AS if Harare’s perennial water worries were not enough, residents on Tuesday woke up to news that “an alert truck driver sent to deliver 19 tonnes of poisonous sodium cyanide to Harare’s main waterworks averted disaster when he raised the alarm just when he was about to offload the chemical”.
Ordinarily, the words “poison” and “disaster” are cause for alarm.
The news, coming as it did in the midst of ebbing water supplies and yet another diarrhoeal outbreak in Harare and Chitungwiza, would have left many wondering if there were not some sinister forces at play, hell-bent on their demise.
However, council has since allayed fears that residents’ lives would have been in danger had the chemical been used, to which, presumably, residents should emit a deep sigh of relief. Not a chance!
The reality of the matter is that the residents of Harare –– and the satellite towns it supplies water –– regard council water that often only occasionally flows through their taps to be quite poisonous anyway!
For most it is suitable for tasks that include laundry, watering the garden, bathing, hosing down the car (assuming the pressure is sufficient), and flushing the loo.
Certainly not drinking, as proved by studies and the number of residents that have dug up wells or drilled boreholes for potable water, and who religiously avoid drinking tap water that comes in a variety of colours from white to brown.
Fresh in many Zimbabweans’ minds is the tragic cholera outbreak at the height of the economic meltdown starting in 2008 that left about 4 000 people dead during a deepening political and economic crisis.
There have been intermittent outbreaks since then, with about a 100 cholera cases recorded in Masvingo this year. Harare and Chitungwiza have registered about 170 cases of typhoid since water scarcity worsened a couple of weeks ago.
So while the poison story has since developed with the driver going from hero to villain –– he has been labelled “stupid” by the company involved for “driving a truck that was clearly marked ‘poisonous’ to Morton Jaffray –– and while investigations continue, for inured residents the spectre of water poisoning remains.
Lately, water shortages have been particularly acute, with city officials blaming heavy pollution –– a form of poisoning –– of Lake Manyame.
In fact, blame for the water crisis has oscillated between the water hyacinth weed, decaying infrastructure, water leakages, increased peak demand, a burgeoning population, maintenance works and chemical shortages.
Rarely is council prepared to shoulder at least some of the blame, if only for its failure to plan ahead by investing in infrastructure.
You can imagine the chagrin of Mabvuku and Tafara residents, who once went for years without electricity and only receive intermittent supplies, when authorities installed more than 5 000 pre-paid water meters in the suburbs. Council prioritises revenue ahead of their welfare, they feel.
Harare city spokesperson Leslie Gwindi’s cavalier response that “water provision has nothing to do with meter installation; the two are mutually exclusive”, will do little to endear council to residents.
The water crisis has dire consequences for Zimbabwe. It is reducing development in both industry and commerce and the socio-economic development of the people, according to a recent council report.
What’s more, water demand would increase should industry start operating at higher capacity thus exacerbating the crisis.
According to Harare town clerk Tendai Mahachi, “At the rate at which Harare is expanding we are likely to face a critical water problem in the next three years if no new water sources are built; the water reticulation and sewage system was designed to cater for only 250 000 residents and since then nothing has been done to cater for the ever growing population.”
With the completion of the Kunzvi Dam and connection of a pipe-link to Mazowe Dam still at least three years away, regular piped water remains a mere pipedream.