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Harare water crisis - Issues and activism
Amanda Atwood
November 04, 2013

Last Tuesday, I went to a public dialogue on the Harare water crisis organised by the Wetlands Survival Forum. According to the poster for the meeting, the objective was to unite the public and attempt to resolve the water issues in Harare.

I found the meeting, and the conversations I had with participants afterwards, both illuminating and infuriating.

Firstly, Harare’s water situation is in a crisis. It was good to hear Mayor Manyenyeni acknowledge that, but as he also noted we are at least five years away from a solution – And a lot longer if the behaviours of both Harare residents and leadership don’t change.

One figure cited in the meeting was that 4.2 million people rely on the Harare water system. It appears this figure is an estimate which arose out of a report from the 1990s. According to the more recent and presumably more accurate 2012 Census data, closer to 2.5 million people draw on the Harare water system. This is still significantly more than the 1 million people who relied on the system 20 years ago, but the good news is the demand side of the problem might not be as great as the city is estimating.

The bad news is, the supply side is in very dire straits. At full capacity, Morton Jaffray Water Works can supply 600 megalitres of water per day. Given that it was last upgraded in 1998, this supply is currently closer to 500 megalitres. A loan being discussed with the Chinese to provide $144 million for water supply and other Harare infrastructure projects should see Morton Jaffray back to 600 megalitres of supply per day. The city says this will mean that Harare residents can expect water 4 days per week - up from the 2 many get now (and many receive far less than that, and have not had municipal water for months or years).

At a glance, this is great news. But it also raises a few alarm bells. If the demand on Harare water is 2.5 million people, and the system is currently supplying 500 megalitres per day, that’s 200 litres of water per person per day. Even if the demand were closer to 4.2 million people, that would still be 120 litres of water per person per day. Just think how many baths that is! So, if the vast majority of residents get water 2 days per week, and many get it even less regularly, where is all the water going? Huge amounts of it is being lost to leaks, corroded pipes and poorly maintained infrastructure. Much of this is probably happening underground, and we have no idea of the extent of it. In order to maintain supply, the city’s water system needs a 10% pipe replacement rate each year. This rate has not been met for many years. So old, corroded and leaking pipes are losing residents the water they should be getting. Is municipal water also being sold illegally? Are there syndicates making a profit out of selling city water whilst others’ taps run dry? No one suggested anything as nefarious as this at the Harare water crisis public dialogue, but the city clearly needs massive pipe replacement and infrastructure development so that it can be confident it is supplying residents with the most water it can. If demand even then out strips supply, they’ll be in a better position to assess whether something more devious is happening to the city’s water supply.

Another critical issue that came out of the meeting was the limited effect that rainfall has in recharging Harare’s underground water system. If you’re naïve like I was, you might think that the rain that falls this time of year and into March makes a significant contribution to Harare’s water table, the aquifers or “under ground lakes” which supply the growing number of boreholes on which many Harare residents rely for their water. It doesn’t. About 2-4% of the rain we get sinks into the ground and recharges the boreholes. The rest is lost to run off (into gutters down storm drains and into rivers which then fill Lake Chievero, the city’s water storage dam) and evapotranspiration (back up into the sky). The run off water at least we get a second shot at using – it’s what gets cleaned at Morton Jaffray and pumped into our taps. But the water that goes back up into the atmosphere just moves on to rain on others elsewhere.

This part is especially crucial to understand in the context of watering lawns and verges. Just like rain water, the vast majority of water that the sprinklers and hose pipes spray onto lawns goes right back up into the sky. It doesn’t sink deep into the ground and recharge the water table so that our boreholes are healthy next year. And it doesn’t even run off into storm drains to refill Lake Chivero. For the most part, it sits on the grass, and gets soaked up back into the atmosphere, or it sinks a little ways into the ground, gets taken up by the grass roots to provide water to the grass to make it nice and green, and is then lost drop by drop back into the atmosphere as the grass breathes and grows.

