By Andrew Mambondiyani
GUTAURARE, Zimbabwe, Aug 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The only dam in this small-scale farming community in eastern Zimbabwe used to provide water for both people and cattle. Now, dried to a dirty puddle, it is a source of competition rather than refreshment.
As a small boy tries to fill two containers with the muddy water, a herd of cattle crowd in for a drink. The boy tries to wave them away, but the desperate animals defy him, bellowing and crowding to the edge of the puddle.
Though the water is no longer fit for people to consume, farmers depend on it for washing and other uses.
"Water is now very scarce in this area. And this dam has water which will last only a few days," said James Jofirisi, a villager.
The dam refilled during the recent rainy season, he said, but the water is not sufficient to last until the next rains start in late October or early November.
As Zimbabwe prepares for the bleak coming dry season in September and much of October, on the heels of more than a year of El Niño-induced drought, it finds itself running out of water.
Boreholes and deep wells in many areas are fast running dry, and rivers and small streams - including those close to Gutaurare - are drying up too.
Farmers fear they will not only lose their livestock but their own sources of household water.
"Water from the only borehole around is rationed with each family get two 20-litre buckets per day. The water from the borehole is not enough for us and our livestock," Jofirisi said.
That well, near the Gutaurare Business Centre, is controlled by the District Development Fund (DDF), the development arm of the government of Zimbabwe. More than 100 households depend on it for water - but no one is quite sure how much is left.
With alternative water supplies running out, officials at the DDF depot started rationing the water a month ago, amid fears that even the borehole might not last through the coming dry season.
Gresham Ngwarati, another villager, said he feared what might happen during the coming peak heat season of September and October.
"Our local sources of water are drying up. The water in our dam is now very low. The local rivers have dried up. The situation is really bad," he said. "We have no food and soon we will run out of water too."
4.5 MILLION AT RISK
An El Niño-induced drought which hit Zimbabwe over the last rainy season has left up to 4.5 million people food insecure, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
According to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the El Niño weather phenomenon, which was the strongest in 35 years, ended in April, but has left behind serious droughts, scorching heat and water shortages in Zimbabwe since November last year.
A 2016-2017 food security outlook, published by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, said the drought has left many in southern Africa facing food shortages.
In Zimbabwe, the most affected areas are parts of Manicaland, Masvingo, Matebeleland South and Matebeleland North provinces.
However, some farmers are hoping that La Nina weather conditions, which often come after an El Niño, will bring sufficient rain during the next rainy season, which starts in November.
"We have been told by government officials that there is a new condition (La Nina) coming soon which will bring a lot of rainfall. But in the meantime we are just praying that we survive the next two months," Ngwarati said.
In telephone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Nyasha Chikwinya, the legislator for Mutare South constituency, which covers the Gutaurare area, said the water crisis in most areas in her constituency had reached critical levels and needed urgent attention.
"The water crisis is really bad. Some people are walking up to 15 kilometres (9 miles) to get water," she said.
However, Chikwinya - who is also the Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development - admitted she had no solution to the water crisis, apart from approaching international donors for help.
"I don't even know what to do. As I am speaking to you I am in my constituency assessing the seriousness of the crisis," Chikwinya said. "I am pleading with external donors to help with drilling of boreholes. Most of the boreholes are dry while some are not working."
Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa has not yet put a public pricetag on the cost of rehabilitating failed wells and drilling new ones. He admitted, however, in an interview, that the water situation across the country has reached critical levels.
He said the government would help fund the District Development Fund to repair all non-working boreholes and to drill new wells in rural areas.
"And the rural district councils and donor agencies are also doing the same (helping to repair broken boreholes)," Chinamasa said.
(Editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)