Zanzibar’s water crisis needs strategic interventions and collaborative efforts

India can support Zanzibar in testing and replicating our sustainable WASH models, customised to suit the country’s specific requirements and terrain

Zanzibar, known for its Instagrammable beaches, exotic spices and the famous Freddie Mercury, is a popular travel destination for thousands of international tourists, putting these islands on the economic map of Africa. A recent trip to the Tanzanian archipelago, while uncovering many pleasures that the island has to offer, also highlighted certain areas of concern, one of the most significant being the water and sanitation situation on the island.

As a visitor, Zanzibar offers an amazing holiday experience with golden sandy beaches, plush hotels and superb cuisine, all supported by very welcoming local hosts. However, as you delve deeper into the island’s day-to-day functioning, the first thing that hits you is the overabundant use of bottled water wherever you go.

For a long time, Zanzibar, one of the driest areas in the world, has been facing some very basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) challenges. A large part of the archipelago is experiencing an acute freshwater shortage due to the deterioration of water infrastructure and the effects of climate change.

According to the Zanzibar Water Authority, 200 million litres of fresh water are needed per day for the entire population, but only about 50 per cent of that is actually available. 

While tourists resort to drinking bottled water at $10 per bottle, the local populace, who cannot afford such heavy expenditure, must undergo the drudgery of collecting drinking water, often spending two to seven hours a day and travelling long distances to collect barely enough water for the whole family

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Similar to other developing economies, water scarcity largely affects women and children, who end up walking for miles to obtain this vital resource, which is quite time-consuming and deprives the children of their education. 

To make matters worse, the water collected after such hardships is often contaminated. Several studies point to contamination of drinking water by excessive mineral presence (high salinity) or faecal bacteria, especially during times of flooding. As a consequence, Zanzibar has increased vulnerability to waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery.

One of Zanzibar’s most acute problems over the years has been the spread of cholera due to unsafe drinking water and poor hygiene and sanitation. Projects to monitor water quality and bulk chlorination of stored water have been implemented; however, even today the safest water is bottled water, which is expensive and has to be transported to the island from the mainland. 

The Ministry of Health Social Welfare Elderly and Children Zanzibar (MoHSWEGC-Z), along with several international agencies like United States’ national public health agency Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), among others, has been engaged over the last decade in implementing water and sanitation facilities on the island. However, the challenges have not been completely eliminated.

For example, CDC has developed a programme to improve drinking water quality and support ongoing monitoring, establish sustainable public health interventions and long-lasting WASH improvements in Zanzibar that will also prevent cholera.

The initiative, which is a collaboration between CDC, UNICEF, the MoHSWEGC-Z Environmental Health Unit (EHU) and the Zanzibar Water Authority (ZAWA), is working on improving water quality through the monitoring of water distributed by ZAWA through the piped water network system that exists on the island. However, although parts of Zanzibar are covered with a piped water network, not all parts of the system are chlorinated to ensure the water is safe to use.

The initiative has been able to provide intelligent and timely data to address non-functioning treatment tanks, potential pipeline breaks and staffing challenges. This, in turn, has allowed ZAWA to take corrective actions and improve the water being supplied to cholera-endemic areas. This piped network and water quality monitoring system supports the second pillar of the cholera elimination plan while building capacity and improving Zanzibar’s access to safe water.

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Another project which is proving successful and showing positive results is related to bulk chlorination of water at source and is being implemented by CDC along with UNICEF and EHU. 

Launched in January 2021, the project treats water stored in large storage tanks (greater than or equal to 1,000 litres) in five districts of Zanzibar that are considered cholera hotspots. The bulk chlorination project improves water quality by chlorinating water at the point of collection, where households go to collect water. 

Activities have included mapping over 1,000 water vendors and institutions, such as schools and healthcare facilities that store water in bulk, as well as distributing chlorine tablets and training nearly 500 vendors and institutions on how to use them properly. These vendors and institutions primarily use groundwater sources, such as boreholes to fill their tanks.

In March 2022, the Ministry of Water, Energy and Minerals unveiled a comprehensive water investment plan for Zanzibar to be implemented between 2022 and 2027, supporting the implementation of the Zanzibar Development Vision 2050 towards achieving a blue economy.