Take home lesson: Watering one acre of lawn over one year brings down the level of your borehole one metre. The rain that falls over that year will fill your borehole back up by 4 centimetres. So, over the year, your borehole has gotten 96 centimetres lower just because you’ve been watering your grass. I don’t know about you, but that seems like about the best possible argument against maintaining a green lawn. Initiatives that promote “xeriscaping” or even just promote “brown and proud” gardens make a lot of sense. Harare is semi-arid. Deal with it. Don’t expect your grass to always be green.

Meanwhile, Harare’s water is further compromised by the shrinking storage capacity of Lake Chivero. According to Chris Magadza, the lake has markedly reduced in depth, because of siltation. This will mostly be dirt coming out of urban cultivation in wetlands and off of roads and into storm drains, into the city’s rivers, and then into Lake Chivero. In order to stop siltation, one needs only a ten metre corridor between the waterway and cultivated land. So the solution doesn’t need to be banning all urban cultivation in all wetlands – It could be to just educate people around and enforce a respect for the ten metre buffer zone requirement around the water courses in the wetlands.

Finally, the meeting got me very worried about Harare’s wetlands. As Tim Broderick described it, Harare’s wetlands act as “sump and regulator” for our water system. The water in the wetlands recharges the city’s water table (so it’s important the water is clean as it sinks into the ground) and also feed the streams which feed the rivers which feed Lake Chivero so that water can end up back in our taps. Increasingly, these wetlands are being fenced and walled and face development. Some development projects on wetlands may come with mitigation measures to try and preserve the wetlands’ functionality. But on the whole, these wetlands are the city’s treasure. They are what keep Harare’s water system efficient, clean and able to function. If we continue to wall them up and build on them, we will be selling off the city’s ability to provide a reliable water supply to its residents in the future, in exchange for short term gains. If the trade off is a bit of money today, or water in the taps of our children in the future, surely we should be choosing the later?

Never mind water quality - The meeting didn’t even begin to address that, and given the desperate situation Harare water is in, that is not surprising. However, the litter on our verges and streets routinely ends up in the storm drains, and from there into the Mukuvisi River and on to Lake Chivero. So, the next time you’re wondering where to dump that drink bottle or take away box, spare a thought for your tap water, and hold onto it until you get to a rubbish bin.

What can you do?

  • Don’t water your lawn, and speak with your neighbours, workplace and others about the negative impact a green lawn has on all of us
  • Shower into a bucket and use that “grey water” to then fill your toilet cistern
  • Place bricks wrapped in plastic (so they don’t crumble) or 500mL plastic water bottles in your toilet’s cistern so it uses less water with each flush (especially for older toilets, which typically had larger tanks)
  • If it’s just urine, don’t bother to flush – Every flush of the toilet wastes a lot of water
  • Don’t litter. The plastic you throw out on the road will likely get taken into a storm drain in the rains, and make its way to Lake Chivero, where it adds to the pollution choking the city’s filtration system

For the truly ambitious, there is also water harvesting. Not to be confused with water mining (where you use more water in a year than gets put back into the system), water harvesting is about putting the rain water that falls on your property to work. One person I spoke with has set up a system that collects the rain water from half of his roof, stores it in the swimming pool (and presumably elsewhere, and presumably cleans it some how as well!) and then uses this in his household during the year. If the rains are good and his family is careful, they’re able to meet their water needs for the year on the back of half of their (northern suburbs) roof’s water. Clearly, setting something like this up would be a significant investment of time and energy, but there could be an opportunity for “alternative water” businesses who wanted to help households harvest their rain water effectively, and in so doing avoid for example either further drawing down a borehole, or having to buy tanks of water (from possibly unscrupulous bulk water companies).

In addition, government - at both the local and national level - needs to know that people are serious about protecting water, and needs to be urged to use things like the Environmental Management Act and its provisions to the benefit of the country’s critical environmental resources like water. The Wetlands Survival Forum was set up to try and coordinate groups around the water issue - so support its efforts and get involved with it where you can.

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