HomeOpinionMatabeleland-Zambezi water project urgent

Matabeleland-Zambezi water project urgent

Eric Bloch


ALMOST a century ago, in 1912, it was first proposed that Zambezi water should be piped to Matabeleland in general, and Bulawayo in particular.  The then Administrator of  Southern Rhodesia reputedly rejected the proposal, stating that the estimated £6 000  was far beyond the country’s means.


When the project was again mooted, 20 years later, Prime Minister Godfrey Huggins (subsequently to become Lord Malvern) is said to have similarly rejected it, the then anticipated cost being £60 000, considered to be more than the country could afford.


Another two decades went by, and in the  1950s the Prime Minister, Edgar Whitehead, was reported to have said the project, at an anticipated cost of £600 000, could not be justified.  A very similar stance was apparently taken a few years later by Sir Roy Welensky,  Prime Minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

When the country attained Independence pressures to harness some of the immense Zambezi water flows for Matabeleland’s benefit intensified.  Over the preceding 80 years the City of Bulawayo had grown exponentially, to a population in excess of a million.  Rural area growth and development had also progressed, including a diverse range of mining activities and agricultural operations extending from livestock ranching to communal farming, and much else.  Concurrently, there had been significant tourism sector development.


All were critically dependant upon adequate and reliable water supplies, and this was especially so of the city of Bulawayo due not only to its growth, but also due to substantial changes in climatic conditions and rainfall patterns.  All of the city’s dams were located south-east of the city for that region had had a bountiful water catchment area.  But the climatic changes resulted in consistently lesser rainfall in that area, with marked intensification of rainfall to the north of the city where no significant dams had been established.

Progressively, from the late 1950s, pressure from the Matabeleland population in general, and from the citizens and civic leaders of Bulawayo in particular, intensified for a Zambezi water project to be implemented.  However, all representations to government fell upon deaf ears, including those of the government of independent Zimbabwe, which in 1984 again cavalierly dismissed the proposals.

In desperation, an informal body of concerned citizens established a committee for the Matabeleland-Zambezi Water Project (MZWP), seeking to pursue the combined endeavours of a pressure group, of sourcing of funding, and general pursuit of transforming the project from a vision to a reality.  Progressively it became more and more forceful and effective, to such an extent that, in the early 1990s, government enforced the committee’s dissolution and the establishment (under the then aegis of the Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister of Water) of the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Trust (MZWT).

In 1993, at the instance of the Trust and with begrudging governmental support, a comprehensive and authoritative project study was carried out by an expert Swedish company which identified the overwhelming beneficial characteristics of implementing the project.  The substance of the expert opinion was that, as a first phase, a dam should be constructed at the confluence of the Gwayi and Shangani Rivers (and would be Zimbabwe’s second largest conservancy of water), concurrently with the installation of a pipeline from the dam to Bulawayo.  That pipeline would include several pumping stations to raise the water from the dam to the watershed at Lupane, whereafter the water would flow southwards by gravity.

It was envisaged that at a subsequent stage a pipeline, with pumping stations, would run from the Zambezi to the Gwayi-Shangani Dam to enable topping-up of the dam when required (which would not be frequent, as the dam’s capacity would meet four years’ consumption by Bulawayo and relevant rural areas.  Moreover, it was assessed that the annual requirement of the city was equal to one and a half minutes’ peak flow over Victoria Falls!).

The Trust vigorously sought to raise the required funding, but without unequivocal and total government support doing so was greater than any Herculean task, and that support was virtually non-existent.  Despite endless endeavours, the Trust could not convert the concept into actuality.  The absence of access to the necessary funding over the 16 years that have elapsed since the project study was completed was not due to lack of recurrent, oft concerted, Trust efforts.


It was due to, initially, only superficial backing by the state, progressively exacerbated by the state’s worsening bankruptcy, rendering it an internationally unacceptable borrower.  Concurrently, government’s recurrent alienation of much of the Western world’s developed countries eliminated all prospects of developmental aid to fund the project, in whole or in part.  Even sufficient funding for the first phase construction of the dam could not be raised.

Tragically, the negativity in bringing the Matabeleland-Zambezi water scheme into being has also been constantly fuelled by the pronounced misconception that the project is naught but to provide the residents of Bulawayo with water supplies.  This is pronouncedly at variance from fact, for the implementation of the MZWP project would be of overwhelmingly great national benefit.

In assuring the survival and growth of Bulawayo, and the well-being of its residents, the country’s second-largest city and industrial base would be a continuing, and increasing, contributor to the national economy through productivity, employment continuance and creation, export revenue generation, down-stream economic activity, fiscal contribution and much more.


At the same time, major fishing industry operations can be established in the Gwayi-Shangani Dam, as also can diverse tourism operations.  A properly implemented Zambezi water project would also immensely enhance agricultural activity in Matabeleland North, West, and South, and even parts of the Midlands, and would be a major facilitative contributor to further mining sector development.

All this would dramatically enhance the Zimbabwean economy, be a trigger for much employment creation and reduction of the vast number of poverty-stricken, suffering Zimbabweans. It would be catalytic of critically-needed foreign exchange earnings, and would have major other benefits for Zimbabwe.

Tragically, many continue to be provincially parochial and tribalistic in their attitudes instead of being nationally patriotic, and allow those attitudes to influence their views on the project, and on who should bring it into being.  There are many in Matabeleland who insist that the conceptualisation, implementation, and future management of Zambezi water supplies to Matabeleland are the exclusive prerogative of the residents of Matabeleland, and that government not only has no role to play, but also should desist from any involvement.


Others believe that government is, or should be, the sole authority in Zimbabwe of anything and everything, and that therefore it is government’s absolute right and duty to determine whether the project be progressed or not and if it is to be progressed, then that be done by government. 
The reality is that it matters not one iota who brings this long-overdue, life-saving and nationally beneficial concept into being.  What matters is that it now be implemented expeditiously.

Almost 100 years of benefits for Zimbabwe and its people have pointlessly and myopically been squandered.

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