Over 100 Years of Political Bickering Deny Bulawayo Clean Water

Political contestation and uneven distribution of national resources have dragged a massive water project for Zimbabwe’s second largest city.

Since time immemorial people in the western parts of Zimbabwe (Matebeleland) have experienced water challenges due to the region’s dry climate. But little has taken place for more than 100 years since the idea to connect the regional capital Bulawayo with the Zambezi River was first mooted by the then-governing British South Africa Company (BSAC) in 1912.

A lack of political will and lack of adequate resources to fund this mega project has dashed hopes to end the water crisis.  The battle for control of the project between civil society and government has made matters worse over the years.

Dozens of governments both prior and post-independent Zimbabwe have failed to implement the grand plan since 1912, when the then-colonial administration laid out the idea dubbed the Matebeleland Zambezi Water Project (MZWP).

Today, with Bulawayo being the country’s second-largest city with a steadily increasing population, the demand for water has heightened.  Yet according to the World Food Program, rainfall in the entire country has dipped in recent years and things are set to get worse due to “climate change disaster”.

The Bulawayo City Council has declared 2020 the driest in 28 years, likening it to the drought situation in 1992.  In that year, the water authority had to drill boreholes at an aquifer in Nyamandlovu several kilometers from the city to rescue its residents from a complete dry-out.

“Centralization of economic management and politics of marginalization as well as paltry national budget allocation on water emanating from obsession with power politics have stalled the Zambezi Water Project,” said Hardlife Mudzingwa, director of Community Water Alliance (CWA), a local pressure group focusing on communities’ access to clean water. “If you check our national budget votes for the past 20 years you will realize where the heart of Government lies.  The Bible says where one treasurer is, is where he or she places his or her resources.”

On the other hand, government has on numerous occasions blamed lack of resources for the slow progress on the water project, an accuse widely unpopular with civil rights campaigners given the high levels of misappropriation of state funds by top officials.

Mudzingwa believes that devolution of power from central government is the ultimate solution for the people of Matebeleland in the long run.  In the interim, harnessing water aquifers remain the immediate solution. 

Since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, the government has centralized resources and development to the capital city, Harare, with Bulawayo staying relatively underdeveloped with much of its infrastructure still in its colonial state.

The city currently relies on several small dams-these include the Lower and Upper Ncema dams as well as the Mtshabezi, Umzingwane, Insiza Mayfair, Inyankuni and Nyamandlovu dams-which are barely at full capacity due to low rainfall in the region. 

Enter The Twin Devils

Most residents of Bulawayo receive running water for just 24 hours a week.  Other worse affected areas such as Luveve and Cowdray Park townships go for over two weeks with dry taps amid the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic and a diarrhea outbreak that has hit the city.

Thirteen people died in July from diarrhea-related diseases in one of Bulawayo’s high density suburbs, Luveve. Experts are blaming the city’s dilapidated water pipe system that is contaminating water.

“From as early as May this year, residents of Luveve in Bulawayo have been getting sick from drinking municipal water,” Bulawayo’s Magwegwe constituency legislator, Anele Ndebele told Parliament recently.

Twenty three people have also died of Covid-19 in Bulawayo since May with 1 073 cases recorded out of 4 339 nationally, making the city of a population of 653,337 (2012 census) the second epicenter of the virus.

Local transmissions are increasing as basic hygiene of washing one’s hands with running water and soap remains a tall order for many residents.

“We are scared we will contract diseases due to scarcity of water here,” said Precious Ruzvidzo, a resident of Nketa 9, in Bulawayo.  “We don’t have running water to wash our hands in these difficult times of the Covid-19 pandemic and some of the sources of water are not safe for human consumption.”

She said she has to walk 2 kilometres on a daily basis to the only borehole in the area which services hundreds of families. Together with her husband they sometimes wake up around midnight to fetch water so as to avoid the much lengthier queues during the day.

The Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project

The ambitious project to direct water from the mighty Zambezi River to Bulawayo is estimated to cost US$ 2 billion due to topographical challenges between the more than 500 km distance.

Zambezi river is Africa’s fourth-longest river, spanning just under 2 600 km.

The first phase of the project is the construction of the Gwayi-Shangani Dam, which has a holding capacity of 634 million cubic metres of water. Commenced in 2004, it will provide the reservoir for the project. The 72-metre high and 59-metre deep dam is expected to be completed in 2022.

The second phase will entail setting up an approximately 240 km water pipeline from the dam to Bulawayo. The last phase will involve the construction of the pipeline from the dam to the Zambezi River but work is yet to start.

But the problems with Bulawayo’s water situation are in the public domain and well-illustrated in post-independent Zimbabwe, where corruption, political bickering and regional marginalization has frustrated progress. 

When Zimbabwe attained its independence from colonial rule, then-Prime Minister Robert Mugabe orchestrated a deliberate attack on ex-combatants of the liberation struggle in the Matebeleland region. 

He alleged they harbored plans of insurgency hence were viewed as a threat to peace in the new state.

In what came to be referred to as the “Gukurahundi” massacres between 1983 and 1986, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ) report suggested that over 20 000 people were killed in Matebeleland and Midlands regions on Mugabe’s orders.

This dark part of Zimbabwe’s history has weakened Matebeleland politicians’ influence in central government to push for the water project.

The Matebeleland Zambezi Water Trust (MZWT) a consortium of influencers from the region was established in 1993 to spearhead the development of the ZMWP.  For years it had the role of implementing the work as a community project.

It however blamed lack of support from government for slow progress, simply because there was no funding channeled towards the project from central government.

For example, in 2005 a contractor, China International Water Electrical moved its equipment offsite citing lack of funding for the dam project.

It was up until 2012 that government took over and nationalized the project.

The same year the government signed a US$ 864 million agreement towards the project with the financial assistance of the China Export Import Bank.

But the deal was later called off before funds were even disbursed the same year after the Chinese bank retreated, saying that Zimbabwe was a high-risk investment.

In 2019, the government handed back control of the project to the MZWT together with the Matebeleland Collective, a grouping of civil society organization in the region.

The late nationalist Dumiso Dabengwa, then MZWT chairperson accused former Mines Minister, Obert Mpofu, of sabotaging the water project by refusing to grant the trust a special mining concession in the mineral rich Matebeleland North province to raise money for the project.

Mpofu did not dispute the assertion.

And Finally, A Cowry Of Hope 

Given that the project took over nine decades to take off, the first phase, which is the Gwayi-Shangani Dam is now 40 percent to completion.  In 2012 it was accorded national project status, the highest honor of priority in government projects.

In the 2020 National Budget, the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Mthuli Ncube allocated 400 million Zimbabwe dollars (US$ 4.8 million) towards the project and this is expected to make headways towards the completion of the dam and make it the third largest inland dam in the country after Tugwi-Mukosi and Mutirikwi dams, both in Masvingo province. 

Despite this, earlier this year, engineers on the dam project announced that they had adopted a new construction technology,  the Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC) which reduces construction time in the pouring of multiple concrete layers and will see the dam completed next year, December.

However the second and third phases of this grand water project are yet to commence pending completion of the dam next year.  But until then, the people of Matebeleland will have to endure yet another thirsty year.