Despite water being central to life on this planet, in Zimbabwe and especially Harare it is something that seems to be taken for granted. An investigation into Harare’s unending water crisis indicates that doom and gloom looms for the capital as residents of the city become more and more desperate to access the precious liquid. And even more desperate times lie ahead as underground water supplies dwindle, writes Nelson Chenga.
THREE hundred and twenty kilometres south east of Harare lie the remnants of Zimbabwe's first capital city: The Great Zimbabwe Ruins or Dzimbahwe. The awesomely beautiful 11th Century stone monument, without any mortar to hold it together for the past 900 years, is today not only a living testimony of brilliant ingenuity of a great people, but it is also living proof of the devastating effects of a humanitarian crisis.
Archaeological evidence point to the fact that the more than 18 000 last inhabitants of the iron-age era city were forced to abandon the settlement around the year 1500 when water ran out, most likely due to climate change, a phenomenon that the entire globe is today again finding hard to come to grips with.
And in a disturbing trend of history probably slowly repeating itself, Zimbabwe's modern day capital city, Harare, is increasingly becoming uninhabitable as an unrelenting water crisis threatens to trigger a massive humanitarian emergency.
Although the mass exodus similar to that which occurred at Dzimbahwe is actually not possible today, life in Harare may soon be so tough that only the fittest will survive as water becomes scarcer.
Greed, poor judgement, policy inconsistencies, lawlessness, maladministration and political lethargy, among a host of ills, have blinded the Zimbabwe government into failing to see that the country's seat of power is drying up bit by bit right under its nose.
Desperate to access enough fresh water in the wake of failure by the City of Harare to provide the commodity, close to four million residents of the city and its environs have for the past few years resorted to sinking their own wells and boreholes, an emergency measure that is however emptying the underground or ground water table, a development which has resulted in wetlands drying up, causing environmental damage and endangering all future water supplies, social stability and community health.
Ironically, four years after the city's persistent water crisis activated a national humanitarian disaster in the form of a cholera outbreak that affected close to 100 000 people and killed more than 4 000 people, the key stakeholders in guiding the city and country at large along a sustainable path to development appear the least worried.
The Harare City Council, the Ministry of Local Government, Rural and Urban Development, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the Ministry of Water Resources and Development and the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, key influences to the city's welfare, appear not even alarmed by the impending disaster as those heading these ministries seem to be preoccupied by other personal political agendas.
An urban planning expert, Percy Toriro, noted: "City planners foresaw the water challenge many years ago. They proceeded to propose that Kunzvi Dam (east of Harare) be built starting from around 1996 so that it could begin to supply water by 2000. If one traces when we started facing critical water shortages, it was about the projected time. In fact when some of us see the current situation, our surprise is not that we now face water challenges, but that we have as Harare managed to come this far without a solution. We never imagined we could go up to 12 years after the turn of the century without a solution to a problem foreseen in the late eighties and early nineties."
At the crux of the looming disaster is a collapsing water and sanitation administration system as all the relevant ministries fail or 'refuse' to see what lies ahead as wetlands, the city's sources for raw water, disappear.
Founded 122 years ago Harare, at an altitude of 1 483 metres above sea level, occupies part of Zimbabwe's extensive watershed, the nerve centre of the country's river system. Within the city limits are 26 wetlands, part of the 48 000 hectare Manyame Catchment, from where countless tributaries of some of the country's largest rivers emanate. The Manyame Catchment is nine percent of the entire watershed.
Wetlands International, a global not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation and restoration of wetlands has come to the conclusion that: "The rate of loss and deterioration of wetlands is accelerating in all regions of the world. The pressure on wetlands is likely to intensify in the coming decades due to increased global demand for land and water, as well as climate change."
Hope for Harare and the country's wetlands, which had been raised on July 27 this year when the Environment and Natural Resources Minister Francis Nhema gazetted the Declaration of the Protection of Harare Wetlands, is waning after the same Minister recalled the notice for re-gazetting later, a move which has triggered an unprecedented stampede by individuals and companies to occupy the fragile wetland ecosystems.
Massive construction projects with questionable environmental impact assessments, such as the Millennium Park that will blanket the entire Borrowdale vlei and the Chinese hotel that has chewed up a chunk of a vlei near Belvedere, are underway on the city's remaining wetlands through blessing from the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. And the Harare City Council, in a desperate attempt to increase its revenue, is parcelling out parts of or entire wetlands to housing developers.
Unable to grasp the magnitude of the grave consequences of such actions on the future of the city's water supply situation some technocrats such as the Zimbabwe Tourism Association chief executive, Karikoga Kaseke, sincerely believe millions of dollars worth of investments that will create thousands of jobs cannot be sacrificed "in order to protect frogs and 23 trees".
And Local Government, Rural and Urban Development Minister, Ignatius Chombo's interest in the matter has not gone beyond reading about the Environmental Management Agency (EMA)'s objections to the uncontrolled invasion of wetlands by many of the country's local authoritiess.
The Conservation Society of Monavale Trust (COSMO Trust), a group of 60 Harare households that is fighting to protect the country's wetlands, is distraught.
