Zimbabwe: Harare Underground Water Needs to Be Used Less

That Harare has the most stressed underground water supplies in the whole of SADC, and is the area in the region most likely to suffer something close to disaster as boreholes dry up, so reliant are many residents on wells and boreholes, will come as no surprise.

Almost since it was founded in 1890, almost 133 years ago, many city residents have been reliant on underground water, and those same 13 decades have seen determined and almost continuous attempts to drain and destroy the wetlands in the city, so recharging the small aquifers scattered around the city is made ever less likely.

Since the first piped municipal water supply, fed by the little Cleveland Dam in the headwaters of the Mukuvisi, only arrived in 1913, and people were connected in phases, the first quarter century of the city saw almost all residents totally dependent on wells, mostly private although with public wells in Africa Unity Square and Market Square. And contamination of wells was recognised as a serious problem right then, just as contamination of aquifers is recognised as a serious problem to this day.

Those hundreds of wells across what is now the central business district and the Avenues, one in almost every occupied stand, have all gone.

They dried up and were filled in as a danger, but no one really panicked since the Cleveland Dam water, and later the water from the Prince Edward works at Seke Dam and then from Morton Jaffray at Lake Chivero filled the gap.

But the suburbs, even in the inner ring around the old township bounded by the railway line and Josiah Tongogara Avenue, were still reliant on wells for household water right up into the late 1940s. And those wells have now basically all gone, being dried up holes suitable for filling with rubbish, garden waste and anything else the stand-owner wanted to get rid of.

The sites occasional re-emerge when someone is redeveloping a stand and the builders suddenly hit a tube of rubble.

For a while the aquifers were under less pressure, but the arrival of water rationing in the late 1980s after a two year drought, and then the decreasing delivery of municipal water in the last two decades have seen a boom in boreholes.

There are a fair number of companies that make a decent working profit in Harare drilling boreholes, and the rigs can be seen everyday on the roads going to the next site. In theory, the city council has to approve a new well or borehole, and the respectable borehole drillers go through the approval motions. It is not hard to get approval, the council mainly wanting to know where the things are, rather than having any interest in how much water they are pumping and what that water is being used for.

In a swathe of upper-income and middle-income suburbs most of the water goes on irrigating large gardens with lush lawns and plants. Gardens that were designed for temperate latitudes with rain in every month are the model for gardens in a city where almost all the rain falls over five months.

You see some of those with boreholes even having irrigation for their verges, and putting up those little notices that they have borehole water.

Admittedly there are also the factories, and even commercial complexes, that have drilled boreholes because they need a 24/7 water supply, and the city council cannot provide that, and there are flat complexes and complexes of cluster housing that have drilled so residents can have household water, since the council cannot supply.

The Government is busy drilling essential boreholes in high density suburbs in Harare Metropolitan, again to ensure that residents have a place where they can bring their drums and buckets and get the minimum amount of water for drinking, cooking and washing since again the council cannot supply.

But the amount of water spread over an acre or more of “English garden” to keep it looking like something out of a British gardening magazine would provide the basic water supply for dozens of households, so even with Harare City Council’s bad record of treating surface water and pumping it to residents, there is possibly enough for the vital purposes.

As the recent seminar on underground supplies in Harare revealed, the city is drying up. The water table everywhere is falling.

Drillers have to go ever deeper to find water, and almost all the old wells, and many of the older boreholes, are just dry tubes into the ground. Added to this is high levels of contamination of boreholes, let alone wells.

A lot of that comes from surface contamination, as one organisation has discovered by putting safety seals on boreholes, but a fair amount comes from underground sources.

Those same large gardens usually belong to people who use septic tanks, processing their own sewage in their backyard.

This is usually safe, although these days has been extended to far smaller plots that the original minimum of 4 000 square metres, and that opens up new avenues of contamination, as does the leaky sewers becoming more prevalent. Those hurling dangerous chemicals on the ground, or into pits, add extra contamination and risk.

An idea of how water can be used effectively comes from Namibia, where residents are fanatical about water conservation. Anyone travelling though that central semi-arid urban belt, which includes the capital Windhoek, will look in vain for large lawns.

Gardens are small, even in the grand houses of the very rich, and are populated by succulents, scores of species, and other clever methods of getting a good looking garden with near zero irrigation. So it is possible. While one day Harare City Council might fix up its own piped water supply and restore the city to delivering continuous piped water, it is unlikely there will be enough for heavily irrigating large gardens, so a different garden culture is needed.

At the same time underground supplies will probably always be needed, although hopefully to supplement the piped supply rather than replace it, so we need to keep the aquifers.

We also need to make sure these are recharged, and that rainfall runoff sinks into the soil, rather than gushing to the streams and eroding roadsides.

This means we need to stop destroying wetlands, or even stripping them of vegetation, and allow them to perform one vital function of holding water that eventually sinks into the ground.

All this can use some Government action, but a lot of the missing council action needs to be put in place, not just to fix services but also to ensure that the underground water that remains is used sustainably, that is not faster than aquifers are recharged, and then allow these aquifers to recharge.