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Water buckets and gallons waiting for a BCC bowser in Pumula South yesterday

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Bulawayo water crisis spirals out of control

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A DAY has 24 hours. Most women in Bulawayo spend about 12 of those looking for water for their families.

They have to somehow juggle the remaining 12 hours to accommodate sleep, conjugal duties and household chores like cleaning, bathing the children, laundry and ensuring their families are not neglected.

The daily cycle is taxing physically, mentally and emotionally.

Most females in Bulawayo have to be “super-human” to cope with the biting water crisis that has resulted in the city council providing tap water “as and when it is available.” 

It is difficult to believe such experiences occur in an urban setting or a city that was once Zimbabwe’s Industrial hub and centre of commerce. 

Factories that produced internationally acclaimed export-quality textiles, food, electronics, and engineering products were once domiciled in the city.

Even being the nerve centre of a once-thriving railway system has not saved Zimbabwe’s second largest city from an exodus of major companies due to several factors, chief among them being the shortage of water. 

Bulawayo is battling perennial water challenges that were foreseen more than 100 years ago.

Founded around 1840 by King Mzilikazi, Bulawayo attained municipal status under colonial rule in 1897 and was declared a city in 1943.

The colonial settlers noted that with growth, the city would face water shortages and mooted what is now known as the National Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project in 1912.

Water buckets and gallons waiting for a BCC bowser in Pumula South yesterday

The ambitious project, which is still in limbo, was designed to draw water from the Africa’s 4th largest river, the Zambezi and provide a limitless supply to the city while creating a green belt of agriculture along a pipeline linking the yet-to-be-completed Gwayi-Shangani Dam in Matabeleland North and the big river. 

A growing population reliant on ageing water infrastructure—mostly installed in the 1940s and prone to frequent leakages—has made water intervention measures an urgent necessity in present-day Bulawayo. 

The water crisis in the city was said to have reached a milestone in 1992 when tap water was available only once a week in most suburbs.

However, consecutive droughts have resulted in new records of water shortage being set.

Last year, in February the city council imposed a 48-hour weekly water shedding exercise, gradually increased it to 72 hours, scaled it up to 96 hours, 108 hours, 120 hours and 144 hours in May this year.

Only the city centre, mining companies and industry have been exempted from shedding.

Since last month, water has only been supplied when it is available to selected suburbs. A few hours before the tap water is made accessible, residents are advised, through social media, the suburbs which are scheduled to receive water supplies.

On average, some suburbs are included in the cycle once in about seven days. However, areas located on higher ground, such as parts of Lobengula, Pumula South, Magwegwe, and Emganwini, have gone for about six months without water.

The city is supplying about 94 megalitres of water daily against demand of 155 megalitres.

Molekile Moyo, a resident of Old Luveve, where a typhoid and dysentery outbreak killed at least 13 residents and infected about 2 000 in June, said she has resorted to buying water.

“I’m an usiphatheleni (illegal forex dealer). I have to be in the city centre changing money every day. I cannot afford to be searching for water at community boreholes, bowser delivery points or contaminated puddles where people spend up to six hours just to get a pail of water. There are some boys from whom I buy eight buckets of water daily for US$3. They get tap water from areas that would be having it, in a push cart, and deliver to me,” said Moyo.

The money is about ZW$246 at the official rate and up to ZW$300 on the parallel market.

Some residents with bulk storage and transport buy about 1 000 litres of borehole water for about US$2 from a company in Kelvin West industrial area while others hire push carts that carry about eight 20-litre buckets at US$1 for two hours.

Those who cannot afford to buy, like vulnerable members of society who include the elderly and disabled, have to wait for unreliable council bowsers for days to get at least one bucket of water.

“We sometimes get tap water for a few hours when other parts of the suburb get supplies but, generally, I can say we do not get water here,” Moyo added.

Sibongile Mafu, a resident of Magwegwe suburb, said she wakes up around 4am and walks up to six kilometres to surrounding suburbs with her five daughters—the youngest being 10 years old—to fetch water where council would be delivering supplies.

“Sometimes people refuse to give us water because it increases their monthly bills. Sometimes we get lucky and get water nearby. We last had tap water in our part of the suburb in May,” she said, ineffectually wiping sweat that was pouring from her brow.

Her daughters followed her, each of them carrying two 20-litre containers filled with water.  

