Ask Ndomupeyi Mazuva. Every day, Ndomupeyi, a housewife in a working-class neighbourhood of Katanga, Norton, Harare’s dormitory town, rises at 3:30am and begins brooding about water and electricity.
It is a rare morning when water trickles through the pipes. More often, not a drop will come out and Ndomupeyi has to travel 2,5 kilometres to neighbouring Knowe suburb.
She waits for the night to fade into daylight, knocks at the gates of the nearby houses, knocks again, waits some more and worries whether enough buckets are filled in the bathroom in case no water comes out of the taps.
“Your whole day goes just planning how you’ll get water,” a weary Ndomupeyi (40) recounted one morning. “You become so twitchy all the time.”
With the country’s battered economy recovering at an unenviable pace, working class people — like Ndomupeyi — are reduced to foraging for water.
Their predicament testifies to the government’s astonishing inability to deliver basic services to its citizens at a time when things are looking up in Zimbabwe.
The crisis, decades in the making, has grown as fast as the economic and political decline of the country in recent years.
A soaring unemployment rate and a vast and thirsty farm belt have all put new strains on a weak, ill-kept public water and sanitation network.
The combination has left water scarce in some places, contaminated in others and in cursed surfeit for thousands each year.
Today the problems threaten Zimbabwe’s ability to fortify its sagging farms, sustain its economic growth and make its cities and towns healthy and habitable.
At stake is not only Zimbabwe’s economic aspirations, but its status as the region’s major economic player.
“This water abstraction is soaring above the natural rate of recharge from rainfall and/or run-off. The consequences of this situation generates a lot of negative impacts notably on water and soil quality, already aggravated by changes in climate,” said Daniel Zimmer, associate director of the World Water Council, in a recent interview.
“And so these changes are characterised by extremes moving from drought to heavier rains of irregular wet seasons that can provoke erosion and water logging. If we become rich or poor as a nation, it’s because of water. In arid areas, where water symbolises communal security, the tendency is for water to be perceived as a prime factor in determining the course of regional relations.”
Conflicts over water mirror the most vexing changes facing Zimbabwe: the competing demands of urban and rural areas, the stubborn divide between rich and poor, and the balance between the needs of a thriving economy and a fragile environment.
Harare’s water woes are typical of those of many cities and towns in the country.
Countrywide, the urban water distribution network is in such disrepair that no town can provide water from the public tap for more than two hours a day.
An even bigger problem than demand is disposal.
Harare can neither quench its thirst, nor adequately get rid of the ever bigger heaps of sewage that it produces.
A significant percentage of the population is not connected to the public sewerage system.
Those issues are amplified nationwide. More than 2,7 million Zimbabweans, or roughly one-quarter of the population, do not have adequate sanitation or clean water.
Largely for lack of clean water, thousands of children below 10 die each year, according to reports.
Although the government says many people have access to the public water supply, most of these include sources that are going dry during this hot season or are contaminated.
The window to address the crisis is closing. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the problems by causing extreme bouts of weather — heat, deluge or drought.
The fabled Manyame River on whose banks Norton was born, coursing through the south-west of Harare, becomes a noxious black thread because of water hyacinth and sewage. Masses of raw sewage float on top.
It is hardly safe for fish, let alone bathing or drinking. The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) has dragged Harare City Council (HCC) to court for allegedly discharging 2,02 million litres (202 megalitres) of raw sewage daily into streams and rivers that feed into its main water source.
This translates to 33% of the water that council treats and pumps into its reticulation system per day.
On average, the city’s water treatment plants have the capacity to purify about 600 megalitres (600 million litres) a day.
As such the level of fecal coliform, one measure of filth, in the river could be more than the safe limit for bathing.
In addition, Norton’s inhabitants have doubled over the last few years, with more farms being converted into residential areas, and now sit Maridale, Katanga, Ngoni, Trafalgar and Galloway.
A new residential area upstream Whitecliff and Tongogara sprouted during the land reform further putting a strain on Lake Chivero, Harare’s main water source.
As the number of people living — and defecating — in the river catchment areas soars, on average more than half of the sewage they pour into the river goes untreated.
Norton Town Council (NTC), which buys water from Harare, says it will build a water treatment plant as well as up to six aquifers to stem water problems, yet the dormitory town sits in-between lakes Chivero and Manyame. In effect Manyame River flows through Norton.
Harare director of water and sanitation Engineer Christopher Zvobgo says the city has eight sewage treatment plants but only Firle and Crowborough are in sound working order.
“Of the eight sewer treatment plants only Firle and Crowborough are working, and producing 144 megalitres and 58 megalitres respectively.”
So far the construction of more sewage treatment plants has done little to stanch the flow, in part because sewage lines are badly clogged and because power failures leave them inoperable for hours at a time.
HCC has already been issued with two tickets, whose amounts vary, and ordered to rectify the raw sewage spill but the situation has not improved at all because the quantity of sewage is constantly increasing.
Now the matter is before the Harare Magistrates’ Courts while residents continue to drink unsafe water.
To make matters worse, many Harare neighbourhoods like Ruwa, Norton and partly Chitungwiza, are not even connected to sewage pipes. Open wells and sewers hem the narrow lanes of the high-density suburbs. Every alley carries their stench.
Some canals are so clogged with trash and sludge that they are a mosquitoes’ paradise. Malaria and cholera are regular visitors.
Not long ago, two young children fell into such uncovered wells and drowned in Katanga and Trafalgar. Their parents found them floating in the open wells near their homes.
Ndomupeyi has the misfortune of living in a neighbourhood on this poorly-served western fringe town of Harare.
As Harare’s water supply runs through the 40km network of battered pipes, a large percentage of water leaks out along the way. By the time it reaches Norton, there is hardly enough.
On average, she gets almost nothing a month from the tap and a water bill from NTC that fluctuates between $30 and $50, at its whimsy, Ndomupeyi complains, since there is never meter reading anyway.
That means she has to look for other sources, scrimp and scavenge to meet her family’s water needs from open sources.
Nearly everyone in Katanga households relies at least in some part on such wells. It is probably one of the principal reasons ground water in Norton is drying up faster than virtually elsewhere in the country.
Still, the new posh houses sprouting across Norton and its suburbs of Knowe, Nharira and Galloway sell themselves by ensuring uninterrupted water supply — usually by drilling wells deep underground.
The daily hustle for water in Harare and its dormitory towns only adds to the strains on the public system.
Yet the most telling paradox of the city’s water crisis is that Harare is not entirely lacking in water. The problem is distribution, hampered by a feeble infrastructure and lack of resources, according to Zvobgo.
So the city’s pipe network remains a punctured mess. That means, like everything else in this country, some people have more than enough, and others too little.
The slums built higgledy-piggledy behind Ndomupeyi’s neighbourhood under government’s Operation Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle have no public pipes at all. The women here waste their days looking for water in surrounding suburbs.
Ironically, elsewhere, where the nation’s top politicians have their official homes, the average daily water supply is three times what finally arrives even in Ndomupeyi’s neighhbourhood.
Ndomupeyi rations her water day to day as if Norton were a desert. She uses the leftover water from washing plates to water her garden. She recycles soapy water from the laundry to mop her house.
And even when she gets it, the quality is another question altogether.
Her well water has receded over the years thus she travels to nearby suburbs to get well water sometimes murky brown.
Still, Ndomupeyi says, she can hardly afford to shun it, because beggars can’t be choosers. It’s a precious liquid.