By Bernard Mpofu
It is 6 am on a Friday morning. Temperatures are already rising and the queue is getting long and meandering.
Women and children carrying buckets and small plastic bottles have found a short term solution to the water challenges they have been facing for months.
A leaking main pipe in the neighbourhood has now become the only reliable source of treated water. Welcome to Sizinda township, home to thousands of Bulawayo residents who are facing one of the city’s worst water crisis in years.
“Bulawayo is now like a rural village where we have to carry buckets on our heads and in wheelbarrows for our daily needs,” a middle-aged woman identified as MaNcube is heard murmuring as others burst into laughter.
Bulawayo is battling perennial water challenges that were foreseen more than 100 years ago.
Founded around 1840 by King Mzilikazi, Bulawayo attained municipal status under colonial rule in 1897 and was declared a city in 1943.
The colonial settlers noted that with growth, the city would face water shortages and mooted what is now known as the National Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project in 1912.
That ambitious project, which was designed to draw water from Africa’s fourth largest river, the Zambezi River and provide water supplies to the city while creating a green belt of agriculture along a pipeline linking the yet-to-be-completed Gwayi-Shangani Dam in Matabeleland North and the big river, remains a pipedream to this day.
The city is supplying about 94 megalitres of water daily against demand of 155 megalitres.
Bulawayo Deputy Mayor, Mlandu Ncube, recently said the onset of the rains was expected to ease the problems as water levels in dams rise.
“We are in a fix insofar as water provision is concerned, Ncube said.
“The situation is desperate. We are trying everything to provide water even through use of bowsers but that is just a drop in the ocean.”
Access to water and sanitation services remains a challenge for most settlements, particularly Harare and Bulawayo, where local authorities are failing to provide minimum services to residents, as traditional raw water sources dry up.
Finance minister Mthuli Ncube said government had committed to upgrade the city’s water reticulation system.
“With regards to Bulawayo City, the ZWL$18 million (US$220 048) availed has enabled Zinwa (Zimbabwe National Water Authority) to rehabilitate and drill new boreholes at Nyamandhlovu and Epping Forest, that have improved raw water uptake to the city.
“This, however, still falls far short of demand, requiring substantial investments going forward,” Ncube said in infrastructure investment plan.
“A further ZWL$3,2 billion (US$39,1 million) was channelled towards construction of dams, with priority being given to five dams, in line with the objective of progressively increasing water storage capacity, as part of the country’s drought proofing strategy.”
Official figures show that access to improved water supply rose marginally from 76,1% to 77,1%, whilst open defecation fell by 10% from 31,7% to 21,7% and households with handwashing facilities with soap and water rose by 15,3% from 558% to 71,1% over the same period.
“The foregoing, is a red flag on the sector’s current performance, which has also been impacted by climate change related emergencies, such as periodic cyclones, droughts and floods,” Ncube added.
So dire is the situation that bushes between Bulawayo’s Pumula North and Magwegwe West, emitting strong pungent smell of human waste, have become a major public health risk.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies open defecation as a leading cause of diarrhoeal deaths globally.
In 2013, worldwide, about 2,000 children aged under five years died daily from diarrhoea.
The African Development Bank has also committed to channel ZWL$491,6 million (US$6 million) under the Bulawayo Water and Sewerage Services Improvement Project that should ensure continuation of works under the project.