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Harare is now suffering from almost three decades of neglect, bad management, zero investment and mispricing of its water and sewage processing infrastructure despite having by the early 1990s a remarkable and award-winning set of systems in place because the first post-independence councils took their responsibilities seriously.
Harare started getting piped water in 1913.
This was a direct result of the remarkable three-year mayoralty of Milton Cleveland who took over the town when the council’s overdraft was overdrawn and his predecessor had absconded.
He and a small team fixed the finances, fixed the administration, fixed the rating system and at the end of three years had a surplus in the bank.
Cleveland, an engineer, recognised the importance of a report that showed that the headwaters of the Mukuvisi were higher than Hartman Hill in what is now the National Botanic Gardens and signed the contracts for a small dam, gravity feed to a reservoir on the hill and pipes leading down to the small town between Josiah Tongogara and Kenneth Kaunda Avenues.
When the dam opened a year after he left office, the council named it after him.
By the 1930s, this supply was hopelessly inadequate. But in another burst of activity the now city council built a larger dam on the Manyame River, Seke Dam, and restored supplies. By now there was electricity so water could be pumped uphill, and it was, to the Kopje before being fed by gravity to the western part of the city centre and the just opening industrial areas.
But Harare kept growing and by the late 1940s was in yet another water crisis. But with another engineer in the mayoral chair, Morton Jaffray, a radical solution was pushed through.
Council persuaded the Government to go 50-50 on building a far larger dam downstream on the Manyame River, Lake Chivero, with the water stored split between the two.
The dam was finished in 1952 and with the first stage of the new water works pumping uphill to the city, Harare was set for three decades of easy growth.
Council honoured Jaffray with his name on the waterworks. And despite the drivel put out by some on council today, Lake Chivero was built as a water supply dam for Harare; the recreational park was established later.
The next 25 years were largely consolidation.
The Morton Jaffray works were extended in stages. In 1974, Seke Dam’s capacity was effectively tripled by building Harava Dam upstream to release water into the old dam when needed.
The Prince Edward waterworks were stripped out and completely rebuilt. The upshot was Harare and the just-established Chitungwiza (which only got its name in 1977) had a water source closer to the eastern suburbs and the new town.
Raw water was starting to become a problem, but the dam creating Lake Manyame was finished in 1976. This immediately benefited Harare since all downstream water rights were supplied by the new dam, allowing more than 90 percent of Chivero water to be allocated to the city.
But the planners were still active and as the new post-independence council, under Mayor Tizirai Gwata, came into office in the early 1980s they took the unusual step for a Harare council of confronting an impending water crisis some years before it blew up, making detailed plans which included the finances as well as the engineering. Small annual increments in water charges built up a large fund of cash, and made the city remarkably credit worthy. The plan was to tap Lake Manyame for raw water through a tunnel, more expensive to build than a pipeline, but far cheaper to manage. Morton Jaffray Waterworks was to be doubled in size, Mayor Gwata and his team thought big, and the festering mess of sewage treatment was to be modernised and solved with two new giant activated sludge plants at Firle and Crowborough, where the two main sewer systems left the city boundary.
The plants would allow treated effluent, almost drinking water quality, to be returned to the rivers and flow into Lake Chivero effectively recycling water. Regrettably Dr Gwata’s name is on nothing, but it should be.
But the successors of this innovative council started the rot that we still live with. As soon as Morton Jaffray was doubled in size the new half was supposed to take the strain for a year while the older half was completely rebuilt, giving the city a giant modern plant. That was dumped and the older units, dating from 1952 to the 1980s were kept in operation.
The Firle and Crowborough sewage treatment plants were supposed to be properly maintained and expanded steadily and regularly. They are still the same size, grossly overloaded and dumping partially treated sewage into Chivero, polluting it badly.
In fact, no one has done anything, not even properly maintained what was there.
This is despite the central Government trying commissions, transferring Harare water and sewerage to Zinwa, and then transferring it back, and more than a decade of MDC councils run by a party that tries to electioneer on the basis that it is more efficient than Zanu-PF.
Yet large loan funds were partially squandered delaying the solution.
The problem Harare faces with its water supply is not insoluble. It is an engineering problem. We have far more engineering talent than was available to Mayors Cleveland, Jaffray and Gwata.
We just need leadership to apply that talent and honest financing. Now that the Government is stepping in, it might need a joint central Government and city council project. But whatever we do, let us fix it right, and honestly.