Water is life. It is a necessity. It is a most precious resource. Yet in Harare, there is an increasing trend to under-value the importance of our delicate water supply. Many no longer expect municipal water to come out of our taps. In fact, very few areas receive municipal water at all. People have turned to buying borehole water from companies, who are pumping out thousands and thousands of litres of precious ground water. Others queue for hours to get water from a communal well or borehole. The groundwater is being diminished. A lot of water from Lake Chivero is not reaching households because of leaking pipes and other issues. Bottled water is commonly sold everywhere now. Harare and its surrounding areas are experiencing a severe water crisis. Yet despite a slight decrease in rainfall, there is plenty of water in Chivero to support every person’s needs. What has gone wrong? What role do wetlands play in Harare’s water supply? What is a wetland?
A wetland is an area of land that is saturated with water, either permanently or seasonally. They are also known as swamps, bogs and marshes and in Southern Africa, they are commonly known as vleis. In the dry season, they appear to be barren. However, they store water underground. Wetlands maintain stream flow and they feed into ground water. In the rainy season, wetlands become marsh-like, with water being visible on the surface.
Wetlands should be protected because they are pivotal to our water supply, they naturally purify water and they prevent siltation of lakes. Harare and its surrounds rely on wetlands. In fact, rivers even start from wetlands. The importance of wetlands has been known in this country since at least the 1900s. Legislature such as the National Resource Act of 1941 should still be upheld to this day, preventing farming on wetlands and generally protecting them. But instead, the rules and regulations in place to preserve the environment are being side-lined.
Despite the evidence that wetlands are essential to water storage and supply, they are being built on. For example The Long Cheng Plaza Mall was built and opened in 2013, despite objections from the Environmental Management Agency (EMA). This construction cost over $200 million dollars and was built on the Marimba wetland. Other wetlands are also being threatened, such as the Borrowdale Vlei where building is currently going ahead. Pokugara Residential Estate has started to construct upmarket housing on this wetland. Residents and environmentalists have battled to stop the unnecessary housing development, but it appears that another important wetland is to be destroyed. In an area where water is scarce, the plan for swimming pools seems ridiculous.
Monavale Vlei in Mabelreign is a Ramsar Site and as such is a protected area of 34 hectares within an overall 594 hectares of land. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands exists to promote the conservation of wetlands and helps nations to do so. The vlei has been managed and protected by the Conservation Society of Monavale (COSMO), with help from BirdLife Zimbabwe, the EMA and the City of Harare. However, despite all the efforts to protect this vlei, including the removal of rubbish and the stopping of agriculture and the fact that it is officially a wetland, it is still under threat. The land is privately owned by the Patel family and Mrs Patel has plans to build 160 cluster houses and a park. Unfortunately Mrs Patel refused to give me an interview, claiming that she has been previously misquoted. The contentiousness of wetlands and construction continues to divide opinion in Harare. Unfortunately it seems that financial gain through construction is overriding the value of water. At present, there has been no decision made on the future of Monavale.
The value of wetlands
Wetlands not only play an intrinsic part in the water cycle, ensuring the availability of water, they are also home to a huge variety of plants and animals. Monavale Vlei for example has 36 species of grass and over 80 species of various plants. The root system is extensive, keeping the clay soil together, as well as removing dangerous chemicals and metals. The spongy soil stops silt and waste from reaching other water sources. Wetlands act as a natural sewerage treatment plant, without the costs of building and maintenance of a man-made one. Building on wetlands increases the amount of sewerage that ends up in Lake Chivero, threatening Harare’s main water supply. The silt that wetlands intercept is now ending up in Chivero. Professor Chris Magadza gave me an example of this. Over a year ago, 10 metres of sediment was measured at the intake tower at Lake Chivero, which has resulted in a 20% loss of water storage. Building and cultivation on wetlands is causing this siltation of Chivero, decreasing the amount of potential water available to Harare residents.
More than 240 bird species have also been recorded in Monavale and animals such as bush pig, otters, mongooses, duiker, hares, as well as reptiles and amphibians and fish live there too. This biodiversity should be preserved. There is not one single good reason to build on a wetland as the soil is not suitable for construction. Houses built on wetlands are prone to flooding and cracks are a common occurrence. Monavale Vlei is a place of beauty and tranquillity, valued by residents for bird watching, walking and general recreation. School pupils have had many enjoyable outings there. Wetlands have educational and cultural value and they are essential to Harare’s water cycle.
The Marlborough Vlei has also come under threat from human activity, and a lot of effort has been made to conserve its 180 hectares. The Marlborough Environmental Action Group (MEAG) was set up to assist this cause. This wetland is an essential source of water that feeds into Harare’s dams. It is also another biodiverse vlei that is well-known for its rich bird life. The future of this wetland, like so many others, is in a very precarious situation. The protection of our natural water supplies should supersede construction and other human activities.The Borrowdale wetland actually acts like a forest, removing about 20 thousand tons per year of carbon dioxide. Another reason to retain the area as a natural environment.
Lake Chivero and Harare’s problematic water supply
Lake Chivero, formerly called Lake Mcllwaine, is a reservoir on the Manyame River. It is Harare’s main water supply as well as supplying Chitingwiza, Epworth, Ruwa and Norton. The water collected by wetlands eventually feeds into the lake and the lake’s water is pumped to the city. This hydrological cycle is supported by good rainy seasons, an intact natural environment and human intervention for transportation of water i.e. pipes and treatment works etc. This system worked well until about 2000 or even earlier, when management problems set in. The promise to cancel water payment debts and the huge amount of people who stopped paying bills, has meant that the city does not have enough revenue to run its system or to fix broken pipes. The huge amount of water that is lost in the system, means that only about 40% of the water put in, is actually reaching households. The added problem of bill payments, means that only about 20% of the water that is treated and pumped, is actually being paid for.
The main water treatment works called Morton Jaffray with the supporting Prince Edward works, is being refurbished by the African Development Bank through the ZimFund with a loan from the China Import Export Bank. This financial support is meant to return Morton Jaffray to its initial design capacity, supplying each person with 278 litres of water. The Prince Edward works should also be improved, although these works are designed for supplementation only. There has been an improvement in supply, but with huge losses of water through leakages, many parts of Harare continue to have no or very little Municipal water. The current average rainfall may not be as high as in the past, but it cannot be blamed for our water problems. Dams are full and proposals for the building of new dams are unnecessary.
There are many factors contributing to Harare’s current water crisis. What is clear is that conserving wetlands is an important part of the solution we need to protect Harare’s natural supply of purified water. The issue of raw sewerage being poured into Lake Chivero causing contamination, also needs to be addressed. The necessary maintenance required to ensure water reaches residents has to be carried out, the natural environment needs to be respected and preserved and money channeled into necessary projects. Only then will there be hope for the end of Harare’s water crisis.
Water is life and it is our most valuable resource.
All images by Lucy Tingay