily on development partner support, which is however, on the decline [6].


[5], [6]

  • Alignment and amendment of the legal framework (Review ZINWA Act, Water Act, EM Act) to reflect global trends and remove institutional overlaps in IWRM implementation.
  • Continuous stakeholder engagement and dissemination of information on IWRM.
  • Conclude and operationalize the National Water Resources Masterplan.
  • Formulation of a cost recovery water tariff system.
  • The need for greater resource mobilisation, whilst enhancing efficiency of available resources cannot be over-emphasized.
  • The Government would need to show greater commitment to the WASH sector, to crowd-in donor and private sector support, by increasing both size and execution rates of public investments in the sector.
  • While development partner support remains crucial in a fiscally constrained environment, the government needs to consider other innovative sources of finance such as Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) in financing WASH programs.