Keeping ear to dribble

BULAWAYO - The moment a 16-year-old housemaid Kholisa Moyo hears water dribble into the family home geyser, she rushes to the kitchen sink below it to confirm water has finally come on stream.

Throttled gasps of air as pressure rushes through hitherto shut outlets and splattering sounds from the kitchen tap confirm her suspicion. “Water is back!”

Kholisa yells to other family members, triggering a stampede for containers and every other receptacle available to store the precious liquid. It has been a three day-wait for the family of four who have to keep an ear to the ground in case they miss the return of running water to their dry taps.

The scenario can be replicated in every home in Zimbabwe’s second-largest city each time municipal water bailiffs open reservoir taps as part of a stringent water conservation regime in case dwindling supplies in storage dams run completely out.

Bulawayo’s perennial water problems that have remained unresolved for decades have boomeranged to haunt a council which has been thrashing its hands about for a lasting solution.

The city council’s decision to increase the period residents go without water from two to three days each week has created serious fears among residents of a possible disease outbreak.

Last week, council increased the water shedding period from 48 to 72 hours to try and stretch dwindling supplies. Council has also reduced the water rationing limits where working class suburbs are entitled to 300 litres per day down from 400 litres, while the eastern suburbs have been allotted 350 litres per day.

The decision has changed residents’ life patterns. “We make sure we collect enough water to last us three days and store it in containers,” Kholisa says.

“But I am not sure council effects any savings because when the water comes back onstream, we empty whatever is left in the containers and refill with fresh supplies. Everyone is scared of being caught short. So, at times people store more than they need to hedge against any eventualities.”

Officials admit the measures instituted have done little to meet intended water conservation targets.

“There is a slight reduction in consumption. We had hoped consumption would match the 90 mega litres we are able to pump from our waterworks but the current consumption stands at 110 mega litres,” deputy director of engineering services Ian Mthunzi says.   

Mthunzi says there is a possibility of increasing water abstraction from Nyamandlovu aquifer threefold from the current five mega litres to 15 mega litres provided the rest of 77 boreholes meant to augment water supplies come are functional.  

“Some do not have electric motors while others are not connected to Zesa (power supply). We are currently pumping water for only eight hours due to load-shedding,” Mthunzi says.

Apart from the boreholes on the Nyamandlovu aquifer, there are 355 boreholes in the city for clinics and schools.

But residents say the boreholes constantly run dry and cannot cope with demand.

Water woes have dogged the de-industrialised city battling to attract investors.

Analysts have pointed out the city’s water woes as one of the major drawbacks putting off prospective investors.

Businessmen and politicians chorus disconcert over seeming inertia by government to complete the Gwayi-Shangani dam touted as a panacea for the city’s perennial water shortages.  

Last Friday Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party, which dominates Bulawayo city council, held an emergency meeting with its structures to explain steps being taken to alleviate the water situation when council has decommissioned two of its five major supply dams at Mzingwane and Upper Ncema.

Skeptic residents, having lived on empty promises for decades, are not optimistic a permanent solution is within grasp.

Mthandazo Ngwenya of Luveve suburb says water rationings getting out of hand as residents fear for their lives, yet they are paying monthly water charges.

“My fear is that there will be a disease outbreak because one cannot store water for three days and expect it to be safe to drink,” Ngwenya says.

Adds Ngwenya: “Where I stay there are six families which all want to relieve themselves from time to time using the toilet. With no water to flush we resort to other means which are not environmentally friendly. Authorities should act faster on this crisis because a scenario like 2008 cholera outbreak might befall us.”

In its budget proposals, council has proposed to levy ratepayers a dollar each to go towards raising $4,5 million council needs to finance the duplication of the Insiza dam pipeline.

Council finance manager Kimpton Ndimande says if residents accept the proposal, the city would raise $5 million for the project. But for many residents, the concern is more immediate.

Julia Machaya of Entumbane suburb says children are unsafe due to their vulnerability to water-borne diseases like typhoid and cholera.

“I fear for my little ones who are vulnerable to diseases because they play with dirt, but there is no water to bath them and even for sanitation. Toilets are blocking and sewage effluent is running everywhere. Such conditions are unhealthy for kids and adults alike.

“We demand that council does something right away before the worst happens in this city,” Machaya says.
When a cholera outbreak ravaged Harare leading to the death of close to 4 000 people, Bulawayo was spared the scourge because its water sources are free from industrial pollution unlike Harare’s. Bulawayo’s water supply dams are situated about 40 kilometres away in rural Matabeleland.

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