The Harare City council, like most other urban councils in Zimbabwe, is in the hands of the opposition – the Movement for Democratic Change – Alliance (MDC-A). To this end, there has been a trading of barbs between the ZANU-PF ruling party and the opposition pertaining to the state of poor service delivery, particularly in the opposition-run local urban councils. Although the opposition blames the central government particularly the previous Local Government Minister(s) for the (un)warranted interference and involvement in the smooth running and administration of the local urban councils. In defense the ruling party alleges that the opposition should own up to its failure to run cities, owing to its ineptitude, incapacity, and corruption. Opposition refutes this claim. It claims urban local governments are not given enough budgetary support by the central government to effectively discharge their duties and services – including water and sewer reticulation among others. This standoff between the two political parties (ZANU-PF as the central government) and the MDC-A (the party in local government) has engendered the complexity enveloping local municipalities in the present-day Zimbabwe, that of poor or mis-governance.
It is against such a backdrop that it came as no surprise when the Harare City Council recently announced that it was facing dwindling water levels. Thus, declaring its incapacity to continue providing regular water supplies to the Harare city residents. Inasmuch, as this claim might be tempting to believe, it is difficult to sustain. The water crisis in Harare goes beyond the existing narrative of the low water volume at Lake Chivero and Manyame dams. Even in years when Zimbabwe used to receive some relatively good rains – some suburbs were starved of the precious liquid. This explains why some suburbs have run for more than 7 years without tap water.
Harare residents queue for water at a borehole in Tafara high-density suburb, August 1, 2019, Harare, Zimbabwe (Photo by Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images)
Reverting to the issue of low water capacity, the claim is not at all convincing as earlier stated. This follows hot on the heels of yet another pronouncement by the City council officials that they had shut down the Morton Jaffray water treatment plant which provides water to Harare, Norton, Chitungwiza, and Zvimba areas, owing to the shortage of imported water treatment and purification chemicals, namely Chlorine gas. One is then left not entirely convinced on whether the closure can be attributed to low water levels or due to the unavailability of water treatment chemicals or both. However, the shutdown of this plant ignites several human rights concerns. This is taking into cognizant the fact that the Right to Water is a universally guaranteed right. For without water, there is no life, no wonder there is the adage which reads ‘Water is Life’. What is particularly worrying to note, is that even amid poor service delivery, irregular or erratic water supplies, citizens (clients/customers) are still billed by the City Councils (service provider).
On a policy level, the shutdown of the Water Treatment plant challenges the policymakers’ priorities in terms of providing clean safe and adequate water to the right holders – citizens – in relation to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Goal 6. Not only that, but it also brings to the fore questions around urban (mis-)governance in line with the principles of social accountability. But the situation is not as simple as it appears. That said, there are more complex issues bedeviling the administration of the urban local councils in Zimbabwe. Even at the backdrop of such a water crisis, which can be pronounced as a humanitarian crisis, the City councils has its priorities misplaced. The Council runs a football club and pays the coach handsomely. Not only that, but the city officials also smile all the way to the bank as they award each other hefty salaries.
To cap it all, council bureaucrats receive perks including state of the art vehicles as well as sitting and travel allowances and per diems at the expense of the lives of the ordinary citizens, the ratepayers. But the Harare and the Chitungwiza municipalities are no strangers to controversy. In the previous years, these and other numerous local urban councils have grabbed the newspaper headlines for the wrong reasons. They have been blighted with allegations of corruption, unnecessary expenditure, inefficiency, and incompetence. Even though the MDC party went on to dissolve some of the councils and dismiss the implicated officials, the damage had already been done. The party response was akin to closing the stable door after the horse has already bolted. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the cancer of corruption continues to fester within the Zimbabwean urban councils. More worrisome is that judging by the regularity and perverse nature of this trend, it seems corruption will not disappear any time soon. In seeking to shelter itself from public critique, the Harare Council also lament over the ‘defaulting of ratepayers’, arguing such a practice engenders low revenue collection. To them, this then contributes to poor service delivery including refuse collection.
But the water crisis is not only an expression of such poor local governance, but it is also an expression of a local government entity trying to adapt and survive in an era of austerity. This is nowhere more evident than in the Harare City council explanation over the closure of the Morton Jaffray Water Plant. Their argument rests on the unavailability of foreign currency to import water treatment chemicals. This revelation on itself points to the broader macroeconomic challenges facing the country. Virtually, all state and non-state entities have not been spared from the prevailing austerity measures, with, of course, the exception of government’s foreign travels and luxury as well as Ministers and legislators’ opulent lifestyle.
Taken together, until and unless the government of Zimbabwe, the politicians across the political divide prioritize the right to water, citizens will continue to bear the brunt of spending long hours and nights queuing for water at the few boreholes drilled by donor agencies in high-density suburbs. In no time, such waterholes will also run dry due to the high demand for the precious liquid. Not only that, the specter of water-borne diseases, like Typhoid and Cholera, also loom large. In 2008 cholera and Typhoid claimed many lives in the Glen View and Budiriro high-density suburbs. As the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine. Without running the risk of painting a worst-case scenario, there is no denying that without concerted pressure from citizens and residents’ associations, (humanitarian NGOs) and other social movements, the realization of the right to safe and clean water will remain a chimera in much of the Zimbabwean urban cities. In this vein, it should be underscored that choreographed short term measures and politicking by the politicians only have a limit. What is needed is a long term practical solution to the water crisis afflicting the Zimbabwean cities and towns.
If there has been a better opportunity to act, now is the time. Citizens should stand up, demand and claim the right to safe, clean and adequate water from the local and central government as enshrined under the Zimbabwean supreme law.