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Zimbabwe: Harare Water Woes: Pre-Paid Meters the Way to Go

Harare’s water supplies, dodgy for years, have deteriorated further in the last few weeks with swathes of the city being without water supplies since well before Christmas and other areas, which usually have at least adequate supplies, now receiving intermittent supplies.

As usual Harare City Council neither warns residents about sudden shortages, nor is it willing to implement a scheme of rotational water cuts, much like what Zesa does with power and Bulawayo does with water. Lack of information and lack of fairness make a bad position quite intolerable.

Everyone knows that there is enough raw water in the dams. Thanks to its peculiar geographical position of being upstream but in the same drainage area as its main supply dams, coupled with the adoption of innovative sewage processing in the early 1990s, Harare recycles much of its water and even at the start of the rains, Lake Chivero is almost full.

Water treatment plant is not adequate to satisfy unlimited demand, but it is not that bad. If Harare can process almost 400 million litres a day, and the existing capacity can do that, then that is enough to give every man, woman, child and baby in the city and its satellite communities 200 litres a day each for home and business. That is a lot of water and a ban on using treated water to irrigate gardens would ensure that there was more than enough.

Or at least, there would be more than enough so long as nothing was lost between the treatment plants and the taps. Some engineers estimate that up to 60 percent of water is lost in transit, an appalling figure if true. The really big leaks on the main pipelines have been found and fixed. The present water losses are the accumulation of hundreds or even thousands of smaller leaks. But there does not seem to be any programme to replace the worst main pipes.

Then, of course, Harare is bad at collecting what it is owed. And that is besides the fact that 70 000 households are connected to the mains supply illegally. We wonder why, if the city knows how many are connected illegally, it is doing nothing about that. Surely a few court cases would get a message through that illegal connections are criminal.

Now, more than a decade after the first water shortages, the city has created an emergency task force under town clerk Dr Tendai Mahachi; since he is not an engineer, or even a technical man, there is a technical committee headed by wastewater manager Eng Simon Muserere. So on the technical side it seems we know what is wrong and that it is not the fault of the engineers.

But what can Dr Mahachi do.

For a start he can look at Bulawayo which has mastered the art of coping with shortages, not because treatment plants or pipelines are down, but because the dams are almost empty most of the time.

Everyone in Bulawayo gets water sometime at least every other day. Schedules are made out and adhered to and everyone knows that their taps will run for so many hours on specified days. And Bulawayo does not believe in wasting water. Those who insist on hosing down cars or hosing their gardens are caught, made to pay steep fines and have their hosepipes confiscated, since they are not fit to own one.

Harare could have a far more liberal regime, but the essentials of fair disbursement of water and no waste need to be adopted. A town clerk can do that as well as an engineer. That, as a rapid first move, would at least make most people’s lives easier.

Secondly, the city can ensure that the treatment plants and pump stations are all working, to maximise flows. Much of that is about money rather than heavy engineering, again a suitable move for a non-technical committee.

We assume that the engineers have been listing the needs for replacement pipes and the like and either have, or can rapidly produce, a list of priority work that will start cutting back the leak losses. At the start of such a programme a fairly modest investment can produce huge dividends as the worst of the large pipes are replaced. Near the end, large sums are needed for small gains as little street mains are fixed.

For slightly longer term strategies the city needs to look at following Zesa and having prepaid water meters, with jail for illegal connections. Zesa is hardly a wonderful example, but at least no one steals electricity any more with a 10-year spell in jail waiting for those who do, and tens of thousands of consumers are now extremely conscious of just how much they are paying and are taking control of their own supplies.

The instant cash from such a pre-paid system would give Harare the cash flows it needs to sort out its main pipelines and invest in new treatment capacity.

Harare can do a lot quickly, and we hope that the new task force will do so. We agree it may take years before we return to unlimited supplies in taps for those who can pay, but a set of simple steps taken immediately to ration water fairly and then sort out cash flows and illegal connections will allow the longer-term investments to become possible. Swift movement is needed.

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Zimbabwe: Harare Water Woes: Pre-Paid Meters the Way to Go
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