In Thembekile Gwebu’s yard under the roof leaves stands a curious giant green plastic container with a plastic pipe connected to the gutter.
She has been asked a number of times by curious visitors and passers-by what the contraption is, and she happily explains.
Gwebu, a 60-something-year-old widow, uses the container for rainwater harvesting.
At a time when the Bulawayo municipality has introduced water rationing as part of long-existing efforts to conserve the disappearing water from supply dams, the coming of the rain in this city, traditionally characterised by low rainfall, has been welcomed by residents like Gwebu as an opportunity to use rainwater collected from roofs for their daily needs.
“This helps during the time when there is water rationing,” Gwebu says. Even when there is water running from the taps, the harvested rainwater has come handy in reducing consumption of council-supplied water she would otherwise pay for.
Gwebu is one of a growing number of residents in this city of more than two million who have rediscovered the old method of water conservation through harvesting rainwater for domestic use, when in the past many had relegated this practice to rural communities.
However, the continued water woes in this city have awakened many here to how this naturally available resource can be harnessed and exploited.
“I use the rainwater I harvest for drinking, cooking, laundry and also in the toilet,” Gwebu said, adding that the water stored in the 2 500-litre bowser can last her up to a month.
Not only does this conserve the municipal water from supply dams but she also does not pay her water bill for the month.
Rainwater harvesting is increasingly being encouraged across the Southern Africa Development Community, Sadc, as an alternative provision of clean drinking water at a time when some communities are failing to adequately exploit groundwater amid concerns of contamination and pollution.
These household rainfall catchment systems have also been commended by Sadc’s Water Division, as the rainwater harvested from roofs does not require treatment before consumption and is also a means to mitigate the effects of long dry spells in cities like Bulawayo.
“I was in Maun, Botswana, recently and I was impressed at the extent to which rainwater is being used,” said Barbra Lopi, communications and events officer with the Sadc Groundwater and Drought Management Project.
“Nearly every household, and almost all schools, have a rainwater collection facility and the water collected is used for gardening and in the toilets and for laundry.”
The Sadc Groundwater and Drought Management Project says up to 70% of people in the region rely on groundwater, but the shift to rainwater harvesting will ensure better sustainability as this resource is not depleted by falling water tables.
The interest in rainwater harvesting is also critical in ensuring that countries that have struggled to provide adequate access to clean water meet their Millennium Development Goal 7, that seeks to provide safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015.
The NGO Plan Action says rainwater harvesting in Zimbabwe’s low rainfall southern regions, through which Bulawayo has assisted to improvelivelihoods with improved harvests, has meant that households have been able to reverse the threat of food insecurity.
“Even for areas like urban Bulawayo, rainwater harvesting has been successful in ensuring that households can store much-needed extra water even when the rains are low,” said Gilbert Nyoni, field officer with Plan Action. “People need containers that can adequately store the water for extended use,” Sibanda said.
While a few residents like Gwebu have benefited from huge bowsers donated by World Vision in conjunction with the Swedish International Development Agency, Sida, others like Sithembeni Dube use makeshift containers to harvest the rainwater.
“I use these dishes and jerry cans and it’s painful for me when there is so much rain and I fail to trap the water,” Dube said, expressing a common sentiment among residents here who have rediscovered the benefits of rainwater harvesting.
In the 1990s, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches set up the Rainwater Harvesting Programme in Bulawayo after a realisation that even if more boreholes were sunk in this dry city, they would only be a drain on the water table and would also require constant maintenance.
And today, with the growing awareness among households, this could be what the doctor ordered as the rains continue to pound the city albeit intermittently.
“This has been particularly helpful to vulnerable groups like the elderly, who lack resources to pay for council water,” said Pastor James Choruma, who works on the implementation of community-based sustainable development initiatives in Bulawayo.
“I think what is important is that this interest in water harvesting will benefit residents who have learnt to live with water cuts and burst sewers, so if they are able to store as much water as they can, it means they have water to flush their toilets,” Choruma said.
The Department of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Zimbabwe says it is fairly easy for residents to adopt rainwater harvesting technologies as they are cheap, and this can go a long way toward improving environmental management among poor communities.
This, the department says, can also assist in the resuscitation of wetlands. For Gwebu meanwhile, harvesting rainwater is a boon that she hopes will give her enough water to drink when other residents make a beeline to congested municipality boreholes scattered across Bulawayo when taps run dry.