Editorial Comment: Harare council suffers from its own bad service delivery

The flooding of the basement of Harare’s Town House that is damaging the city records and archives is not the result of an “underground river” flowing into the basement for the first time in decades but the result of Harare City Council’s total failure for a couple of decades to clear and keep clear the storm water drains.

The very presence of all those records in the basement testifies to the fact that the water table in the area near Julius Nyerere Way was lowered by persistent and successful attention to the drainage of central Harare from the 1890s onwards, which is why Town House could be built on what was a swamp when the invasion force sent by Cecil Rhodes arrived in 1890 to found Fort Salisbury.

What is under the western carriageway of Julius Nyerere Way is not an “underground river”, or even a stream, but rather the main surface drain dug in the early 1890s, and deepened and reinforced over a decade with proper inlets from the extended side streets, and then covered with roadway, named Broadway at first, changed to Kingsway in 1911 when the King’s uncle paid a royal visit and then to Julius Nyerere Way soon after independence. 

There had been a modest town planning dispute when the Rhodes column arrived as a result of a lot of dithering about where exactly businesses and houses would be built on the level plain selected as the site of what was to be the future colonial capital.  

As a result while the minute administration centre of the British South Africa company used the “fort”, now Africa Unity Square, and then the surrounding area to the north, the fed-up shopkeepers went to the Kopje and built a row of huts along the western edge to form what is now Kaguvi Street.

The two areas were separated by what an impartial visitor in 1891 called a “fetid swamp” as the business people expanded their area to Harare Street and then Mbuya Nehanda Street and the posher administrators and their hangers on, including the Anglican Church, started developing around the fort. 

The first town plan drawn up by an amateur related to the administrator solidified this pair of grids, with the laying out of streets from First Street to 10th Street aligned magnetic north-south, the same as the boundary of the fort, and extended that grid over the top of the swamp into the Avenues. On the other side he kept the Kopje alignment of Kaguvi Street, just straightening the roads and marking out the stands and marking out a market square for the auctioneers and the farmers bringing in food.

He kept the swamp between the two as a future public garden, and the springs at the top of the swamp, which fed the swamp year round, were designated the Harare Gardens. The springs dried up within a few years but the same fanatic who had all the Avenues trees planted in 1903 and 1904 managed to keep the gardens and grew trees on the drained land.

The swamp was a health hazard and the early Salisbury Sanitary Board, the first local government, started digging a straight shallow ditch down what was roughly the middle of the swamp. This started draining the swamp and carrying away the storm water every rainy season. The upgrade of the sanitary board to a municipal council in 1898 saw more determined efforts to dig the ditch deeper and sort out the flows coming down the side streets.

The new council needed money from sale of stands, and so stands were marked out in 1901 and sold between what are now Chinhoyi Street and Sir Seretse Khama (ex Angwa) Street, with those two roads at the edge of the early settlement now designated. 

The need for a future town house to unify the two centres of settlement saw the first town house, a small building, erected on the drained swamp at the back of the present town house in 1903, and the need for a single police station and post office saw the early small buildings for those two also shoved in the drained swamp and these were rebuilt on grander scales later. There was no river, just a ditch soon under a roadway. Commercial development within a block or two of this ditch was limited to one or two stories at first, but people built. It was no longer a swamp.

The present town house was built in the early 1930s, and the old tiny one demolished in 1933. The basement in town house, the first basement in that part of the city, did flood a bit in rainy seasons, then only in the heavier rainy seasons, and by the 1960s was dry. In the 1980s, some property developers wondered about the two-story restriction along Julius Nyerere Way and did some drilling and found the water table was very low, hence the tower blocks that were built in the 1980s starting with Karigamombe Building. The swamp was definitely dry land and the drain was just the central storm water drain, a dry tunnel except briefly when it rained. There was no “river”.

So the sudden return of flooding, in a very bad drought year, is not a river but blocked storm water drains, something we have all noticed for the last 25 years around the city centre as the council fails to perform one of its basic functions. For a bet, there are blockages in the tunnel and at the outlet into the Mukuvisi River and these must be cleared quickly, since other buildings and their foundations could become waterlogged.

The council is now suffering from the same inefficiency and inability to provide services that so many of us already suffered, and perhaps this will concentrate minds in town house. 

If some of the money wasted on white elephants, such as the bright idea to build the major bus centre a couple of kilometres from where people want to catch buses, or a major vendor’s market out of town where no customers would ever go, had instead been spent on service delivery we would obviously be better off, and so would the council. 

Trying to divert the blame for the latest council foul up to a natural cause simply does not work and no one is going to be fooled in the midst of the worst drought for many years. But we do not want that “fetid swamp” back as storm water,s dammed by blocked drains, so the council must move swiftly and fix the drains. There is no excuse.

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