The serious problems faced by Harare City Council in abstracting seriously contaminated raw water and having to treat this adequately to make it safe are not an excuse to deny vast swathes of the city treated water for days on end.
The outbreaks of typhoid and the ever present danger of cholera, require that every household should have a basic supply of safe water for at least part of each day, even if during emergencies that is only for an hour or two.
The well-off do not suffer. They can afford boreholes or large tanks and can afford generators to power water pumps or deliveries of safe water by the growing number of private companies providing this service. But even in Borrowdale there are many families that have to rely totally on municipal water or what they can scrounge from shallow wells or near-by boreholes.
There is also the question of fairness. Why should some people have a 24/7 water supply and others feel fortunate if they get one hour of low-pressure supply in a week? All pay the same rates and are charged the same water charges.
The much maligned, even hated, engineers at Zesa have found a fair way of rationing electricity. Like Harare and most cities with their water supplies, Zesa faces a wide gap between potential demand and available supply of electricity. After some prodding by their regulator they came up with a load-shedding schedule and, this winter, seem to have largely followed it. Just about every household gets electricity for at least half the day, unless there is a fault.
This is not ideal, but at least food in fridges and freezers stays cold, a geyser, if the household is lucky enough to be in a watered suburb, can be heated and at least one hot meal prepared. And the system seems, at long last, to be fair. You do not get some suburbs with power all the time and others with power hardly ever.
Harare City Council needs to follow a similar system. Water supplies are not as easy to turn on and off as power supplies. But we have noticed that when the water engineers apply their minds and are prepared to manually open and close valves on trunk mains, they can give a good supply to a suburb for a few hours and then switch this off. Lower lying houses might get another hour or two of water as the pipes drain, but generally everyone can have something during those few hours, even the people on the hill tops.
Surely the council can formalise this sort of system, work out a fair rationing scheme and order its engineers to implement it. Even a very poor family can afford US$4 to buy a safe 20 litre water container to store enough water for drinking and cooking over a day and can use dirty bath water to fill toilet cisterns.
We note with concern that some households are using treated tap water to irrigate their gardens. There are rules banning hoses for gardens and washing cars. These are not enforced. It can be difficult to catch the cheats. They water at night and hose their cars down behind screens. But if we have to start demanding of people with very green lawns that they prove they did not use municipal water to get this desirable state, then so be it.
As for car washing, people in Botswana and Namibia, where everyone takes water conservation seriously, have learned to dust down their cars and then do a final wash with half a bucket of water. Daily car washes with modern vehicles is not required.
So besides working out an equitable water scheme, giving every home safe water for at least an hour a day at a set time, Harare needs to launch an intensive awareness campaign to stop families wasting water. In the end neighbour pressure can be effective in reducing demand. Again Namibia and Botswana, where 24 water supplies are standard, but demand is far lower than in Zimbabwe, show what can be done when a whole society decides to be taken water conservation seriously.
The city council's experts have worked out what each person, and each family, really needs in the way of water so that they can live safely and comfortably. It is a lot less than the present average consumption which means many are wasting water. The eternal studies of experts need to be converted into action.
We have been pressing Zesa for some time to switch all households over to pre-paid meters. Harare City Council now needs to look at pre-paid water meters as a medium term strategy to bring demand within the limits of supply and to ensure that all who use water pay for this. Waste will decline dramatically if a household has to rush out every couple of days to buy more "water time". We have seen this with the lucky minority of Zesa customers who know manage their energy consumption with a pre-paid meter.
And, of course, the Government needs to enforce its own laws about dumping raw sewage in water sources. Zimbabwe has had the technology for more than 30 years to treat sewage right up to almost pure water. The systems have to be maintained and repaired. As cities grow more and more raw water is going to be treated effluent, so it has to be treated to the level where fish can swim and breed in the output of treatment plants; that is a river taking treated effluent must be cleaner downstream of a sewage plant than upstream.