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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In Africa, Zimbabwe is suffering a severe water shortage. It is the latest blow to a nation already hit hard by a lack of basic food supplies, widespread unemployment and forced relocations.

We've been receiving dispatches on the Zimbabwe crisis from a freelance reporter there. She uses the name Lee. It's not her real name. It's to protect her identity so that she doesn't get arrested or deported. Here is her latest report.

(Soundbite of crowd)

LEE: This is the sound of hundreds of women and children gathered at an urban well known here as a borehole.

(Soundbite of crowd)

LEE: The children, mostly young boys, shout amanzi, amanzi, which means water in their native language of N'debele. They bang their empty pails for emphasis. One woman walking away from the crowd carries a large water-filled red bucket on her head and squints to see us in the hot sunlight. She says filling the bucket has become a growing challenge since the government announced major water cuts this summer.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, we're talking (unintelligible) one week without water. We just go around there and there carrying water.

LEE: It is a scene repeated across Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city. Wherever there are boreholes, hordes of people gather to collect water. There are about 150 public boreholes. The European Union dug them some years ago as a donation to Bulawayo, which historically gets little rainfall.

The well pumps are hand-operated and hard work because the boreholes are anywhere from 90 to 300 feet deep. But it's all that's now available to Bulawayo's 1.5 million residents since the city's dams have just about run dry.

Mr. EDDIE CROSS (Bulawayo City Council Water Board): The city is in a catastrophic state.

LEE: Local economist Eddie Cross is a member of the Bulawayo City Council Water Board. He explains how Bulawayo's five supply dams are virtually empty.

Mr. CROSS: The theory behind the whole system was that these five dams collectively had three years supply of water for Bulawayo. And that was 30 years ago. And of course in the intervening period, especially post-independence, in 1980, the city has grown rapidly. And today our water consumption is three times what it was 20 years ago.

LEE: At Om Zinguani(ph), one of the dams located to the south of Bulawayo, a thin rivulet of water winds around the cracked dry hills on the dam wall. An erstwhile fisherman is standing on the bank.

Unidentified Man: Well, I'm sure, as you can see for yourself, there's no water there. Absolutely nothing. I've never seen this dam as low as it is. You know, I can remember as kids we used to come fishing here.

LEE: The man, who would not give his name, eyes the shallow rocky water. There will be no fishing today. He says the situation has become critical and already impoverished Zimbabweans are having to pay to have their buckets filled, which they have never had to do before.

Unidentified Man: I've also heard stories of people swapping maze meal for water, which is quite a bad thing. It just makes you wonder about the sanitation and where do they go for the toilet and things, you know?

LEE: The government-run news media reports that transporting water into Bulawayo by train is being considered and that UNICEF will provide water to some schools. But Eddie Cross says neither approach is adequate.

Mr. CROSS: We got million and a half people here, so I'm afraid. I think we have a huge crisis on our hands. And there's no short-term solutions at all. The only solution will be God-given; it's the weather. So citizens of Bulawayo really got to pray this summer.

LEE: For now, residents line up at the boreholes patiently waiting their turn to fill up whatever vessel they can find.

For NPR News, I'm Lee in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

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