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HomeEnvironmentWater Scarcity and AMR: A Dual Threat to Education in Zimbabwe

Water Scarcity and AMR: A Dual Threat to Education in Zimbabwe

By Tendai Makaripe

In Epworth, about 20 kilometres south of Harare is a settlement popularly known as KwaJacha.

A visit to this area confirms a sad reality that is replayed in many localities in the country- the absence of clean, potable, and safe water.

Just beyond the houses, near a stretch of wetland, young school girls gather around open wells, their hands busy pulling up water for their families.

This is a place where the tap does not run and boreholes are few and far from enough, especially now that water levels have been significantly reduced due to the erratic rains received in the 2023-2024 farming season.

“We know that the water is not safe,” said Tatenda Muringai, a student at the nearby Muguta Secondary School while standing by a shallow well, her bucket reflecting the harsh sunlight, “but what choice do we have?”

A few steps away, mother of three, Angeline Muzanenhamo said she usually boils the water or uses tablets to fight off any pollutants in the water.

“We do what we can. Boil the water, and add the pills, but the fear of sickness is always there. I have two children of school-going age and they are at risk of contracting waterborne diseases,” she said.

This area epitomises a growing crisis affecting many communities in Zimbabwe: the dangerous intersection of water scarcity, Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), and educational disruption.

AMR is a phenomenon where bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites change over time and become resistant to correct doses of antibiotics, making infections harder to treat and increasing the risk of new strains of disease, severe illness, and death.

Getting water from open wells can contribute to the spread of AMR because these wells often harbour bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

When people consume or come into contact with contaminated water, they may ingest these resistant bacteria.

This can lead to infections that are difficult to treat with standard antibiotics, further spreading resistant strains.

Additionally, the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals, combined with inadequate sanitation and hygiene practices, exacerbates the development and transmission of AMR in communities relying on open wells for their water supply.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared AMR as one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity adding that due to increasing antibiotic resistance, the world is almost out of treatment options.

According to the WHO website: “It is predicted that the infection with AMR pathogens will escalate healthcare costs and treatment failures and cause up to 10 million more deaths annually by 2050.”

These frightening statistics reveal that the absence of clean and potable water sources has serious repercussions that compromise children’s right to education.

Education is a fundamental human right recognised globally and enshrined in various international treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The right to education in Zimbabwe is enshrined in the Constitution, specifically in Section 75, which guarantees the right to basic state-funded education for every child.

Additionally, Zimbabwe is a signatory to international conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, emphasising the importance of accessible and quality education for all children.

Unfortunately, the problem of AMR resulting from ingesting unsafe water from open water sources poses a serious threat to children’s access to education in the country.

Veterinary vaccinologist Dr Sandra Sigauke said AMR is detrimental to children’s access to quality education.

“The contamination of water bodies in Epworth with antimicrobials from human, animal waste, and pharmaceutical runoff leads to dangerous levels of exposure for teachers and students, which hinders delivery and access to education in the country.

“If humans consume untreated water, they can ingest these antimicrobial-resistant microbes/ germs (germs refer to all pathogens be they viral, bacterial, or fungal), which may lead to infections that are difficult to treat with standard antimicrobials,” she said.

Sigauke added that frequent exposure to low levels of antimicrobials can sensitise the human body, potentially reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics for future medical treatments.

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Contact with AMR genes in contaminated water can lead to infections like Helicobacter pylori (causing ulcers) and UTIs (from E. coli), which may become resistant to antibiotics.

These health issues often result in higher absenteeism rates, as children miss school to recover from illnesses.

When children fall ill due to waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, or dysentery, they are often forced to stay home to recuperate, leading to frequent absences from school.

This interruption in their education can hinder their learning progress, making it difficult to keep up with their peers and curriculum requirements.

“These infections not only hinder their ability to attend and perform well in school but also place a financial strain on families who must seek more expensive treatments, further limiting their access to quality education and perpetuating the cycle of poverty,” said medical doctor Benedict Gudu.

“Conditions such as chronic gastrointestinal disorders, kidney infections, and other long-lasting health issues can develop from sustained exposure to unsafe water. These chronic illnesses necessitate regular medical attention, hospital visits, and extended periods of rest, all of which contribute to significant time away from the classroom.”

Psychologist Ivy Mukombachoto said persistent health problems can also affect a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well academically.

“Even when children can attend school, lingering health issues can impair their cognitive functions, making it difficult to focus during lessons, participate in classroom activities, and complete assignments,” said Mukombachoto.

“Chronic pain, fatigue, and discomfort associated with ongoing health problems can reduce their overall engagement and motivation, leading to lower academic achievement and decreased educational attainment. These health challenges create an additional barrier to learning, further exacerbating the educational disadvantages faced by children in environments with unsafe water sources.”

Research has also shown that prolonged health issues among teachers can result in chronic absenteeism, further destabilising the educational process.

When teachers are frequently ill due to AMR-related health challenges, they may not be able to prepare adequately for lessons, mark assignments promptly, or provide the necessary support to students who are struggling.

