Why Harare’s poisoned wells are killing us, with no quick fix in sight

Residents line up at a communal borehole in Kuwadzana, Harare/AARON UFUMELI

IN MANY ways, Simudzirai Primary School in Glen View, Harare, is a microcosm of how many Zimbabweans are getting by.

By day, the privately owned school offers education to children who cannot find places in already overcrowded state schools. By night, it becomes a haven for moonlighters, many of them parents with children at the school.

Every evening, more than 100 people descend on the school to manufacture bars of soap and some liquid detergents. This project helps them pay school fees for their children.

With erratic and inadequate water supply, the school’s owners dug up a well.

This alternative, taken up by thousands of residents left with no option, has turned deadly for many in the capital.

Last week, laboratory tests found the school’s water source to be contaminated by vibrio cholerae, the bacteria which causes cholera, a waterborne diarrhoeal disease which has killed 30 people since the beginning of this month, mostly in Glen View and neighbouring Budiriro.


A combination of the capital’s inadequate water supply and a broken sewer system has produced deadly results — fatal bouts of diarrheal outbreaks.

Harare’s recurring cholera crises are the deadly culmination of decades of neglect, greed and corruption and failure to expand a system created to serve 350,000 people but which now groans under the burden of nearly 5 million residents.

Officials say Harare currently produces an average 450 megalitres of water per day, a third of daily demand of about 1,200 megalitres. A system initially designed for 350,000 people now has to meet the demands of what has become a 4,5 million-resident metropolis, including the satellite towns of Chitungwiza, Norton, Ruwa and Epworth.

The last major upgrade of the system was undertaken in 1994, when capacity was raised to meet the water demands of 1.5 million residents.

A $144 million Chinese upgrade, which began in 2013, stalled after Beijing refused to release half of the funds as relations between China and Zimbabwe went sour over Harare’s poor loan service record. Only $70 million of the total loan had been disbursed when the China Export Import Bank pulled the plug. But that was not before top council officials had helped themselves to a reported 21 new vehicles from the project funds.

Flowing sewage is a common sight in many Harare suburbs


The Chinese upgrade was expected to raise water production to 620 megalitres, still way below requirements, while also increasing the capacity of waste treatment at Firle and Crowborough.

Harare’s sewer treatment plants have 220 megalitre nameplate capacity, against current inflows of nearly 300 megalitres.

Harare’s pipeline network is 60 years old, yet it was meant to last just 15 years. This produces frequent incidents of burst sewers.

The sewer network also suffers frequent blockages, although the municipality says the situation has improved from an astonishing 50 blockages per suburb per day, to 10 daily blockages per suburb currently. Reaction time by council staff, to attend to blockages is around six hours, according to officials who also say the target is to attend to faults in under two hours.

With Harare’s huge water supply deficit, its broken sewer pipe network and the proliferation of thousands of wells which now service many households, it is unsurprising that, after the inevitable seepage and contamination of these water sources, the capital has become a constant hotspot for cholera and typhoid.

Apart from the seepage of effluent into sources of drinking water, another major problem arises from the diminished capacity of Harare’s satellite towns — which have all seen an explosion in informal settlements over the past two decades — to manage their waste.

The result is the increased flow of waste into Manyame River, which feeds Harare’s four major sources – Lake Chivero, Manyame, Prince Edward and Harava dams. This, in turn, results in the increase in water treatment chemicals needed to process the raw water into potable supply. Harare requires $3 million, monthly, for water treatment chemicals, among them aluminum sulphate, sulphuric acid, chlorine and activated carbon. Some chemicals are imported, and the City has to wait in line at central bank for an allocation of increasingly scarce foreign currency.

As if that is not enough, overworked filters at the water treatment plants are frequently choked and require backwashing at more frequent intervals, three times a day, than the recommended once every four days. In the process, water losses from backwashing amount to 105 megalitres per day, instead of 17.5 megalitres that would be recorded if the process was done once in 48 hours.

In total, Harare records an unsustainable rate of loss of treated water, around 60%, which is three times acceptable levels, according to the World Bank.

Children tiptoe through a pool caused by burst water pipes in Warren Park, Harare/ANGELA JIMU


But it is not just the water that is leaking. The biggest leakages Harare suffers are at the hands of its top officials.

Over the past few years, senior council employees have been arraigned before the courts on various charges of defrauding the City of as much as $35 million – the equivalent of a year’s supply of treatment chemicals – in water-related scams.