The main objectives of the plan are to promote investment in the sector, strengthen governance and enhance the capacity of various stakeholders through mobilisation of resources, ultimately ensuring optimal water supply across Zanzibar.

The current ground reality remains challenging until the new reforms are put in place. The island still faces water shortages in several villages and there are multiple reports of the presence of coliform bacteria, organic matter and ammonia in the groundwater. As the government starts to implement the necessary WASH infrastructure, there is an urgent need for educating and training the communities on the benefits and usage of the same. 

For example, waste management facilities are insufficient, leading to untreated discharges into the sea, exacerbating contamination and raising concerns about seafood safety. Solid waste management is inadequate, with only 45 per cent of the daily 200 tonnes reaching dumping sites. Poor public awareness and limited garbage collection capacity compound these challenges, demanding urgent attention to establish proper waste treatment facilities.

However, bulk chlorination and improving the piped water supply are not the only means to address the scale of drinking water scarcity faced by Zanzibar. Another possibility is mitigating contamination in the first place through efficient treatment of wastewater. 

Zanzibar has a population of approximately 1.9 million. The average annual water usage per person is about 36 cubic metres. It is estimated that 80 per cent of this water becomes wastewater. Consequently, Zanzibar produces around 34 million cubic metres of wastewater each year. However, less than 1 per cent of this wastewater is treated

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Few households are served with a central sewerage system. Regarding wastewater treatment, there is no central sewage or sewerage system in Zanzibar. The only sewerage system in Zanzibar is in Stone Town, serving 18.8 per cent of the population and dating back to the 1920s. The rest of Zanzibar Town and its suburbs are served by pit latrines (78.5 per cent), cesspits and soak pits (2.7 per cent). 

The sewage from Stone Town is emptied, untreated, into the ocean. Sewage from septic tanks and pit latrines is collected using vacuum desludge trucks and discharged into the foreshore at high tide. Poor handling and improper disposal of sludge from on-site sanitation facilities result in the spread of pathogenic microorganisms and the breeding of disease-transmitting insects. 

The lack of a formal stormwater drainage system has been found to lead to mixing of raw sewage and stormwater streams and clogging of stormwater drainage systems due to poor disposal of solid wastes.

Being a developing nation ourselves and having successfully implemented the world’s largest behaviour change programme in the form of the Swachh Bharat Mission for both rural and urban India, we can clearly understand the challenges faced by Zanzibar with respect to its water supply and sanitation. 

We also understand the significance of water testing as an important mechanism to ensure that the provided water is safe and meets acceptable quality standards. Currently, this testing is done in India in two ways: Through field testing kits and by collecting samples and testing them in laboratories. We have about 2,025 active laboratories across the country, testing for water quality. 

India is placing special emphasis on mitigating the impact of climate change by developing climate-resilient WASH infrastructures and practices, which are particularly relevant to Zanzibar. India can support Zanzibar in testing and replicating our sustainable WASH models, customised to suit the country’s specific requirements and terrain.

Through its excellence in research on development themes such as WASH, India can also aid in the adoption of these models in Zanzibar by conducting studies. This effort can be facilitated by the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, which opened a Zanzibar campus in Tanzania in 2023.

India’s leadership in South-South dialogues and long-term support of South-South Cooperation (SSC) has led to the establishment of the India–United Nations Development Partnership Fund in 2017 and the integration of the SSC mechanism into the 2011 Istanbul Programme of Action for Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States. Additionally, India is the largest contributor to the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation.

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Historically, Tanzania and India were among the founders of South-South Cooperation. Today, in light of climate change and other challenges affecting both nations, we need to reenergise our efforts in sustainable WASH.

There is great potential for collaboration and knowledge exchange between India and Zanzibar, Tanzania. The scalable, replicable and cost-effective models for wastewater treatment that we developed during nearly a decade of the SBM programme can be a game changer for Zanzibar.

In the process, India’s development cooperation with Zanzibar has the potential to stimulate the overseas growth of Indian industries by supporting WASH initiatives under the India-Tanzania collaboration as part of SSC. This can be achieved through active engagement in the initiative via public-private partnerships or by providing financial support to India-led WASH interventions in Zanzibar.

Natasha Patel is chief executive office for India Sanitation Coalition

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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