As private sales of water grow, Zimbabwe moves to protect its groundwater supply
HARARE, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Zimbabwe’s national water authority has tripled the price it charges private water sales firms for extracting groundwater in an effort to protect the fast-depleting resource.
Private water sales have soared in water-short Zimbabwe as businesses respond to the failure of local municipalities to provide a continuous supply of potable water to millions of people across the country.
Trucks pulling water bowsers have become a daily sight in major cities such as Harare and Bulawayo, where officials say 5,000 litres sells for $50.
But officials say soaring private pumping of groundwater not only threatens the groundwater table but is making access to water increasingly expensive in a country already grappling with more unpredictable rainfall and uncertain replenishment of supply dams.
The Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa) in October set water extraction charges at $3 for each 1,000 cubic metres, triggering complaints from consumers who have turned to private water providers as municipalities fail to provide uninterrupted water supplies.
Consumers say they will end up paying the higher costs, while companies say the higher fees may push them out of business.
In a statement, Zinwa said the new charges were aimed at private water providers, some of whom are not licensed and are charging $10 per cubic meter, or 1,000 liters.
“Bulk water sellers are making a huge killing selling water extracted from Harare boreholes at a cost of $10 per cubic meter with households having to fork out $50 for 5,000 litres of water,” Zinwa said in a public notice.
UNPREDICTABLE RAIN, DISAPPEARING GROUNDWATER
The increase is also part of efforts to deal with wide-scale unregulated groundwater extraction after government banned such tapping of groundwater in some areas, noting the nationwide dwindling of the groundwater table amid growing extraction and increasingly unpredictable rains.
Private water providers say the increases will threaten their operations.
“We are responding to a serious need for water and we cannot be taxed for providing a commodity the authorities are failing to provide,” one Harare-based water provider said.
“If we are profiteering, government is fixing the problem by seeking to profiteer from us,” he charged.
George Sibanda, a Harare-based water engineer, said groundwater supplies are only meant to cushion consumers when municipal supplies run short.
“But what we are seeing now is that because the municipality is totally failing to provide water (so) it makes sense for private players to fill that gap – but this has come at a price for consumers,” he said.
BAN ON NEW WELLS
The country’s previous water minister, Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, during his term banned the sinking of new boreholes in cities across Zimbabwe in an effort to protect falling groundwater levels. Residents are now required to apply to the Zimbabwe National Water Authority to sink private boreholes in their properties, though previously they had contracted drillers without consultation.
Water ministry officials said the ban on new boreholes was supposed to be accompanied by a census of boreholes, as the government had no figures on borehole numbers, a problem which aided illegal extraction of water.
Some supply dams in the country continue to have adequate water supplies, officials say, but water shortages in cities persist. The Harare blames the breakdown of old infrastructure for the problem.
In a report published last year, local experts noted that “groundwater provides the highest potential of coping with, and mitigating climate change and increasing food production” but said there was limited information on groundwater storage as a result of a “lack of monitoring stations.”
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Groundwater and Drought Management project says more than 60 percent of people in the SADC region rely on groundwater, and as demand for water grows in Zimbabwe and rainfall becomes more irregular, that percentage could be growing.
The project also warns that groundwater is a “finite” resource that must be protected.
As part of efforts to respond to growing water insecurity, the Environment, Water and Climate Minister Saviour Kasukuwere has said the country was planning to build more dams as a response to climate change.
(Reporting by Madalitso Mwando; editing by Laurie Goering)
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