In cases still before the courts, current and former council officials set up briefcase companies and handed themselves multi-million dollar contracts to work on various components of Harare’s water and sanitation system, often inflating charges and not doing any work.

Former town clerk Tendai Mahachi, former water director Christopher Zvobgo and waste water manager Simon Muserere were accused of defrauding the City of $35 million in corrupt procurement deals.

Water rights activists also frequently accuse council of handing chemicals for water treatment to politically connected suppliers who inflate prices and further prejudice the municipality.

Harare says the city has 192,000 connections, but water experts say as many as 50,000 connections are not on the council database. The Harare province has 534,000 households, according to the 2012 census.

Residents have dug up unprotected wells, which expose them to contaminated water/NEWSDAY


With the City’s failure to supply potable water to Harare, residents have resorted to boreholes. The assumption is that borehole water is cleaner and safer. The bad news is that it isn’t. A third of Harare’s boreholes are contaminated, according to City of Harare.

In 2013, council surveyed at least 114 boreholes in Tafara, Mabvuku, Caledonia, Hatcliffe, Budiriro, Glen View, Warren Park, Dzivaresekwa, Highfield and other western suburbs. They found that over a third of them were contaminated by faecal matter. In January 2017, Council assessed 33 boreholes in Mbare, and found that over 20 of them were contaminated.

The Environmental Management Authority has also done its own surveys. They discovered even more reason to warry; not only are city boreholes contaminated by human waste, the water is contaminated by heavy metals, especially from unlined municipal dumps such as Pomona.

During the last cholera outbreak, aid agencies drilled over 200 boreholes around Harare to provide relief. However, many of these were never maintained and could now pose a serious threat. Upmarket Harare is not spared; former Health Minister David Parirenyatwa disclosed last year that 95 percent of Borrowdale boreholes surveyed were contaminated.

More and more houses are being built closer together. Coupled with the leakage from sewer pipes, chances of contamination are higher.

The hunger for water also means the water table below Harare is getting lower.  According to experts, Harare now has too many boreholes – many of them unregistered – and excessive extraction of ground water has created what they call “a cone of depression” around the boreholes. This means poor quality water is flowing into the aquifer.

Hygiene is also a grave issue. According to a survey by the Ministry of Health in 2017, 55 percent of people surveyed had faecal matter on their hands. Open defecation is also high. In Zimbabwe, diarrhoea is responsible for 10 percent of deaths of children under the age of five, according to official data.

WAITING FOR WATER…the Kunzvi Dam project has been on the cards since the 1990s


Because Harare harvests its raw water downstream, where water quality is at its poorest due to pollution from the City’s settlements and its industries upstream, the city uses a total of seven different water chemicals to treat its water. Other towns use only two.

To solve this, Harare needs a new source of water upstream.

For more than two decades now, government has talked up Kunzvi Dam as the solution to Harare’s water woes.

Initially mooted in the mid 1990s with construction supposed to have started in 1996 to address an impending deficit in Harare from 2000, Kunzvi remains a pipe dream to this day.

Kunzvi was supposed to follow major Italian funded and built dam projects at Mazvikadei in Mashonaland West and Osborne in Manicaland, which were completed in 1988 and 1994, respectively.

However, Zimbabwe’s fallout with the West at the turn of the century scuppered the Kunzvi plan and the country has had to look elsewhere to fund the project, whose cost is now estimated at $650 million.

For years, it has been reported that Zimbabwe had agreed a deal with Sinohydro, the biggest hydropower construction firm, for the construction of Kunzvi. Nothing was heard of this, until April, when it was again said that a new deal had been reached. President Emmerson Mnangagwa had “reached financial closure” with Sinohydro and the China Communications Construction Company for construction to begin, it was reported.

But with no work having commenced on the proposed 160 million cubic metre reservoir, Harare cannot expect an immediate end to its water crisis.

Zimbabwe’s most recently completed dam project, Tugwi Mukosi, took almost 20 years to complete. Tugwi Mukosi, where work started in 1998, took so long to complete because it was largely funded from government’s own meagre resources.

Mazvikadei and Osborne, built by foreign money, took three years each and have more than double Kunzvi’s capacity.

In the meantime, Harare will have to manage its demand, through pre-paid metering, while ensuring a more efficient water distribution network which minimises losses.

With a final solution still elusive, and desperate residents left with no alternative, we may yet see the tragedy of Simudzirai Primary School repeating itself elsewhere.