GEORGE Musimboti opened a faucet in his home in northern Harare’s affluent Avondale Ridge suburb and a puff of dust escaped with a hissing sound, indicating a build-up of pressure in the normally empty pipes.
“That’s a good sign,” the 40-year-old accountant said in an interview. “It means there’s water in the system and we may get some later.”
Zimbabwe’s capital, which the state statistics agency estimates is home to about 2.8 million people, has lacked a regular supply of running water since 2000 when the economy slipped into a recession that lasted almost a decade. The provision of other services including electricity, garbage removal and road maintenance have been similarly neglected.
While Harare plans to spend $273 million on maintaining its water infrastructure this year, it hasn’t budgeted for it to be repaired or extended, or even estimated what that would cost. Any outlay on improving the water supply and revamping the dilapidated sewage system and 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) of paved roads is contingent on residents settling $230 million in outstanding rates and utility bills.
Harare’s decay is reflective of a broader meltdown in Zimbabwe’s economy that began in 2000 when government-backed seizures of white-owned farms began.
Exports tumbled, foreign investment dried up and the central bank began printing money to help the government pay its bills, resulting in an inflation rate that the International Monetary Fund estimated at 500,000,000,000% in 2008. In 2009 the currency was scrapped in favour of currencies including the U.S. dollar. That, and a coalition government, ended the recession.
“Infrastructure collapsed or degraded during a decade of hyper-inflation,” John Robertson, a Harare-based economist, said by phone on April 13. “The country was too indebted and politically isolated to borrow, hastening the collapse and preventing the rehabilitation of water services.”
Harare residents with enough money have resorted to building tanks or reservoirs and filling them from wells or with groundwater supplied in bulk by private companies, whose prices start at about $65 for 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons). The government imposes a $3 levy on every 1,000 litres of privately pumped water.
For retired farmer George Fenstone self-reliance is part-and-parcel of living in Harare. He’s built a quarter-acre, underground water tank in his garden in the northern suburb of Borrowdale and supplements the run-off of rainwater from his roof with tanker deliveries. The three-meter-deep (10-foot) structure, which is reinforced with steel and covered by lawn, cost “a lot,” he says.
“It’s Zim, we have to make plans and pay twice, that’s the rule,” Fenstone said in an interview. “We pay for the water we don’t get from the council and we pay for the water we do get and for the means of storing it. Same with the electricity,” he says, pointing at solar water heaters and panels on his roof.
By-passing the public utilities isn’t an option for poor residents of Harare’s cramped townships, who pay $4 a month for their water connection and 38 cents for every 1,000 liters they use. A quarter of the city’s workforce was unemployed in 2011, while 32% of the population didn’t get enough to eat, latest data from the African Development Bank (AfDB) shows.
In Mabvuku, a township on Harare’s eastern outskirts, 10- year-old Farai Chimonde uses a blue plastic bucket and a length of wire to haul water from a makeshift well. The brown-tinted liquid foams as he pours it into five-liter bottles and it leaves a lingering smell of sewage on his tattered, khaki school uniform.
“There’s no water in the taps so I fetch from these wells for the family,” said Chimonde, who loaded the bottles onto a wheelbarrow and wheeled them home across rutted fields planted with corn and sweet potatoes. “We must boil the water because we fear cholera but it still smells bad.”
In 2009, a cholera outbreak killed more than 4,000 Zimbabweans and infected over 100,000 countrywide, with Harare the worst affected area.
Water distribution has improved to most areas of Harare since the city secured a $144 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China last year to upgrade purification and pumping plants, although supplying suburbs on higher ground remains problematic, according to Mayor Ben Manyenyeni.
“Some parts of Harare that haven’t been able to receive water for up to 10 years are now accessing the commodity, albeit for less than seven days a week,” he said at a meeting of chartered accountants in Harare in February.
Most of Harare’s piped water comes from Lake Chivero, which lies south west of the city and has a capacity of 247 million cubic meters (8.7 million cubic feet), and the smaller Prince Edward dam, which lies to the south. The existing dams and purification plants are inadequate to maintain a consistent water supply, even if they were running optimally and more facilities are needed,
Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo said the water shortages ere being addressed by the city and he was unable to comment.
The city lacks “a viable strategy for a consistent, equitable and affordable water service,” the Combined Harare Residents Association, which represents residents across all income groups, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Musimboti, the accountant from Avondale Ridge, was temporarily appeased about the lack of water when his pipes finally started flowing.
“We got enough water to fill the bath and some buckets,” he said. “It smells bad and it’s a funny colour, but it’s water. That’ll save some money.”