As piped water dries up, city dwellers turn to carrying water

by Madalitso Mwando | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 July 2012 13:23 GMT

With dam levels low and water connections increasingly cut off, Bulawayo's slums are returning to borehole water and a rural lifestyle

BULAWAYO – Samukeliso Tshuma, a 33-year old mother of four, lives in one of Bulaway’s teeming high density urban townships, but these days gets her water the same way rural dwellers do – from a borehole well.

This is “something I never imagined I would be doing,” said Tshuma, who formerly relied on city-provided piped water.

Spare rainfall has hit water levels at dams supplying Zimbabwe’s second largest city with piped water, raising fears among municipal offers that supplies may soon run out, and leading to rationing and disconnection of some of the network.

That has left residents like Tshuma carrying water home – a way of life more common in rural areas.

“Like many others living in the city, we always associated boreholes with rural areas where women balance water cans on their heads and walk long distances in search of water,” said Tshuma after the Bulawayo municipality began a massive water disconnection and rationing exercise last month.

The Bulawayo municipality has over the years sunk boreholes across the sprawling city of 2 million as a response to increasingly low levels at the city’s five major supply dams.


In the past, the municipality could boast of a two-year supply of water storied in the city’s dams. But recent projections have been gloomy, indicating that the water would only last the city for as little as two months because of poor rainfall.

Up to 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s rural population relies on groundwater, according to the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), a government department responsible for managing water for both domestic and industrial use estimates. But urban use is increasing as dam levels fall, the authority said.

Experts worry that urban reliance on groundwater could lead the country’s water tables to fall, making water harder to access in both rural and urban areas.

Increasing reliance on groundwater “is raising threats on the water table and if the dismal rainfall patterns continue in some parts of the country, it is very possible that the drilling of more boreholes will only result in the water disappearing deeper into the earth,” said Dumisani Gumede, a Bulawayo-based water engineer.

“There must be a balanced ratio between a borehole and how many people use it, but since these water problems are now found in cities with huge populations, this ratio will be hard to maintain,” he said.

Last year, the Water Resources Ministry announced it was banning the haphazard sinking of boreholes, citing the receding water table. The move came amid reports that some households in Bulawayo’s low density suburbs were sinking private boreholes as a response to the municipality’s failure to provide water.


In May, the Water Resources Management and Development Ministry announced a countrywide borehole census as part of efforts to tackle challenges presented by poor rainfall and to try to manage underground water.

The census is expected to provide a framework for responses to poor rainfall and groundwater conservation efforts.

Water Minister Sam Sipepa Nkomo said the exercise was part of efforts to map how much groundwater the country has and in which geographical locations.

As rainfall patterns change and the need for water increases with a growing population, groundwater is seen as crucial to keeping adequate water supplies available.

“Many people have always thought that you can sink a borehole anywhere, but this is not true as preliminary ground surveys must be carried out first to determine whether there indeed is water in that area,” said Jeff Makiwa a climate change researcher in the Ministry of Environment.

“There is no doubt that the effects of climate change are far reaching as low rainfall has also meant that communities must carefully manage resources such as groundwater. It has been known that some boreholes have dried up across the country because too many people were using (them) while there was (insufficient recharge) with seepage from rain,” Makiwa said.

Minister Nkomo has told local media that groundwater in Zimbabwe remains under-utilised. But there are concerns that with supply dams emptying near cities such as Bulawayo, growing reliance on boreholes in both rural and urban areas could lead to growing water stress, a situation that could prove dire, particularly in a country where water borne diseases remain an ever-present danger.

With water stress a growing regional problem for southern Africa, the Southern African Development Community now operates a groundwater and drought management project, which aims to develop a regional strategy on water supplies.

Solving urban water access is particularly key in Zimbabwe as urban farming is touted as a potential major food provider for the country.

Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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