This can lead to a decrease in the quality of education provided, as teachers are less able to deliver comprehensive and engaging lessons.

Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe president Takafira Zhou said Substitute teachers, if available, may not always be familiar with the specific needs and progress of the students, which can lead to inconsistencies in the delivery of the curriculum.

“The lack of continuity in teaching can confuse students and slow down their academic progress. Additionally, frequent teacher absences can undermine students’ trust and reliance on their educators, affecting the overall learning environment,” he said.

Research by 263Chat also revealed that several schools in marginalised communities do not have proper access to clean and potable water which is fertile ground for AMR-related diseases to thrive.

Some schools in the Matabeleland region do not have adequate water and sanitation facilities in adherence to the World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

In these areas, issues of water and sanitation are legacy issues haunting the education sector.

A situational report presented by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education conducted in 2021 noted: “An extreme case was recorded in Matabeleland, at Sitezi Primary and Secondary Schools which did not have any boreholes and learners had to bring their water from Tuli River which is quite a distance from the school. This hurts the well-being of learners and the school’s ability to fully function especially with the current global pandemic.”

In these rural and marginalised communities, the risk of AMR can affect the girl child’s access to education if they have to care of sick family members.

In households affected by illnesses due to unsafe water, the burden of caregiving often falls on girls.

“When family members, particularly younger siblings or elderly relatives, fall ill due to waterborne diseases, girls may be required to take on additional responsibilities. These can include nursing sick relatives, preparing special meals, administering medications, and managing household chores, all of which further reduce the time they can spend on their education,” said social justice advocate and Fathers Against Abuse Trust founder Alois Nyamazana.

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“Moreover, the stress and physical demands of caregiving can take a toll on the girls’ health and well-being. Caring for sick family members exposes them to the same pathogens, increasing their risk of falling ill. If girls themselves contract illnesses due to unsafe water or from their caregiving duties, their ability to attend school and focus on their studies is further compromised,” he added.

Section 77 of Zimbabwe’s Constitution provides that: “Every person has the right to safe, clean, and potable water.”

The government is obligated to take reasonable legislative and other measures, within the limits of available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of water rights.

Sadly, the problem cannot be solved when water access is a challenge even in the capital city.

“Harare City Council’s (HCC) perennial water crisis is the result of the city’s obsolete water infrastructure, a ballooning population, severe droughts, and pervasive government corruption and mismanagement,” said governance analyst Tanaka Mandizvidza.

“Poor governance and disputes between the central government and the HCC have hindered efforts to address the problems.”

Harare’s water infrastructure, built in the 1950s for 300,000 people, now serves a population of 4.5 million, with over half lacking clean water access.

This leaves many resorting to unsafe water sources which promote AMR and in turn affect access to education for children in the city.

A senior official from HCC who requested anonymity said: “We fully recognise the urgency of ensuring access to safe and potable water for our residents, and we are committed to making the necessary improvements. Nevertheless, our efforts are severely hampered by financial constraints, largely stemming from the outstanding bills owed by the residents. Currently, the debtors’ balance stands at Zig 940 million (about US$70 million).”

He added that HCC is aware of the public health concerns, including the serious implications of antimicrobial resistance microorganisms which is why they negotiated with water treatment chemical suppliers to observe their commitment to constantly supply water treatment chemicals under arrangement.

To ensure that people access clean water and the education of children is not affected by AMR-related diseases, Zimbabwe can take a leaf from South Africa which has been actively fostering Public-Private Partnerships to finance and implement large-scale water infrastructure projects.

The Department of Water and Sanitation is partnering with private sector entities to develop significant projects such as the Olifants Management Model (OMM) in Limpopo and the Vaal Gamagara Water Scheme in the Northern Cape.

These projects involve substantial investments in bulk water pipelines and distribution infrastructure to ensure consistent water supply to various communities.

It is also important to invest in building and maintaining school infrastructure, including classrooms, sanitation facilities, and safe water sources within school premises.

This creates a conducive learning environment and reduces health risks.

In Malawi, the government, in collaboration with international organisations like the World Bank, is focusing on improving water and sanitation facilities in urban schools.

This initiative aims to create a healthier learning environment, reduce absenteeism due to waterborne diseases, and enhance educational outcomes by providing students with safe drinking water and adequate sanitation

Chemical pathologist Professor Hilda Matarira said the tackling of AMR requires the implementation of new policies that limit the release of antimicrobial residues into the environment and support appropriate monitoring to minimize their build-ups and timely removal.

“It is crucial to establish and maintain a vigorous monitoring system for water quality, specifically targeting microbial content and antimicrobial residues,” said Matarira.

“Regular testing can identify contamination hotspots and track the spread of AMR. This data is vital for informing public health policies and interventions.”

Access to safe water is crucial for ensuring education access to quality education in the country.

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263Chat is a Zimbabwean media organisation focused on encouraging & participating in progressive national dialogue

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