"Everyone is now rushing to grab a piece of wetland. Almost all the open spaces in Greater Harare are vleis or wetlands. These form the fragile headwaters of the Manyame, Marimba, Gwebi catchment basin...This basin is the only water source for half the population of Zimbabwe. The water supply is downstream of Harare, so it's important to keep the wetlands intact," says a COSMO Trust statement.
The statement adds: "These bio-diverse wetlands are natural water reservoirs. They recharge the water table, filter and purify the water, prevent erosion, siltation and flooding. Undisturbed the wetlands act as carbon sinks, re-supply rivers and streams, and save ratepayers money by providing a natural water purification service. Wetlands clean the water for free. It costs us nothing. Without the wetlands our water supply is doomed. We are sitting on a time bomb."
The Harare Municipality is currently spending US$3 million per month to purify raw water drawn from Lake Chivero, the city's major water supply reservoir located 20km west of the capital. Interestingly, the lake, with a total capacity of 250 000 million litres, was condemned as one massive sewer 17 years ago in a University of Zimbabwe scientific research titled: Chivero -- A Polluted Lake.
One of the researchers in that project, Professor Christopher Magadza, says the lake's pollution levels have since the time of the research now phenomenally increased.
"It's now much worse. About 40 to 60 percent of the water flowing into Lake Chivero is sewerage from Harare and Chitungwiza," said Prof Magadza who added: "The issue is that the wetlands that used to catch water in the rainfall season and then slowly release it in the dry season are no longer doing so. The wetlands, with self-purification capacity, are natural sewerage works that should be serving us a lot of money. But we are destroying them."
As the water quality of Lake Chivero continues to deteriorate the wetlands upstream are drying up fast as hundreds of wells and boreholes sunk by residents, institutions and companies suck up the city's underground water reserves.
Wildlife and Environment of Zimbabwe director, Willie Nduku agreed: "We now have boreholes in Harare that are as deep as 100 metres because the water table continues to go down and the wetlands, which are responsible for getting water down to the water table are no longer able to do so because of several reasons that include climate change, urban cultivation and buildings."
In the meantime, the Ministry of Water and Development's attempt to assess and control borehole drilling has been bedeviled by problems. After demanding that all boreholes be registered with the Ministry in May this year, the Harare City Council soon advised that it was the one responsible for registering them since it had the mandate to supply water to Harare metropolitan. And so out of the hundreds of boreholes only 300 have registered with the Ministry.
The Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), which administers all the country's water resources, above and below the surface, is disturbed by the unfolding disaster.
Citing Mazowe Dam, which is north of the city and which has failed to fill up for many years in the past two decades, ZINWA responded thus to The Financial Gazette's enquiries on the matter: "The effect of uncontrolled groundwater abstraction has dire consequences not only to the city's water supply but to its residents as well. Lowered groundwater levels will mean that saturation of 'soils' will take longer during rainy events thereby reducing the amount of runoff that contributes towards surface water in the city's dams... over abstraction of groundwater can result in deterioration of water quality thereby risking the lives of those drinking it."
While Africa's huge underground water reserves, estimated to be 100 times greater than all the water found on the continent's surface, offer an opportunity for the continent to rid its perennial water shortage crises that is nagging more than 300 million people, for Zimbabwe massive underground water harvesting spells disaster given the southern African country's low levels of underground water.
Africa's first ever underground water map, produced by the British Geological Survey and the University College London in April this year, indicates that Zimbabwe's aquifer productivity (litres per second) is so low that it can only produce between 0,1 and 0,5 litres of water per second compared to 20 litres per second found in countries such as Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Mauritania, Egypt, Chad and Niger.
Predominantly sitting on igneous rock, Harare actually does not have an underground aquifer similar to the karoo (sedimentary) rock Nyamandhlovu Aquifer in Matabeleland North province, but a series of underground rivers flowing in-between the rocks are what the people of the city are currently drawing from, which also explains why it is sometimes difficult to cite a productive borehole site in the city.
Meanwhile a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report indicates that in southern Africa and South America the recharge of groundwater appears to be diminishing.
To make matters worse the dwindling groundwater supplies are increasingly being contaminated by both domestic and industrial effluent. Results of a recent survey by the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) at four boreholes in a residential area close to a chemical plant in Harare's Msasa industrial area indicated that the water's mineral content or hardness far exceeded the permissible limit.
Laden with sulphates and manganese, the water hardness of each of the boreholes were 776, 1 541, 743, 696 against a permissible limit of between 20 and 300.
While water hardness per se has no known health side effects to humans, according the World Health Organisations guidelines, EMA believes that where industry, a major generator and consumer of hazardous waste and substances, is involved it is highly likely that the hard water in areas close to industrial areas contains poisonous or toxic substances harmful to the environment and human health. In residential areas sewerage spillages and septic tanks also pollute the underground water reservoir.
"Pollution of groundwater resources is very difficult to remedy and contaminated or polluted aquifers can go for decades or centuries without being used as they self-clean. This will also have a profound effect on the ecosystem," ZINWA has warned.