Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Harare Descends Into Chaos
In Tafara, one of Harare’s working class suburbs, Cynthia Mutepfa wakes before dawn each day and walks three kilometres to fetch water from a makeshift well alongside one of the capital city’s heavily polluted streams.
Cynthia, 22, places a 20-litre plastic container on her head before tip-toeing through her back yard to avoid stepping into the maggot-infested raw sewage that has flooded from the local burst sewer tank.
She spends the best part of an hour jostling with other desperate residents for a few gallons of water from the unprotected well, which is just a mud hole dug deep to reach the water table beneath the city.
The majority of Tafara’s 100,000 residents have resorted to drinking water from local streams fed mainly by water from burst sewerage and drainage pipes. Cynthia, like thousands of others, last had tap water a month ago.
“We have gone for months without guaranteed water. The burst sewer pipes have not been repaired for two months,” Cynthia told IWPR.
Cynthia’s story has become typical of that of Harare residents - both in the city centre and the outlying townships - as water, electricity, garbage collection and other services have entered freefall.
Uncollected rubbish is even piling up in the central business district. Side lanes and street alleys reek with rotting garbage that has lain untouched for weeks as the ruling ZANU PF-appointed council fails to collect the waste due to alleged mismanagement, which has been exacerbated by the country’s crippling fuel shortages and power station breakdowns.
“We have no choice but to dump the rubbish anywhere we can as the council has not collected any for the past two weeks,” said Tinarwo Makura, a resident of Highfield, one of the oldest of Harare’s outer suburbs.
Most city roads are riddled with potholes so big that small cars could sink into them, while others are impassable because of huge holes dug by the council in its bid to repair the continuously bursting water pipes.
Raw sewage has been allowed to spill into Harare’s main water sources such as Lake Chivero, to the west of the capital, posing serious health threats to all its residents. Environmentalists and health experts warn that Harare is sitting on a disease time bomb.
Angus Martens, of the upmarket Arcadia suburb’s residents’ association, told IWPR that companies and residents alike had turned the small local Mukuvisi river into a dumping ground.
“There are no council services to talk of,” said Martens. “Homeowners and companies have had to resort to dumping their rubbish.”
Schools are turning pupils away because there is no drinking water or water to flush toilets. So desperate is the situation that a litre of imported water is more expensive than a litre of scarce petrol, which was heavily subsidised before the recent parliamentary election as a tactic by the governing ZANU PF.
Observers believe that the government is now frightened to end the subsidies for fear of accelerated inflation, already running at an estimated 400 per cent. One celebrated cartoon shows robbers holding up a man pushing a wheelbarrow-load of Weimar Republic-style cash. The crooks demand that their victim throw out the worthless banknotes and hand over the wheelbarrow.
Cars, buses and mini-bus taxis form long snaking queues at petrol stations in the hope that a tanker load of fuel might arrive. Zimbabweans have christened such lines of motorists “hope queues”.
As the water crisis worsens, some of the emergency wells and boreholes on which people are dependent are beginning to dry up because the water table is receding.
Janest Museve, who lives in the suburb of Hatfield, said the water from her emergency well had suddenly turned cloudy. “We are suffering,” she said. “The water we used to get from the well is now coming out very dirty.”
Collin Gwiyo, deputy secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU, said, “Try to imagine waking up to go to work and there is no water for you to bathe, no electricity to warm your water up and cook food, then there is no transport to ferry you to work? How many problems can befall a person? That is the situation we arrived at in Zimbabwe.”
The situation is a classic case of how failed governance and political interference have led to the collapse of services right across the country.
Similar stories are reported from many smaller towns. In the mining town of Zvishavane, 300 km southwest of Harare, the weekly Standard newspaper reports raw sewage flowing on the streets as a result of unrepaired pipes.
In Marondera, southeast of the capital, schools are closing because of water and electricity supply problems. “The water cuts are unexpected and unexplained, and trying to find anyone in authority prepared to talk about the problem, the reason or the expected duration, is a complete waste of time,” said Marondera resident Cathy Buckle.
“A casual telephone enquiry about the daily power cuts to the local electricity offices resulted in a flustered employee giving some mumbled excuses about insufficient maintenance, no money for spares and no foreign currency.”
Harare residents attribute their city’s crumbling services to government meddling in the running of local authorities, which has seen elected councils being eliminated for political expediency.
The central government took control of Harare after voters elected Elias Mudzuri, of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, as mayor in 2002. All efforts by Mudzuri to run the city efficiently were blocked by the central government, which last year dismissed him and appointed its own commissioners, handpicked by Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo, to run the capital.
Since then services have been in freefall and nearly all the municipality’s engineers have resigned and left the country. Combined Harare Residents Association, CHRA, an umbrella body for the capital’s residents associations, blamed government’s interference for the crisis in the city, saying politics have taken precedence over good governance in most local authorities.
“Since the appointment of the government commission, service delivery has reached its lowest ebb,” a CHRA spokesman told IWPR. “Burst water pipes go unrepaired for weeks and the problem of street lights has not been attended to, plunging streets into darkness.”
The commission’s excuse for its failure to collect rubbish is the shortage of fuel and the expiry of contracts signed with private refuse collectors.
“The council has not collected refuse here for two months,” Israel Mabhou, chairman of the Mbare suburb residents’ association, said angrily. “Our last option would be to carry these bins and the rotting rubbish and dump them at [its headquarters]. We are sick and tired of their excuses.”
The situation is even worse in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, which has an MDC mayor. The central ZANU PF government has refused him and his city council all borrowing powers, making it virtually impossible to maintain minimal services.
Meanwhile, the government has lambasted the Bulawayo council for “peddling falsehoods” about mass starvation in the city. The latter issued a report last year claiming that several residents have died of starvation, as local grain production has collapsed and President Robert Mugabe has banned international agencies from distributing food aid.
Few people see an end to what is now a multiple crisis resulting from collapsed industries, non-functioning infrastructure and international isolation and sanctions.
An increasing number are as despairing, as 36-year-old Harare resident Constance Goredema who, with her nine-month-old baby on her back, told IWPR, “We won’t live. We won’t see next year. We are going to die.”
Dzikamai Chidyausiku is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.
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