Getting our priorities right on water: Part 2

HARARE - In debating the issues of how a society can deliver a better quality and standard of living to its people, we need to consider how we can deliver basic essentials — in this series we have covered so far, education, health and shelter. 

This week, we need to look at how we can deliver two other essentials which are basic to all life — clean water and efficient sanitation services.

Water, not food is the next major crisis facing the world.

There are many reasons for this — population growth, urbanisation, rising incomes, climate changes, old infrastructure, money and raw water resources themselves.

We face a situation (and Zimbabwe is no exception) where not only is the overall population increasing (more live births than deaths) but our population is becoming increasingly urbanised. 

By 2050, the globe will have to cope with 9 billion people, 70 percent of whom will be crowded into our Towns and Cities.

The mega-city (more than 10 million inhabitants) will be replaced by the city with 100 million inhabitants or more. 

Harare, which is the main focus of this problem (opportunity?) in Zimbabwe is growing, population wise, at double digit rates. 

Already greater Harare has over six million inhabitants. This rapid growth is creating problems and needs that are beyond the cities’ capacity in its present form. 

Yet the quality of life for these billions of people will depend, not on central government but on urban councils.

Bulawayo faces another different kind of problem which will affect a growing number of cities around the World and in particular in Africa. 

The city is in a region that is progressively becoming drier.

Already the city has been under rationing for more than 20 years, no new water supplies have been developed and its existing system is no longer able to meet the needs of its people. 

The fact that Bulawayo does better at this than Harare is purely due to lower growth.

So how do we tackle this problem?

The first step is probably to regard this problem as an opportunity. 

A clean water supply may be a human right, but perhaps the only way to deliver such rights sustainably may well be to treat water as a business. 

All major western cities are already there and in some cases water companies are responsible for whole regions and several cities. 

This approach has advantages as water resources can be managed regionally rather than city by city. 

Johannesburg has a very successful water company and Zambia has followed this example. 

Here we still treat water as a part of our urban councils responsibility. 

The proposal some years ago to centralise this function in the Zimbabwe National Roads Agency (Zinara) would have been a complete disaster as has been well demonstrated by the inability of Zinara to manage even its own limited mandate of bulk water supplies. 

Instead it has been an expensive add on to the “cost of doing business” in Zimbabwe and in my view should wound up and its functions returned to the cities and the rural district councils.

The management of watersheds was always done better by the ICA system but this has completely collapsed as part of the collateral damage done by the land reform program.

We build cities — the basic water system of Harare was designed for a city the size of Gweru, then we fail to expand it in line with demand and the distribution infrastructure depreciates and it is not upgraded or replaced. 

So although Harare pumps and cleans enough water for all its residents, less than half get water and then it’s of dubious quality.

Distribution losses are 50 percent or more. 

I do not think the urban councils are capable of dealing with these problems or managing the systems properly. 

My own view is that all urban councils should hand over their water departments to a company set up for this purpose who will deal with water as a business — perhaps paying a tax of 20 percent of revenues to the city to cover other costs.

Then I think it is time for every urban council to be instructed to start recycling their effluent. 

Harare already does so by allowing 95 percent of all water borne waste to run into the cities bulk water sources untreated. 

It is no wonder we have to deal with cholera and typhoid as endemic diseases. 

People think that any formal recycling programme will diminish the quality of the water they are using, but that is not so.

In Botswana and Namibia recycling urban water waste is mandatory.

The economics of such an arrangement is clear — we pump raw water from our dams to a purification plant, treat it with chemicals and run it through filters and then pump it many kilometres to reservoirs in the city and distribute it to consumers — up to 70 percent ends up in the sewer system and finds its way to our sewerage plants — build at huge expense and then releasing the surplus water back into a river system — in Bulawayo’s case the water is drawn from one side of the city and released on the other side — two completely separate water sheds. In Harare it is all one system.

It costs us on average 70 cents a cubic metre to get water into circulation and we sell it for about a dollar on average. 

Any recovered water from a good recycling system would have all its costs covered and show a profit at 70 cents. 

On top of that the city can simply set standards for the recycled water and blend it into the main system or use it for special purposes in the city. 

If such a system was introduced to Bulawayo, the city would not need new water sources for many years and in addition its effluent would be properly managed. 

The same company could do both functions.

The same principle should be applied to solid waste management — all waste has value and a privately managed solid waste system would include a regular collection system — probably cheaper than the present council managed system and then a whole industry to deal with the waste downstream before it is dumped. 

Waste recovery would include recycling paper and plastic and using waste to drive a power plant.

Anyone who lives in the northern suburbs of Harare knows that the simple practice of dumping our rubbish in a field can create nightmarish conditions. 

Thousands of people make a living by sorting the waste on the dumps but if it catches fire, the toxic fumes threaten whole communities and burn for weeks at a time. 

They are unsightly and expensive.

It is not as if these are new problems — all cities have had to tackle these issues and there are numerous of examples of best practice. 

Why not sponsor a tour of other cities to see what they are doing and take the best and adapt them to our circumstances?

 Is this urgent — very much so, as we simply cannot continue on the path that we are currently following?

If we do nothing, then I am very much afraid that urbanisation in Zimbabwe will be synonymous with a lower quality of life associated with diseases that really belong to history.

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