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DEVELOPMENT-ZIMBABWE: Full Dams Do Not Translate Into Water Supplies

Tonderai Kwidini

HARARE, Feb 28 2008 (IPS) - Heavy rains in Zimbabwe and in the catchment areas of its major rivers in December and January have filled most of the country’s dams to capacity. Yet, many urban households do not have water.

Residents of Mabvuku and elsewhere gather water at a police camp borehole. Credit: Taurai Maduna/IPS

Residents of Mabvuku and elsewhere gather water at a police camp borehole. Credit: Taurai Maduna/IPS

Shupikai Macheka of Mabvuku, a high-density suburb on the outskirts of the capital – Harare – talks despairingly about the lack of water in the area. "It’s hard to live without a single drop of water for four months, but we are getting used even to all the diseases that come with it. If we had a way, we could have left this place for other areas where water is sometimes available."

Mabvuku is an over-crowded, working class area located 20 kilometres east of Harare’s central business district. The suburb was built during the colonial era as a dormitory settlement for industrial workers employed at the nearby heavy industries. It was not designed for the kind of population that it is supporting at the moment.

Since the Zimbabwean government launched Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 the population density of Mabvuku has increased substantially. (The initiative is also referred to as "Operation Restore Order"; however "murambatsvina" – a Shona term – is more accurately translated as "clear the dirt".)

Murambatsvina was touted as a clean-up operation to rid Harare of unsightly squatter camps. Government bulldozers flattened shacks and forced residents to squeeze into small, single family units in areas such as Mabvuku.

But, authorities did very little to upgrade Mabvuku&#39s water and sanitation system, built in the 1950s, to enable it to cope with the influx.

As you approach the settlement there is an overpowering stench of excreta wafting out of burst sewer pipes and toilets that have not been flushed for days due to the lack of running water.

"As you can see, we are in a mess. One wonders where the hell is the water when Lake Chivero is said to be filled to capacity and newspaper front pages always show pictures of it spilling," said Macheka. Lake Chivero is the largest water supply dam for Harare.

The Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) has just released statistics showing that Lake Chivero was at 103.8 percent of its capacity in January. Figures nationwide indicate that Zimbabwe’s major dams were at 94.5 percent of their combined capacity.

Since taking over the water supply and sanitation system in Harare in 2006, the parastatal has routinely blamed dry taps on water shortages caused by drought. Now that the drought has passed, ZINWA is still not able to fulfill its mandate of providing water in the capital and towns where it has taken control of water systems.

Established by an Act of Parliament in 2004, ZINWA has faced stubborn resistance in all centres where it has taken over. Due to fierce opposition, ZINWA has temporarily given up its battle to assume control over the dams and water reticulation system in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city.

Residents of urban centres object to ZINWA because it has a poor track record of maintaining water supplies, while local authorities are interested in retaining control over their water infrastructure because it provides a good source of income.

Residents of Harare are irate about the continued water shortages, and even angrier about the lack of adequate communication from water authorities as to the cause of this problem. They say that ZINWA never advises communities about measures it might be taking to rectify the situation.

"It’s all excuse after excuse, while they have sunk boreholes at their homes and buy mineral water from the shops. But what about us, the poor? Who shall do it for us," asked Macheka.

The lack of potable running water has increased health risks in the area. In a two-week period in January more than 400 cases of cholera, diarrhoea and other water borne diseases were reported in Mabvuku, prompting Zimbabwe’s Minister of Health and Child Welfare, David Parirenyatwa, to declare the situation there a disaster.

In the aftermath of this calamity, the government declared that it would sink 3,000 boreholes in Harare and other urban centres starting with the most seriously affected areas, such as Mabvuku.

While IPS was speaking to Macheka, a pick-up truck marked "ZINWA, water is life" zoomed around a corner on a main avenue in the heart of Mabvuku, pulling behind it a large tank of water.

"We have brought you clean drinking water," said a ZINWA official as residents carrying an assortment of water containers scurried around the vehicle. But after only eight people had filled their water tins the tank was empty, and the pick-up drove off.

Mabvuku residents now find themselves relying on boreholes at the Circle Cement Company and the Maximum Support Police Camp.

Circle Cement, a large cement manufacturing company located near Mabvuku, purifies its own water and allows residents to make use of its supplies.

The Maximum Support Police Camp is a state security base where senior police officers reside. Several boreholes have been sunk there to provide the officials with water.

In either case, Mabvuku residents have to walk several kilometres to fetch their water; but for many of them, this has become a way of life.

Deputy Water Resources and Infrastructure Development Minister Walter Mzembi says government is in the process of recommissioning idle waterworks stations to increase capacity.

"We are going to revive the bio-gas digesters that have been lying idle as well as water treatment plants that were last used long back," he told IPS.

The bio-gas digesters have the potential to produce gas to run four of the water authority’s broken down water and sewer treatment works.

The water provision problems in Mabvuku form part of a larger economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe that has resulted in hyper-inflation, widespread unemployment and shortages of basic goods. The government also stands accused of extensive human rights abuses.

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