As the group rested momentarily under a tree near White City Stadium, Mafu said her family mostly needed water to flush the toilet and cook.

“My husband has to arrive home from work to a clean home and cooked food. We can’t have a smelly toilet because it’s inside the house.

“When the crisis started, we used to join scores of our neighbours to relieve ourselves in the bush after dark to minimise using water in the toilet. We stopped when we heard we could be raped,” she said.

Open defecation has made some footpaths in the city unusable.

In areas around the Provincial Heroes Acre in Nkulumane, the bushes between Pumula North and Magwegwe West, the footpaths leading to Masilela Beer Garden from Gwabalanda and behind Fusi Primary School in the same suburb, human waste attracts swarms of green flies.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies open defecation as a leading cause of diarrhoeal deaths globally.

In 2013, worldwide, about 2 000 children aged under 5 years died daily from diarrhoea.

Already, Bulawayo has confirmed a second diarrhoea outbreak within four months as almost 100 cases, mainly affecting children, have been reported in the densely populated high-density suburb of Mzilikazi and surrounding areas.

Last month, in a report tabled in parliament, Auditor-General Mildred Chiri listed Bulawayo among six local authorities that were likely to experience water-borne disease outbreaks that could result in deaths of residents, due to water shortages. 

Residents are fetching water in swamps and other unsafe sources, hoping boiling would kill dangerous germs in the water.

Bhekani Dube of Gwabalanda suburb said he always has water containers in his car so that if he comes across a source of clean water, he takes some home.

A number of residents said they were angry that the local authority and the government were blaming each other over the water crisis, instead of solving it.

“It makes my blood boil to read about numerous water supply augmentation measures by the city council and government whenever the water shortage issue comes to the fore. 

“When there are good rains, everyone goes quiet and we don’t hear about the projects. We only hear about the NMZWP towards elections. It has been almost 10 years since we heard about the Epping Forest project which has been nearing completion since forever. All the government and council are good at is blaming each other while we suffer,” fumed Stanley Sibanda.

In a ministerial statement on water issues presented to the National Assembly, Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement Dr Anxious Masuka said with an effective water delivery system, Bulawayo should not be experiencing a water crisis.

“The City of Bulawayo has mainly been drawing water from three sources: Upper Ncema, Lower Ncema and Umzingwane—until they were very low and decommissioned whilst the biggest dams—Insiza, Inyankuni and Mtshabezi, remain with substantial amounts of water which could last the city up to 11 months at 155 Mega Litres (ML) per day,” said Dr Masuka.

“It is unfortunate that the City of Bulawayo has made limited investments in improving abstraction capacity which could have assisted in addressing the water challenges.”

The city council, on the other hand, insists it is the government’s mandate to supply bulk water under the Zimbabwe National water Authority (Zinwa).

In a statement issued in June, Bulawayo Mayor Solomon Mguni said the local authority built five water supply dams and the government had built only one since it took over from local authorities the responsibility of supplying bulk water.

“It should be noted that the Water Act as amended in 1976 provided for central government to be responsible for raw water sources for local authorities. Before the amendment, the city had built five dams taking into consideration future growth and demand.  The dams built by the city of Bulawayo before the amendment of the Water Act are Lower Ncema (1943) and upper Ncema (1974), Inyankuni (1965), Umzingwane (1956) and Insiza (1975),” Mguni said.

“Zinwa constructed the Mtshabezi Dam from 1994 to 1997 with pipeline from the Mtshabezi Dam to Umzingwane being commissioned in 2013.”

The government as also drilled 177 boreholes at Nyamandlovu aquifer to add to Bulawayo water supply.

Council recently approved plans to have residents drinking water from Khami Dam by the end of this year to augment supplies.

Over the years, residents have fiercely resisted use of water from the dam because of pollution levels and reports that the colonial government drowned freedom fighters in it.

Commissioned in 1927, Khami was Bulawayo’s first supply dam.

It was decommissioned in 1989 after raw effluent seeped into the dam.

The water has been further contaminated with industrial effluent but council has declared it can be purified to WHO standards for potable use. 

The city is praying for a good rainy season as levels at the supply dams are low.

Insiza Dam is 25,69% full; Inyankuni 41,50% and Mtshabezi Dam 32,58%. Among the decommissioned dams, Lower Ncema is 5,98% full, Umzingwane 3,05% and Upper Ncema is at 2%. The overall operational dam level is at 23,73%.

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