Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Zimbabweans Face Utilities Misery

Electricity and water supply worsen as country struggles to pay for essential services.
By Tariro Chimuti
Abigail Mutisi, 23, has a newborn baby girl she has named Progress, but the fulfillment of being a mother for the first time has not come with the happiness it should. She is afraid the child might not make it through this winter.

Exaggerated anxiety, this might be called. But picture this: Mutisi has not had running water in the lodgings she shares with her husband for three weeks and they receive only four hours of electricity a day.

For the nappies she has two choices: to go to the Mukuvisi River a few kilometres away from her home in Harare’s poor suburb of Glen Norah or to wait until her husband returns from work so he can search for water in the neighbourhood.

Sometimes there is a communal tap running somewhere where he can queue for about 20 litres of water, or he might be able to buy water from homesteads that have wells.

“There is simply isn’t enough water for us,” Mutisi says in frustration as she holds a half-dressed Progress. “I now avoid using nappies altogether and only dress her in her waterproof pant which is easier to clean.”

She says water in the Mukuvisi is hardly clean itself, for the little river flows through industrial areas collecting waste from factories that no longer dispose of their waste properly.

It’s not only about cleanliness. Progress needs warm food during the day and throughout the night, but because of power outages this has become almost impossible.

“The baby eats cold food most of the time I really do fear for her,” said Mutisi.

The Zimbabwe Water Authority, ZINWA, which is supposed to provide water to all urban centres, has failed dismally to do so, citing a lack of foreign currency to buy treatment chemicals. It also blames old equipment at the water treatment plants, most which was inherited from colonial Rhodesia and is more that 50 years old.

ZINWA was established only a few years ago and is a parastatal under the ministry of water and infrastructural development. It is in the process of taking over the treatment and distribution of water from local authorities, a move that has been resisted by most cities and towns. In December last year, it successfully assumed those duties for the city of Harare but it is facing stiff resistance from the second city of Bulawayo and smaller cities such as Gweru.

The cities that are resisting the takeover argue that once their water is in the hands of a parastatal, efficiency will be compromised. This is exactly what has happened in Harare. Most of the water treatment chemicals are imported from South Africa and again the foreign exchange to pay for them is not available.

Workers at the water treatment plants say some of the chemicals they are provided with are substandard or obsolete.

Investigations have shown that the provision of the chemicals is outsourced from companies that belong to senior officials of the ruling ZANU-PF. To maximise profits, these officials take a lot of shortcuts and end up with either the wrong chemicals or an undersupply.

Because of the economic downturn, most industries in Harare just let their waste flow into the rivers. Harare water is heavily polluted, not only with industrial waste but also with raw sewage, which now is left to flow freely into the rivers that feed into the reservoirs. The city council does not have the money to repair burst sewers, which are left to go for weeks without attention.

Last week, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority Holdings, ZESA Holdings, through its chief executive officer, Ben Rafemoyo, announced that it would introduce 20-hour load rationing periods for households in support of winter wheat production. Under the scheme, domestic consumers would be disconnected from 9 pm in the evening and reconnected at 5 pm the following day.

Although a junior officer in the parastatal withdrew the statement the following day, many believe it was just an attempt at damage limitation - for on the ground, the power cuts are real. On May 15, most of Harare’s central business district was without electricity the whole day.

Zimbabwe is failing to produce enough wheat for domestic consumption. This has mainly been blamed on the land reform programme started in 2000, with experienced white commercial farmers and their black workers being evicted from their farms and replaced largely by inexperienced landless blacks with little or no knowledge of farming.

Some of the farms went to politicians who had no intention of farming but rather turned their new possessions into holiday homes. And those new farmers resettled on the former white farms who could have produced crops found that most of the equipment left on the farms was either looted or vandalised during the chaotic land grab.

In an attempt to revive the production of wheat, a mainly winter crop, the power utility has been forced to channel the electricity supply to the farms that the government hopes can produce enough wheat for the people.

ZESA Holdings is failing to generate enough electricity for both urban and rural consumers because the power stations are in a state of great disrepair. The utility presently produces 1,420 Megawatts a day, leaving a deficit of 500MW.

It imports some of the country’s power needs from South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique. However, there have been reports in recent weeks that at least one of Zimbabwe’s foreign suppliers, Mozambique, is threatening to cut the supply because Zimbabwe, which lacks the requisite foreign exchange, is failing to pay its debts.

A spokesman for Electricidade de Mozambique, Adelino Muchanga, was recently quoted as saying, “We understand Zimbabwe’s situation as of now, but we want them to pay because we should be using the money to fund other projects. We want to see the debt paid.” The amount is reportedly 55 million US dollars.

Abigail Mutisi is not as lucky as Zimbabweans who are affluent enough to buy generators. In most rich suburbs during the power outages, one can hear the purring of generators, but for Mutisi these are completely out of her reach.

Only the very rich can afford them. Most low-to-medium income families depend on paraffin if they can get it. Zimbabwe has been in the grip of a liquid fuel crisis for the better part of the last decade. Paraffin, the lifeblood of most poor homes, is the scarcest. When it is available it is on the black market and, again, at the black market rate of 25,000 Zimbabwe dollars to 1 US dollar, is just too pricey for the majority.

The last resort is firewood, which is now plentiful. It comes from invaded farms where new farmers and poachers are chopping down trees with impunity to make a quick buck. Driving into the city centres, one cannot miss the stacks of prime indigenous msasa logs piled along the roads for sale. Commentators say a huge environmental disaster is looming in the countryside as the farms are laid bare by the wood poachers.

The water and power woes are set to continue, as there is no end in sight to the political crisis that has left Zimbabwe in the shape it is now. The pariah status the country has earned in the past decade as a result of the wayward behaviour of its leaders means that Zimbabwe has few friends on the African continent and abroad willing to bankroll its utilities.

And the collapse of agriculture, which was the backbone of the economy, and the parlous state of industry in general means Zimbabwe cannot in the near future export enough goods to earn much-needed foreign exchange.

Tariro Chimuti is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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