The Water Crisis in Bulawayo

The last time a new water source was constructed for the supply of raw water to Bulawayo was over 30 years ago, apart from the aquifer scheme that was meant to deliver 40 000 cubic metres of water a day but which has never exceeded 16 000 cubic metres. At that time the City was much smaller than it is today and consumption demand has more than quadrupled to 150 000 to 200 000 cubic metres of water a day.

When the supply dams of Bulawayo were constructed (mainly by the Bulawayo City Council) they were designed to hold three years supplies of raw water for the City. Because the City lies in a semi arid zone, this is considered the minimum needed to ensure that supplies could be maintained over the period of a series of drier than normal seasons.

Given the growth in consumption, local residents and the City Council have expressed concern about the need for new raw water sources and many different schemes have been proposed and attempted. The supply of water from the Zambezi River has been talked about since the 1920's and has been the subject of several studies and investment proposals. More recently the Gwaai/Shangani Dam has been proposed together with a pipeline to the City. No progress has been made on any of these grandiose schemes.

Now, after several years of inadequate run off (as opposed to rainfall - they are not directly related) the 5 existing supply dams are nearly exhausted. Three have been decommissioned and of the two remaining sources only one (Insiza) has significant water resources left. The main difficulty being the fact that this dam is unable to deliver sufficient raw water to the system because of limitations to the flow which the gravity fed line can pass.

As result, Bulawayo is now receiving less than a quarter of its needs and hundreds of thousands of homes are without a consistent supply of clean water from Municipal sources. This affects the high-density townships most as these are often at the very end of the distribution system. If run off this summer is again inadequate, the City could run out of water altogether and this would have catastrophic implications.

There are four alternative sources that could help alleviate the existing shortages. The first would be the installation of pumps at Insiza Dam to push water deliveries from this dam to 70 000 cubic metres a day. The second would be boreholes - several hundred have been drilled in the City area and another 70 on a major aquifer to the north of the City. A number of boreholes have been drilled in the high-density areas in recent years and fitted with hand pumps and these are being used today to try and meet the basic needs of the communities in which they are located.

If the State had consented to the request by the City a year ago to declare the City a Water Emergency Area then the Council could have taken control of borehole water supplies and this might help in certain areas with good ground water.

The aquifer could also supply some 15 000 cubic metres of water a day - 10 per cent of demand and a 25 per cent increase in present water supplies but Zinwa - the Authority that controls the system, has allowed this system to fall into disrepair and despite the allocation of funds to the Authority a year ago for rehabilitation purposes, no progress has been made and only 2 000 cubic metres of water is being received from this source.

The third option would be the supply of water from the Mtshabezi Dam in the Matopo Hills some 25 kilometers from the nearest water intake point for the Bulawayo pump station at Ncema. In an emergency such as this, some 30 000 cubic metres of water a day could be pumped from the dam to the City even though the long term allocation of water from this source is only 5 000 cubic metres per day. Despite promises, progress on this project has been slow and there are no signs that it will be ready in time to assist with the situation in the near future.

In the longer term the City has accepted proposals to recycle wastewater recovered from its effluent system and pump the recovered water to the purification plant for blending and processing prior to distribution to the City. This project, which could be developed as a public/private partnership, is capable of yielding up to 60 000 cubic metres of water per day and would extend the life of the existing raw water supply dams. An initial phase based on the effluent plants at SAST 1 and 2 would yield 20 000 cubic metres of water a day and this would constitute the fourth option for the City

The immediate implementation of these four measures would create the space for the City to pursue new raw water sources, as appropriate, in the region. There are several options for this that could be considered. However, no progress on such a system is possible if the State persists in its demand for the City to relinquish control of its water purification and reticulation system as well as its effluent system to Zinwa without compensation.

So the people of Bulawayo suffer water shortages and the resultant threats to public health while the State dithers over new projects and denies the City the capability to do the job itself as it always did in the past. Any new administration that comes to power in Zimbabwe will have to make swift decisions to remedy this situation and one thing seems quite clear - the energy and capacity of the people of the City must be harnessed to pursue the solutions to the water crisis in order to ensure it does not recur.

An emergency programme could be implemented immediately by a public/private sector partnership to undertake the development of the four options outlined above. These are: -

1. Take over the aquifer from Zinwa and refurbish all boreholes and get the yield up to 25 000 cubic metres per day.
2. Install high volume pumps at Insiza to raise deliveries from this dam by 25 000 cubic metres per day.
3. Construct a pump station at Mtshabezi Dam and a 25 kilometer pipeline to deliver 25 000 cubic metres per day to Ncema.
4. Install a recovery system for wastewater at SAST to recover 15 000 cubic metres of water per day for recycling to Criterion Water Works.

The combined effect of this operation would be to restore water supplies to Bulawayo to 140 000 cubic metres per day - enough for restricted full supply to the City. Since the State clearly does not have the capacity or the resources to undertake this emergency programme it should be left to the private sector working with the Bulawayo City Council. Under this arrangement Zinwa would revert to maintaining the 6 supply dams for Bulawayo and would wholesale raw water to the City from those dams.

Such an exercise would do nothing to obviate the necessity for the construction of a new raw water source for the City and the alternatives for such a project should be immediately re-examined. The possible projects should be costed and evaluated on the basis of their ability to meet the future needs of the City at a cost that when blended with the cost of water from existing dams, is acceptable to the residents.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 7th September 2007