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Climate challenge for urban water supplies

Low dam levels have led to hosepipe bans, water rationing and interruptions in supply (© Busani Bafana)
Low dam levels have led to hosepipe bans, water rationing and interruptions in supply
© Busani Bafana

In Bulawayo, western Zimbabwe, years of scarce rainfall have forced residents to learn about water saving the hard way. Low dam levels have led to hosepipe bans, water rationing and interruptions in supply, with punitive bills for exceeding daily allocations, or for watering backyard gardens with the scarce potable water. Such pressures have, however, led to the adoption of numerous water saving activities throughout the city, as well as investment in securing new supplies.

During the drought of 2000/1, city resident Clara Ndlovu remembers using her kitchen and second bedroom as a mini water storage point. A collection of differently sized and shaped plastic containers filled the rooms, saving water not for a rainy day, but a dry one. That day came, and has come repeatedly since, in the form of the City Council's water rationing programme, designed to eke out the city's supplies.

Turning the clock forward to 2012, Bulawayo has been forced to tighten its latest rationing programme, which has been in place since 2010. "Climatic change has resulted in erratic rainfall patterns," says City Director of Urban Planning, Job Ndebele. "This has led to negative changes in precipitation volumes which in turn have seen low inflows into the city's dams during many rainy seasons," he says. Four out of the city's five supply dams have been operating at way below capacity throughout 2012.

Restrictions and 'water shedding'

The council has begun cutting off supplies to households for up to 48 hours (© Busani Bafana)
The council has begun cutting off supplies to households for up to 48 hours
© Busani Bafana

As a result, saving water has been at the heart of a recent public appeal by the city authorities. In the first half of 2012, residents were restricted to an allocation of 350 or 400 litres of water a day, for low and high income areas respectively, with industries rationed to 80 per cent of their average use. But in August, the council introduced a 'water shedding' system, cutting off supplies to households for up to 48 hours. Recently, in an effort to eke out supplies until the next rains, breaks in supply have been increased to up to 72 hours, although failures to stick to the advertised schedules have left some residents without water for much longer.

There are now fears that this tight water saving regime could lead to a health crisis, due to compromised sanitation. In response, the council has asked all residents to flush their toilets simultaneously, at 7.30pm on a daily basis, in what has been dubbed 'the big flush', in an attempt to stop sewer pipes clogging.

Frustratingly, the city estimates to be losing between 20 and 30 per cent of all potable water that leaves its treatment plants, through pipeline leakages. Bulawayo's pipeline network is more than 30 years old and needs major overhaul to repair broken pipes and prevent bursts. In response, the council has urged prompt reporting of water leaks so that the worst cases can be dealt with. Residents are asked to read their water meters regularly to keep track of water usage and know how to shut off water quickly in the event of a burst pipe.

Harvesting rain

At the height of the water rationing programme in 2008, the city council drilled several boreholes in low income areas to boost supplies. Some of these are still operating, largely to supply water to home gardens. More recently, the city has worked with a number of partners and donors to install rainwater harvesting systems in schools, clinics and some households, to cushion against water rationing.

In 2008 several boreholes were drilled in low income areas to boost supplies (© Busani Bafana)
In 2008 several boreholes were drilled in low income areas to boost supplies
© Busani Bafana

Residents' associations and other community organisations are also encouraging householders not only to reduce their usage but to install roof gutters and water storage tanks, particularly in high density areas. In some low density areas residents have sunk boreholes and private companies are also selling water from their own boreholes at a minimum cost of US$0.80 per litre. Coordinator of the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association, Rodrick Fayayo, says more should be done to promote water saving and water harvesting programmes in the city. "While residents now have more reason to save water, it is the responsibility of all parties, the council, government and residents to ensure that we save water, to save Bulawayo," he says.

Other programmes to augment water supplies include the Nyamandlovu Aquifer which stretches to the north-west of the city. Already, more than 70 boreholes tap water from the aquifer, but the council is looking at increasing this output. Meanwhile, the Zambezi water pipeline, first mooted in 1912 and now adopted as a national project, is seen as a long term solution to the city's water scarcity. Phase one involves building of the Gwayi-Shangani Dam, followed by a pipeline from the dam to the city. More immediately, completion of a pipeline link to the Mtshabezi Dam, about 47km from Bulawayo, is expected to be completed in December 2012. The dam is seen as a stop gap measure to maintain the city's water supply for the next four years, prior to the Zambezi pipeline scheme offering a longer term solution.

This article is supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN)

Written by: Busani Bafana

Date published: October 2012

 

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