PERENNIAL water woes in Matabeleland have been used as a smokescreen by unscrupulous businesspeople from other regions to deliberately de-industrialise the area, analysts said, accusing some people of buying companies in the region and stripping them off before relocating to other cities.
Bulawayo, once the hub of economic activity in the southern half of the country, has battled with perennial water problems for more than two decades.
Most companies mainly in the manufacturing and construction industries, which occupied the once vibrant Belmont Industrial zone, have been forced to either retrench workers or scale down operations because of the crippling water shortage in the city. Industrialists say companies here are operating below 40% of their capacity.
A survey by the Zimbabwe Independent found that although the city was losing investment opportunities because of other economic problems, water shortages were the main reason why investors continue to shun the city as an investment destination.
However, local businesses now feel that there could be sinister motives in the closure of some firms.
Although water problems, the liquidity crunch and erratic supply of electricity were not peculiar to Bulawayo, they believe that water shortage was now being used by business and unscrupulous people from other regions to scare away investors.
These sentiments have been expressed in several meetings by businesses who feel that cities, such as Harare and Kadoma, where firms relocate to, also face water problems.
Nqobizitha Sibanda, Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce regional president on Monday said the water crisis is no longer a valid reason for continued relocation of firms.
“The water situation is not an issue anymore… we have seen a worrying trend in which people from Harare are coming to Bulawayo, buy companies only to close them and relocate after stripping machinery. They all cite the water issue,” he said.
Sibanda said he has been to other areas where companies relocate to which “are far worse than Bulawayo in terms of water reliability”.
“But after relocating they would continue to supply their products here as they cannot ignore this regional market. We will carry out a comprehensive study on this issue as we feel it’s deeper than what is being said,” Sibanda said.
Government, industrialists, politicians and the local municipality agree that the solution to the water crisis hinges on the construction of the National Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project pipeline (NMZWP).
Analysts say judging by lack of progress so far, it is highly unlikely that the project will ever be completed.
Speaking during a stakeholder’s water conference last Friday in Bulawayo, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai assured participants that government was committed to the project.
“You have my word, government is committed to this multi-million dollar project…on funds we have to be creative, as government we need to remove the risks for those with money to come in and invest. It would (project) remain a pipe dream if the risk persists,” said Tsvangirai.
Industrialist Alfred Moyo said it is now apparent that the water issue was a strategy by some people to disinvest or chase away investors from Bulawayo.
Water shortages in Bulawayo are now a perfect marketing tool that is employed by crafty business people from other regions to block investment to the city. So you have a situation whereby greedy business people tell investors that Bulawayo is not a viable business
destination,” said Moyo.
He said what is puzzling is that areas where companies are relocating to also face water challenges which are even worse, said Moyo, giving Harare as example.
Moyo said the objective is to concentrate businesses in one area to create an impression to foreign investors that their regions are investor-friendly.
“The water issue has now been over-played to the extent that it now raises eyebrows. Many companies left the city but others of similar magnitude emerged. Therefore I am personally of the view that it was all political to cite water.”
“The Zambezi pipeline is now further used by unscrupulous business people to scare away investors from the city to the benefit of other regions,” said Moyo.
He said government was also an accomplice to this as evidenced by its reluctance to allocate financial resources for capital projects that would bring investment to the region.
Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo Airport, Nkayi-Bulawayo road and the state of Beitbridge border post, said Bulawayo businesses, were examples of government not showing commitment.
“There is no commitment on the part of government to have the pipeline in place as there is a lot of bickering with people attempting to gain political mileage from the project,” he added.
But Tsvangirai told participants that “no one should try to make political capital from the desperation of the people of this region”.
Chief Executive officer for the Association for Business in Zimbabwe (ABUZ), Lucky Mlilo also said water was now a convenient excuse to disinvest but there is a deliberate ploy to destroy industries in the region due to red tape.
“Bulawayo is not the only place faced with water problems. A situation has been created to make it difficult to access lines of credit from this end due to red tape and local investors end up deciding to set up base in Harare,” said Mlilo.
He said there is need for decentralisation.
While economist Eric Bloch said the project has always been marred by a misconception that it would only benefit Bulawayo residents, hence its continued false starts.
“The reality is the Zambezi water project can be more exciting and of more economic benefit like the Chiadzwa diamonds fields,” he said.
“Zimbabwe could become the fifth strongest economy in Africa out of 51 countries within six years of the project’s completion and use the benefits of it to initiate other projects in the country.
“Once completed the project would help re-establish Bulawayo as the country’s industrial hub,” said Bloch.
The project mooted in 1912, has had false starts as successive governments’ have been citing lack of funds.
State Enterprises and Parastatals minister Gorden Moyo said other areas outside Matabeleland region have long benefited from resources extracted in the region and money generated from the Marange diamonds funds should be used to bankroll the project.
“There are resources in this region that have been extracted to develop other regions. Those regions should now plough back into Matabeleland. Resources from the Chiadzwa should also be used to make this dream become a reality,” said Moyo.