40 kilometers west of Botswana’s capital city Gaborone lies the country’s largest village, Molepolole, with a staggering population of 63 248 people. Over the years Molepolole has emerged from its status of a sleepy village and grown into a thriving community with excellent infrastructure. It is a dusty and dry sight as vegetation in the area has shriveled up with winter fast approaching. Molepolole is a typical example of a village in the southern part of Botswana and is still deeply connected to its roots. Despite all this, there’s a darkness lurking in the village. It has been six months and the taps are dry as bones.

One of the biggest causes of water scarcity in Botswana is the sub-Saharan climate, notorious for its desert and semi-desert areas, especially in the southern part of the country. There is also no significant river that brings a lot of moisture to this region.

Naturally, deserted and semi-deserted parts of the country are also strongly affected by global warming. It causes the air temperature to rise and also affects the density and yield of precipitation. In some areas, the incidence of rainfall has decreased by up to 25% due to global warming. Botswana has not been spared either and it is a battle to avoid thirst.

I met a resident, Olebogeng, in the bustling main mall of the village, just at the peak of lunch hour. Olebogeng is a female 27-year-old Information Technology graduate from one of the local tertiary institutions. The slim young woman with a high-pitched voice, oversized spectacles and two French braids could easily pass for a runway model. We escape the heat of the summer into a car, she asks with skepticism whether the information she is giving me would land her in trouble. I mentioned that there is never smoke without fire, and she proceeds with the tale.

“Water started giving us problems since the inception of Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) on the first of May 2010, when Water Affairs was dissolved. It’s a long time back. With Water Affairs I am not disputing that there were water challenges, but things have just gone downhill since then with Water Utilities; when we get a drop of water it is a miracle. This is our third week without water, prior to that, we had stayed six months without water. With the water rationing, the situation has become awkward and dangerous because sometimes we get water in the heart of the night around two or three a.m. and we have to forgo sleep to get water. Those without plumbing have to go into the night to get water from the taps outside; by 6am the taps are dry again.”

Illustration: Boniswa Khumalo

Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) is a government-owned corporation that provides water and wastewater management services in Botswana.

Olebogeng continues her lamentation describing soda water as having a better taste than the water they drink, adding that the water possesses a bitter taste of chlorine and stating that sometimes the water is brown. She jokingly suggests I have a taste if I do not have a fear of having an episode of diarrhea.

She points me in the direction of homesteads and asks me what commonality I notice. The yards all spot green tanks of all sizes, locally referred to as JoJo tanks and just under the roofing on the ground, the homes have plastic bathtubs lined up in hope to catch rainwater in case of rain.

Illustration: Boniswa Khumalo

Olebogeng adds that WUC has resorted to plotting JoJo tanks in different wards since the local water standpipes are out of use. WUC fills up the tanks with water and it is a scramble every time the water comes because there is no regulation on how many liters each household can get. “The WUC tankers are so infrequent that we have resorted to buying water from local water tankers.”

“We buy water; 1000 liters cost about P30 (3USD) which only lasts until Tuesday because we mostly buy water on Fridays. I guess you can do the math on how much we spend. It is especially challenging because the income of most households is low and most of the money is diverted towards buying water. The people we buy from have boreholes and the water is not treated anyhow. We used to boil the water before but now we have gotten so accustomed to the situation that we have adopted the attitude of “if we die, we die mentality”, because we are trying to use the cooking gas sparingly since we use it to boil the water. For toddlers and infants, we cannot take the same risks because they have weaker immune systems than us, meaning we spend more money buying water for them in the local supermarkets.”

Olebogeng works in a local pharmacy as a shop assistant to make ends meet. When quizzed about their day-to-day operations that involve water, she lowers her voice saying the toilets in the malls are always locked because of no water. She points in the direction of the mall, and says just behind it, there are some bushes leading to a small local dam. She explains how they have resorted to using the bush as a toilet, which has led to severe pollution in the area and a pungent smell of urine and feces. Her voice breaks a little narrating how as a woman the situation is embarrassing and nightmarish particularly during her monthly cycle., Other months she says she takes a leave off of work to avoid going to the bush, but she cannot do this frequently because then her job will be on the line. Sometimes they ask to use pit latrines in the vicinity of the mall, other days a good Samaritan may allow her while other times they get shut out.

The schools and hospitals have not been spared either. In fact, students often leave school early because of the lack of water; and the hygiene of hospitals and clinics in the area is compromised as well due to high cases of diarrhea in children.

According to Water Utilities Corporation (WUC), as of April 2021, the Gaborone dam levels were at 60.9 percent. The dam has a carrying capacity of 141mcm and is forecast to have only 22 months of supply without water inflow., The dam supplies water to areas referred to as Greater Gaborone which are about 100km’s from Gaborone. Just r, in April 2021, the dam levels have dropped to 45.8%. Currently, WUC is awaiting the forecast of the next rainy season from Meteorological Services, which would inform the corporation's decision whether to maintain current water restrictions or modify them. This is a drought management strategy meant to help to ensure sustainable water supply to all its clientele especially during drought.  It implies enhancing water use efficiency through appropriate water conservation and water demand management interventions by WUC.

A statement released by WUC in 2015 reveals that the Greater Gaborone area’s average demand surpasses supply by 32.9 million liters a day. Even with rationing, the demand exceeds supply by 17.9 million liters a day. Due to this, the area continues to experience low pressure to no water supply even outside the rationing schedule. Areas which were supplied by the Gaborone Dam are the most affected.

The future of Botswana’s water security is dependent on getting access to water resources which are outside of the country. The Ministry has commenced the development of a long-term National Water Security Strategy to improve resilience to climate change impacts and so that residents like Olebogeng are not severely affected by thirst. The strategy development entails prioritization of the proposed future mega water transfers such as the Chobe – Zambezi water transfer-, the Atlantic Ocean water transfer to Botswana through Namibia and Lesotho – Botswana water transfer.

One of the Ministry’s famous major water supply projects, the North South Carrier (NSC) 2.2, has experienced hiccups: having tenders for contract 1 (Masama to Mmamashia Pipeline) and contract 2 (Mahalapye to Masama Pipeline) cancelled due to budgetary constraints. The project involves construction of a water transmission pipeline from the centre of the country for the supply of water for villages such as Molepolole.

The Minister says the scope for the Molepolole Water and Sanitation project is to rehabilitate, upgrade and expand water and sewer systems to cover new and future development plans for Molepolole in line with vision 2036. The project, which started in May 2020, is in its last phase of preconstruction and tender for construction will be floated in the last quarter of this financial year. The project was expected to be awarded for the construction in May 2021 and is planned to take 18 months to be completed. The project is divided into seven contracts, a means to shorten the delivery period which would have taken over four years if a single contract had been adopted. Contract one involves construction of nine reservoirs, water and sewer pump stations and a sewer lift station, water transmission mains and sewer trunk mains. Contract 2-5 involves water and sewer reticulations. Contracts 6 is the wastewater treatment plant for Molepolole village for collecting and treating sewage to standard and its safe disposal into the environment.

With a new water tariff across all water consumption categories on the horizon for June 1st, 2021, Olebogeng is lost for words on a tariff increase while they have no water.

When Olebogeng was quizzed on the planned developments by the minister, she revealed that politicians love promising things and fail to deliver at the end of the day. She adds by saying until all the promises come to pass, she will continue with the struggle to get safe and clean drinking water.