Harare and its three satellite towns of Chitungwiza, Ruwa and Epworth have a combined population of over 2,1 million people, host the largest concentration of industry in Zimbabwe, and are all upstream of their main supply dams on the Manyame River. The combination creates great risks, and great opportunities. This huge concentration of people and economic activity requires plenty of clean water and efficient waste disposal. The risks are that we will pollute our water until it is poisonous, or run out of fresh water if we cannot recycle. The opportunities, thanks to the city and the towns being in the catchment of the water supply, are that we can ensure decent water supplies for ever-growing populations at the lowest possible cost, even if that cost is a little more than we are paying now.
Unfortunately, for over a decade we have been maximising the risks and minimising the opportunities.
Harare had a fairly dubious record over water supplies and could grow until a little after independence only because the Manyame River had good flows in the rainy season and had some good dam sites near Harare.
We took fresh water from the dams, used it, processed it badly and then threw it back into the river. From the 1970s that was banned, so we threw it away on farms instead, and started suffering water shortages as a result.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Harare suddenly shot from being an underperformer when it came to water supply and sewage disposal to the top of the league tables. Major investments saw the construction of extremely efficient activated sludge plants at Firle, where the Mukuvisi River leaves the city, and Crowborough, where the Marimba River leaves.
The raw sewage was piped to these two plants, and trunk sewers need to follow natural drainage unless expensive pumping is in place, and was turned at these two plants into dry solid waste that was easy to get rid of, and very clean water that could be discharged into the rivers without any problem.
The new plants won engineering prizes, and were easy to maintain and easy to expand, being modular. As the population grew all that the city needed to do was add more units at each plant. At the same time plans were in place to upgrade the sewage treatment plant next to the Nyatsime River, so Chitungwiza could also discharge clean water, and build a similar plant near where the Ruwa River meets the Manyame so Ruwa and eastern Harare could also stop polluting.
The Master Plan saw a fifth plant in time, near Mount Hampden, so future development in the Gwebi catchment could be allowed, with only the Umwindsi catchment in the north-east continuing to rely on septic tanks at the cost of low densities and no industry. But the five plants would all allow Harare and the towns to recycle very efficiently and with zero pollution of much of the water it needed. The whole concept was a dream for both engineers and ecologists, not to mention the finance experts who saw it was, while not cheap, easily the most cost efficient option.
Then we did nothing. We did not expand existing plants; we did not build new plants; we did not even maintain what we spent fortunes on. And so now we dump raw sewage in our supply dams.
While the city and the towns should have been able to avoid the mess in the first place, simply by getting residents to pay the modest sewage fees and using the money sensibly. they did little more than talk. So the Government has been forced to step in and borrow US$250 million for Harare province to get what has to be repaired fixed, and to build what has to be added.
The engineers have the plans, the concepts are simple. It was simply one of those problems that needed money, which is now coming, plus efficient management, which requires a major change in how the four councils operate.
It may require a joint water and sewage service owned by the four councils, but professionally managed. This sort of thing is common. Rand Water in South Africa, for example, sorts out the water and sewage problems of Johannesburg and its neighbours, and sorts them out well using identical technology to what Harare has let crumble.
Namibia is so good at this that it can have the outlet of a sewage treatment plant and the inlet of a water treatment plant being the same pipe. Europe is full of such schemes, which is why fish are back in those rivers.
We now have the cash, the engineering skills, and the will at central Government level. We simply need the same will at council level, and among the 2,1 million people in Harare province who want clean water in pipes, rivers and dams.