Thomas Njini is used to working with burst sewers and water pipes.
It is a daily experience for him to respond to calls where he has to shovel human waste to clear blocked sewers. It is a job he continues to do with unenviable dedication in this city of two million people.
“It’s my job, what can I do?” says Njini, one of the municipality’s staff who work around the clock to clear blocked water and sewer works around the city.
But, according to municipality officials, the work is slowly easing a year after the city embarked on the ambitious Bulawayo Water and Sanitation Emergency Response (Bowser) project.
The Bowser project was launched in 2010 under the Australian government’s overseas aid programme, AusAid.
The $4,6 million grant has been used to replace and also unblock old pipes that were built before Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 and which have become part of the urban landscape here.
Raw sewage and flowing treated water have, over the years, become a daily occurrence, and there are constant concerns about the spread of waterborne diseases. In 2008 a cholera outbreak claimed around 4 000 lives across the country.
According to council officials and implementing partners, World Vision, the city was losing up to 50% of its purified water due to leaks and burst pipes.
But thanks to the project, this had been reduced to around 20% as of April.
In a statement earlier this year, World Vision national director Edward Brown said sewer blockages in the city had decreased from about 250 per day to around nine a day in the first quarter of this year.
“The project seeks the removal of excrement from blocked sites for appropriate disposal and we will clear the blockages through mechanical jetting. We will also seek to clean water through the city’s piped water system,” said council spokesman Bongiwe Ngwenya in a statement to local journalists.
The project is located in high-density areas that have been the most affected by burst sewers and old water mains.
While the municipality has not quantified the cost of the water lost through leaks, the mending of leaks and replacement of old pipes is welcome news for a city that remains under water stress.
Supply dams are constantly under threat of running dry and are unable to provide enough water to residents of the city.
For Njini and those on the frontline of dealing with these water, sanitation and hygiene challenges, this is a positive step forward.
“I think this is welcome news as, honestly, not many people love a job where contact with human waste is part of the job,” Njini said.
“This is a long-term exercise as we hope this (the replacement of old pipes) to stretch beyond the 18 months Bowser is expected to run,” said a municipality official who did not wish to be named.
“Bulawayo is an old city and working on a complete rehabilitation of waterworks and sewer systems will need much more than the Australian grant,” the official said.
Bulawayo Mayor Thaba Moyo says the city would need around $100 million for a total overhaul of the city’s water and sewer works.
It is money that the local authority can only source from donor agencies.
Bulawayo is one of many African cities that the United Nations Settlements Programme, UNhabitat, says have seen an exponential growth of urban populations in the past few years. But this has not been matched by infrastructure development.
An audit by the Bulawayo municipality notes that constant burst sewers are a result of the stagnant development of sewer networks despite the continued growth of the city.
And it has created problems for town planners who seek to develop new housing projects for home seekers.
Over the past two decades the city of Bulawayo has seen the creation of new residential areas.
But the council has issued housing lots in areas where there are no sewer and water works. It has forced new homeowners to turn to the bush for ablutions and to neighbouring residential areas for water.
Burst sewers and waterworks have, however, become a nationwide problem as municipalities struggle to maintain ancient infrastructure amid low budgets and long-running disputes with ratepayers.
Residents say the mending of Bulawayo’s sewers is overdue as they have been living with the threat of diseases, such as cholera, for a long time.
“This has always been one of our major concerns with the municipality — that they demand rates from us when we continue to live with burst sewers right on our doorsteps. We hope this project is indeed making a difference,” said Tholani Mkhwananzi of the Bulawayo Progressive Residents’ Association.
“Residents will only pay for a service they are getting, and it is our hope that the city saves water from these leakages from old pipes as water is something this city cannot continue losing,” he said.
The project is yet to be replicated across the country.