Water cuts not the solution

THE struggle over water in Zimbabwe has in recent days been amplified by the spat between water regulator, Zinwa, and the Gwanda Municipality — illustrating a combination of risks that lie ahead as climate change causes more water shortages.

The drinking water supply to some 20 000 residents in Gwanda urban was cut a few weeks back by Zinwa over a disputed $10 million debt. Gwanda claims the debt stands at only $3 million. The municipality insists Zinwa should give up the town’s water management and hand it back to the town.

The standoff represents what has become an all too common occurrence in the country’s water sector: the dramatic use of water cuts as a weapon to enforce payment. It’s a multi-dimensional conflict. Residents pitting municipalities; municipalities against Zinwa; and Zinwa against everyone, including farmers.

In the Gwanda-Zinwa dispute, Water Minister Oppah Muchinguri Kashiri clearly felt she needed to do something, offering a truce based on “water rationing” as opposed to “water cuts.” But Gwanda mayor Councillor Knowledge Ndlovu sees little effect of the Minister’s intervention, telling Chronicle “ . . . water rationing and water cuts is one animal. They both deprive residents of water for many days.”

Turning off taps has been used widely by municipalities countrywide to induce payment, but not as forcefully as to cut off an entire town. The problem wears many faces: it is historical and financial, as much as it is structural and environmental.

Management of water in Zimbabwe is governed by the Water Act of 1992, which created Zinwa, putting all water resources — from drinking to irrigation, hydro-power to recreational — under its purview.

This happened at a time of so much global hype over the management of water, with experts, policymakers and donors aligning to a new approach called integrated water resources management (IWRM). “The idea was seemingly neat and simple,” says Ian Scoones, a professor of agro-ecology who has researched Zimbabwe’s agriculture and land reforms widely, in a 2016 paper.

“Water resources had to be managed locally at catchment level through an inclusive process involving all water users. Water as a scarce commodity should in turn be priced and paid for through tariffs charged on level of use,” he said.

This would pay for the management systems, and also for improvements, as well as investments in environmental sustainability, Scoones added. In Zimbabwe, the success of the IWRM relied on donor funding, which poured in funds for a time after Government had earlier in the 1990s overturned the colonial system, which allowed land owners to exploit water resources found on their land.

The new thrust focused on the separation of water and land, with the goal of ridding “the country of the inequitable distribution of the past, now with all water users potentially having access if they could pay,” says Scoones.

But as donor money dried up with the changes in land ownership after 2000, Zinwa has found the going tough. “The rapid . . . unfolding of the land reform from 2000 quickly unravelled the carefully laid plans for the integrated water resources management revolution in Zimbabwe,” Scoones stated.

“The donors who were funding the whole operation all withdrew, and the catchment councils (charged with managing water under Zinwa) mostly ceased to operate. The mismatch between the original design and the new agrarian reality was stark, requiring some major rethinking.”

Scoones’ paper centres mainly on the water management policy that exists between large-scale and small-scale farmers on the one side, and the Zimbabwe National Water Authority, on the other.

But it is as instructive on urban water supply as it is on farming.

Zinwa operates as a half-private entity, depending on money it generates from its own operations, in this case charging for water, and a little from what it get through Government allocations.

Without the revenue it earns from billing water users in irrigation, hydro-power and others, Zinwa will find it difficult to manage Zimbabwe’s water in a way that guarantees continuous clean supply. So to stay afloat, it enforces the law: turning off those who cannot pay for water, a strategy much loved by municipalities.

However, the crisis in Gwanda demonstrates that the complex network of shared water supplies managed at a higher central point often detached from grassroots management may no longer be working.

It is adequate constant water provision for those at the base, and financial gain for those at the top who are convinced to be offering a vital service. It is possible to continue to co-operate, but perhaps the pre-paid meters would settle that. Or will it?

And as climate change alters weather patterns, meteorologists say water shortages will become more common, with a 2012 World Bank report predicting a 30 to 50 percent decline in fresh water resources by 2050.

There is already a host of other flashpoints around the country.

Struggling to recover a $500 million debt, the City of Harare has now set out debt collectors on residents to do that for them, sparking a slew of lawsuits.

Water cuts have had little impact, if any, because the water is seldom available anyway. Residents have thus refused to give up their money or property to collectors.

Taps have run dry in some of Harare’s suburbs like Mabvuku for four years. But city authorities have continued to bill for fixed water charges, and even going to the extent of dragging residents to court for non-payment.

In some sections of Mabelreign, water is available once or twice a week. Residents rely on community boreholes, but the monthly bill reflects a current charge that has barely changed for months, they claim.

The fear now is that by enforcing water cuts to prompt payment, both municipalities and Zinwa, may have already wasted the last of the good faith that remains among consumers — a faith that could be put to good use in improving service delivery — risking a continuation of the conflicts. Though, that is not to encourage water users to default on their bills. But I do not see anyone reasonable resisting payment for a service rendered.

God is faithful.

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