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ZIMBABWE: Badly Needed Work Begins on Bulawayo Water System

Ignatius Banda

BULAWAYO, Jul 29 2010 (IPS) - Dispersing feasting flies and angry residents from a manhole cover spewing sewage from people’s homes and into the road: another day in the working life of Njabulo Siziba. It’s a dirty, frustrating, thankless job as a civil engineer for Bulawayo city council, but help is at hand for Siziba and the city he serves.

In his 15 years on the job,  Siziba has witnessed the deterioration of water and sewerage lines strained to the breaking point as the city’s rapid growth has not been matched by infrastructure upgrades.

When Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980, Bulawayo had a population of a little over 800,000, but recent council estimates put the city’s present numbers population at two million.

Many of these more recent arrivals live in areas that are not served by the municipal system at all. In Cowdray Park (ironically built by the government to house people whose unplanned homes it controversially destroyed in 2005), families are forced to search for water in adjoining neighbourhoods and turn to the bush to relieve themselves.

Plots beyond the reach of the water and sewerage system continue to be allocated, and thousands rely on water from burst mains for domestic use. During the last comprehensive inspection ten years ago, consultants inspecting the pipes estimated the city was losing up to 8,000 cubic metres of water a day to leaks; the situation is almost certainly worse today.

“No one had a clue this city would grow to what it is today, but still those who came after and witnessed this growth have not responded with equal vigilance,” says Justin Moyo of the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association.

In 2009, Bulawayo mayor Thaba Moyo said the city needs 100 million U.S. dollars to rehabilitate water treatment plants, pump stations and aging pipelines. Town planners complain that they are constrained by long years of bankruptcy. The formation of a government of national unity in February 2009 has not yet produced an economic recovery that would underwrite such extensive repairs.

There have been complaints from city council that international donors seem willing to assist only when there is a humanitarian emergency like the 2008-2009 cholera outbreak which according to the World Health Organisation claimed more than 4,000 lives across Zimbabwe; and such urgent funding is withdrawn soon after the crisis is deemed to be over.

The ambitious Bulawayo Water and Sanitation Emergency Response (BOWSER) announced by the Australian government in July may be the first step in putting this right.

“During 2009, we provided funds to assist with the emergency rehabilitation of water supply systems in Beitbridge, which was the epicentre of the cholera epidemic at the time,” says Michael Hunt, programme manager for the Australian government’s aid programme in Africa. “Australia is now supporting a 4.6 million Australian dollar  ($4 million U.S.) programme for Bulawayo.”

Over the next 13 months, the BOWSER project will unblock more than 200 kilometres of choked sewerage pipes, rehabilitate water treatment plants at Criterion, Fernhill and Ncema Dam, as well as make repairs to leaks along the Insiza water line which also supplies Bulawayo.

BOWSER will also support public awareness campaigns for participatory health and hygiene education and train City Council staff like Siziba for on-going maintenance.

“I think it’s a start,” Siziba says. “We sure can use all the assistance we can get as many agencies have not been forthcoming in helping fix this city.”

City resident Moyo welcomes the BOWSER project, but cautions that the system as a whole must be repaired if health and safety fears are to be addressed.

“We cannot separate the provision of clean water from functioning pipelines otherwise we will continue with the situation where we are drinking water contaminated by raw sewerage,” he said.

For Siziba and the other beleaguered members of the city’s engineering department, the injection of support is hugely encouraging: “It will be a welcome relief to wake up and look forward to challenges other than burst sewers,” he said.

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