Hildegarde The Arena
IT was quite ironic that the inaugural issue of WASH: Water, Sanitation & Hygiene Connector Newsletter was released on January 31 when the whole of Greater Harare had gone dry following a statement issued by Harare City Council through its acting corporate communications manager, Mr Michael
Chideme, and published in the media on January 29.
The statement read in part: “The City of Harare wishes to advise all residents of Greater Harare that there will be a complete shutdown on Morton Jaffray Treatment Plant from Friday 29 January at 1400hrs to Monday February 1, 2016 at 0900 hrs. This means that there will be no water supply in the whole of Harare, Norton, Ruwa, Epworth and Chitungwiza.
“The city will also be carrying out other routine maintenance works. This is part of the ongoing Water and Sanitation Infrastructure Rehabilitation programme meant to improve reliability of water supply. Council, therefore, appeals to residents to use the available water sparingly,” said Mr Chideme.
For some residents, that the water taps could run dry for days on end (Friday evening to Tuesday afternoon) was a non-event, because Harare water is not only a scarce commodity for them, but it is also very costly.
However, for first timers like this writer and people in the neighbourhood, these were the most painful four days, because the suburb rarely experiences water cuts, and householders have always appreciated this one major service delivery by Harare City Council. Never mind the state of the water, but the fact that every household has running water is quite commendable.
What is worrying though is that a maintenance programme of this magnitude, which affects millions of residents, and might have taken weeks if not months to plan for, needed a few hours notice for the affected people to prepare themselves. It goes without saying that residents should have been advised on time, through the various media and broadcasting platforms.
The frequently asked question by residents was: Why did Council give us such short notice considering that water is life? When Council appealed to residents to “use the available water sparingly”, which water was this when the taps were already dry?
While some households have sunk boreholes, in most high-density suburbs, there have been efforts to have community boreholes sunk a few hundred metres from households. But when people go for days without the precious liquid, it is amazing to watch and listen to the unorthodox means used to get water. It’s total war!
The writer had time to do that at the weekend, watching people at some boreholes, shouting at each other and in some cases using obscene language, while others were ready to engage in fist fights.
It was also a sorry state to see children, two-litre bottles in hand, the elderly and pregnant women, not being given an opportunity to fetch water because the tussling required a lot of aggression and stamina.
One woman who only identified herself as Amai Alice recounted her experiences on Saturday evening: “When I finally got to fetch water after a long wait, the relief was short-lived, because someone stole the bucketful of water and went away. When I asked whether people had seen the ‘water thief’, they said they hadn’t. So, I went back home empty-handed. It was painful, but what could I do?
“The only other solution was to go back into the queue, and this would have meant that I would get back home in the wee hours of the morning. Thus I decided to return during day-time, because I could have lost the water again. So I lost both the water and container, and I don’t have money to buy another one.”
The drama at the boreholes was graphically described by another lady who refused to be identified: “There are some bouncers who will opt to fetch the water for you, and you pay them. But sometimes, people with money can come with dozens of containers in their open trucks, and you then hear that they were ahead of everybody. When this happens, it means that everyone in the queue has to wait for those containers to be filled up. It’s money. Money, money everywhere, even at public watering systems.”
She added: “Sometime last year, a one and half day shutdown saw people fighting, with one guy challenging the another guy who had jumped the queue: ‘If you think it’s only (Prophet) Magaya who can do deliverance, we can do it here nezvibhakera (fist fight)’.”
Apart from the drama at the boreholes, some people resorted to the nearby stream, where they ended up fetching dirty water to flush toilets, and in some cases to do laun- dry.
Some of the schools with boreholes also opened them up to the community, but at a small fee. The desperation and lack was evident: there were no queues because people did not have the $0,20 fee for each container filled up. For those who could afford, they could only access the boreholes during working hours.
There is a litany of challenges, but we believe that there are better ways of managing the water situation and minimise the negative impacts on residents. Time is of essence, and people cannot be seen wondering all over, all day and all night long with containers, looking for water. It just does not augur well for a city the size of Harare, and its aspirations to regain its former status.
The planning and implementation should also be done in the framework of what the United Nations Secretary-General Mr Ban Ki-moon said in the World Water Development Report 2015, “Water for a Sustainable World”: “Water flows through the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental.
“Water resources, and the essential services they provide, are among the keys to achieving poverty reduction, inclusive growth, public health, food security, lives of dignity for all and long-lasting harmony with earth’s essential ecosystems.
“Water issues have risen in prominence in recent years, reflecting growing understanding of water’s centrality as well as the world’s success in achieving the Millennium Development Goal target of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water,” said Mr Ban.