Harare’s water woes are not going to go away any year soon, so it is way beyond time for the Harare City Council to stop pretending shortages and problems are temporary, or that somehow or other the Government will rescue the city. We now have to plan for a long haul. The problems are many. But the result is simple. Not enough treated water can be delivered to satisfy demand, and with the population of the city and its satellite towns growing by around 7 percent a year even major efforts to boost supply, such as the long-touted Kunzvi scheme, are simply going to arrest the deterioration rather than solve anything permanently.
What is so irritating about the council’s lack of long-term plans is that the Harare metropolitan area is not in that bad a fix. Unlike what we see in Bulawayo, the city’s dams do fill every rainy season and thanks to the ability to recycle water, can remain full. So there is more than enough raw water to keep the treatment plants operating at maximum capacity 12 months a year.
Admittedly some of the liquid we allow back into the supply dams is quite inadequately treated. But we have the technology to change that. Indeed the two largest sewage treatment plants, Firle and Crowborough, won engineering awards in the 1990s and the same technology is readily available for the plants serving Chitungwiza and Norton. Indeed the master plan for the metropolitan area sees six modern plants serving the drainage areas of the Mukuvisi, Marimba, Ruwa, Gwebi, Nyatsime and lower Manyame rivers. Well over half the required capacity already exists and it would not take that long to expand this. So raw water need not be the problem.
Quite a lot of work, to give the city council its due, has been done on the major treatment plant, the Morton Jaffray Waterworks. Admittedly more could have been done, but the worst of the years of neglect has been sorted out. The same applies to the pumping stations. They are not perfect but they are in better shape than they have been for a decade.
One major problem has been touched on. This is the atrocious state of so much of the distribution network, the pipes that carry the water from pump-station to pump-station or reservoir and then to houses, flats and businesses.
In fact from what we see outside our office windows, major replacements of pipes in the late 1980s and then another replacement fairly recently, 25 years seems to be about the maximum that a pipeline will last without replacement, although we would hope more modern materials might extend this. But even if some new wonder material is discovered today, there are still hundreds of kilometres of pipeline that are already older than a quarter century and need to be replaced to stop waste.
We would assume when calculating a water tariff that there must be an element for maintenance. And this element could vary according to the type of suburb. In a high-density suburb 100m of water main could easily service 20 stands; in a low-density suburb it might be pressed to service two. That dramatic difference in cost needs to be included in the tariffs.
This would also help to offset well-meaning efforts by some in central Government to hand out free water. Water cannot be free, or at least treated water pumped to an expensive concrete reservoir and then sent down a further batch of corroding pipes to houses cannot be free. But water can be cheaper in the areas where household incomes are lower thanks to density gains.
But even with the infrastructure fixed — clean water returned to the dams, negligible losses in distributing treated water, pump stations and reservoirs properly maintained — consumers need to do their bit.
Namibia’s cities, and now Botswana’s, show what can be done when consumers think. In both countries it is now possible to have a high standard of living with 24-hour-a-day water supply but with an average household consumption well below Harare’s. People living in deserts think water is precious and do not waste it on lush green lawns or using high-pressure hoses to wash a car.
Even in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo shows just how little water is needed by an average healthy household; water rationing is tight in that city, because its dams never fill. The council helps with incentives, swinging fines and confiscation of hosepipes from those who cannot be trusted with one, but people in our second city have also learned to use water wisely.
The other area where people can do their bit is to pay their bills. The only free water is the rain. Of course water is vital for health, so it is difficult to cut it off. Disease can spread from the cut-off deadbeat’s house to the bill-paying neighbour. But Bulawayo does put in discs that cut supplies to a trickle in houses where there is waste or lack of payments. The wasteful deadbeat has to use buckets.
Even better would be taking a leaf out of Zesa’s book and start to replace present meters with pre-paid meters. As we have already seen with power supplies, households do take greater care when they can see, minute by minute, just how much they are spending on an essential service.
The average household on a prepaid power meter has halved its consumption of electricity and we would bet the same gain would be seen in water with pre-paid meters.
Cutting waste and being paid in advance would sort out most of the Harare problems with water treatment and distribution, and what we have would almost certainly be enough, with new schemes producing ready revenue as they were brought on tap.
Nothing we have suggested is impossible. All that is required is a change in the mindset of the council and its consumers.
Harare metropolitan area has far more treated water per person than Windhoek, the wealthy Namibian capital, and far more than Bulawayo, which we remind everyone has never had a cholera or typhoid epidemic. So let us change, now.
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