Harare’s disgraceful water can be clean

Source: Harare’s disgraceful water can be clean | The Sunday Mail October 13, 2019

Greater Harare’s water supply is probably the worst managed and the most unfairly distributed in Zimbabwe; yet even in a severe drought, it should be possible to provide every household and every business in the city and its four satellite towns an adequate daily supply of clean and safe water.

All that is needed is the will to do so, an intolerance of the plethora of excuses, and an acceptance by the up to four million people in the vast metropolitan area that we all have a part to play, duties to be enforced, a price to pay and the need for informed pressure on councils and other authorities to manage our resources properly and efficiently.

The greatest blessing of the metropolitan area is that all its supply dams are downstream of at least significant parts of the built up areas.

The blessing is that we should never run short of raw water. Up to two thirds of the water delivered to consumers can be recycled and almost every drop of rain that falls in Harare, Chitungwiza, Epworth, Ruwa and Norton will eventually flow into the Manyame, Ruwa, Mukuvisi, Marimba, Gwebi, Muzururu and Nyatsime Rivers and so into the four Manyame River supply dams. The only area outside the dams’ combined catchment are the extreme north-eastern suburbs of Harare.

It is important that we all realise that the city and the four towns are almost self-contained as regards to water. The up-stream Manyame River flows are now low as farmers trap so much of the run-off in their own dams.

With proper management, and good investment in the necessary infrastructure, the capital metropolitan area should have a good daily flow of quality raw water from properly processed waste water.

A lot has been said about the need to preserve wetlands in the Greater Harare area.

There are many good reasons to preserve the little that remain, and this is why so many are zoned as public open spaces, school playing fields, golf courses, bird sanctuaries and the like. Four million people — and the population is growing fast — need them. And, the efforts to preserve them need to be strongly supported.

But, the argument that they will clean Harare’s raw water is highly exaggerated. If they trap even 10 percent of the run-off we are doing well and expecting them to clean our water supply is bit like trying to empty Lake Chivero with a bucket. They are in any case, with ever higher densities of housing and business premises, all overwhelmed by the huge surges of storm water after every heavy fall of rain.

The efforts to clean up our raw water before flows of filth laden with silt enter our supply dams have to be made elsewhere. The first essential is to ensure that all our waste water, the stuff that goes through the sewage treatment plants, is in fact properly treated. This was recognised decades ago and in the 1980s one of the most innovative Harare City Councils built extremely modern and large activated sludge works at Firle and Crowborough.

The treated water exiting these two plants, which together were processing around three quarters of Greater Harare’s waste, was excellent.

It was said all you needed to do was chlorinate it to make it drinking water quality, and in fact with very similar technology this is what the desert nation of Namibia does in its central urban belt.

Plans were being made to put similar plants on the Ruwa River to clean up waste from that town and the far eastern Harare suburbs, near Mount Hampden to clean up the increasing flow of waste from the Gwebi catchment, near Norton for that town, and most importantly to replace the despicable Nyatsime works treating Chitungwiza’s waste with a larger, modern and efficient plant. The original Firle and Crowborough plants won international engineering awards and were the sort of thing advanced cities in advanced countries were starting to build.

But, three decades later the first two plants lack maintenance, were never expanded as populations doubled and now discharge partly, sometimes very partly, treated sewage into Lake Chivero, turning that dam into a stinking cesspit that needs a dozen chemicals to make the water drinkable, and even then, most think the quality is dubious. The other four plants were never built and primitive works still discharge filth.

The run-off between December and March each year from all our roofs, roads, paved areas and like ― and it is a good part of our water supply — swirls down clogged drains, is filtered by uncollected garbage, is diluted with waste oil and industrial discharges, collects a load of silt from unlawful and unregulated stream-bank mealie fields, and generally reaches the lakes in a state that few farmers would offer to their cows during a drought.

Yet, a collective effort could put this whole thing right in a few years. Serious investment in restoring, upgrading and expanding the sewage treatment works would ensure the forced water recycling Greater Harare will always have actually is a blessing not a curse.

Enforcement of anti-pollution laws and by-laws, collecting garbage on time, ending erosion of stream-banks, and even ending littering will ensure that the storm water entering the lakes is clean and fresh, rather than a second source of filth.

This will mean water costs more, but that would be acceptable so long as everyone of the four million pays, and that everyone who pays directly or indirectly, was satisfied that the water and sewage engineering was efficient and totally free of corruption. This is something that few would even consider possible, let alone probable, right now.

But, we can change.