The Big Flush

The City where I live and have my constituency is called Bulawayo – a rough anglicized version of an Ndebele word that means “the place of slaughter”. It was called that nearly 200 years ago when it was settled by a tough battle weary, Ndebele Impi (or regiment) led by Mzilikazi who had decided to take his men and flee across the northern boundary of the Zulu Kingdom (the Limpopo River) rather than go home and face the wrath of Shaka, King of the Zulu’s. Just to be sure there was enough space, he crossed through the Matobo Hills and founded his own capital on a stream catchment for the Khami River.

Once settled they quickly established a reign of terror and mayhem over all of central Africa, each winter his men were sent out to subjugate regional tribes and bring home cattle and other loot (it is still said that Ndebele women are very beautiful because they are all Shona in origin). Those tribes that resisted were simply wiped out. Sixty years later, my own forefathers arrived and in a series of battles defeated the Ndebele King at the time, a man called Lobengula.The King burnt his capital to the ground, fled north and after a final skirmish, where his protecting Impi’s led by a man called Khumalo wiped out the pursuing white column and then the leadership of the Ndebele committed suicide near the Zambezi River.

The whites built their own capital on the site, kept the name but relocated it just a few kilometers further north. By 1922 there were 7000 settlers in the City and by 1950 it was the largest industrial center in Africa, north of Johannesburg. It became and still is, a regional transport hub and a major service center for the mining industry. Those early settlers were an extraordinary bunch. 40 per cent came from Scotland, there was a significant Jewish community and this rather unusual ethnic mix gave rise to a City Council that was both far seeing and tight fisted.

The town was planned in Glasgow and called for a water purification plant at the highest point in the local landscape. From this point water was provided by gravity to the whole City. Dams were built, first close to the purification plant on local streams, then on the Khami and the Umgusa Rivers. As demand grew the settlers built more dams – culminating in the massive Mayfair Dam on the Insiza River some 100 kilometers from the City. In all they built five Dams on this general catchment but in each case, it was so engineered that the Dams would gravity feed a central pump station at Ncema River, 42 kilometers from the purification plant in Bulawayo. By Independence this simple, cost effective and efficient system was able to supply 200 000 cubic metres of pure, clean water, perhaps the best quality water in the region, to a City of some 600 000 citizens. This was twice the actual demand of the City and the dams held three years supply.

In the ensuing years, the City has grown to a population of more than 1,2 million. The Mayfair Dam has been heightened and can now store over 200 million m2 of water when full. After Independence the Mtshabezi Dam was built but will only be connected to the water system later this year. Because of the growth in the population the raw water sources of the City only hold perhaps 18 months supply and when, as happened last year, we get no run off into our dams, the City faces a crisis.

Right now, two of the five basic supply dams are empty, a third will dry up in November and another in January. When that happens we will be down to 40 000 cubic metres of water per day plus whatever we can pump from Mtshabezi (about 15 000 m2 per day) and from an aquifer just to the north west of the City (another possible 15 000 m2 a day) giving us a total of about 60 000 m2 per day. This will represent half of our basic needs.

Already we are down to 95 000 m2 per day and severe water rationing is in place. Because of the way the system was designed, the more remote areas get no water and this means the thousands of people in the High Density Townships. At a guess I would estimate that half our population is not getting enough water for basic needs. The only hardship I personally feel is a dead and dying garden, but the problem areas are really in crisis.

The main fear is the weather, over in the Pacific region of the world, sea temperatures are rising and the Indian monsoon has been a failure, this would normally indicate a dry season. If we get a repeat of 2011/12, we are in big trouble. Even by December, we will have to start tanker delivery of water to the most affected communities.

Last week I attended a meeting called by the Prime Minister to consider what to do. We were briefed by City Engineers and Council staff and representatives of the German and Australian aid teams as well as a local NGO on what they were doing to alleviate the worst effects of the crisis. One of the measures taken is to encourage people to accumulate their waste water and then do a mass flush of their toilets at the same time each day. This has become known as the “Big Flush” and suddenly Bulawayo was on Sky, CNN and the BBC. It was global news.

One immediate result was rather unexpected – a major western donor with close historical ties to the City is considering funding an emergency supply from the Mayfair dam, the South Africans called and asked if they could help fund remedial measures. What we need is not band aid, we need to establish additional raw water sources for the City in this semi arid region and we need to make better use of what we already have.

The spirits of our ancestors lives on in the people of this unusual City. The local private sector has offered to help in the form of a local Joint Venture that will be a first in Zimbabwe. Plans are in place for a long term solution, but we need to resolve our immediate problems and that can only be done by drawing on our rich heritage and doing it ourselves, with a little bit of help from our friends.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 30th September 2012