In many neighbourhoods of Harare, due to poor service delivery, people have to buy expensive, overpriced water, or travel long distances to get clean water from public, hand pump-operated boreholes. Sometimes they have no choice but to use unsafe water.
The cholera outbreak of 2008 was a result of a lack of access to safe drinking water. To help alleviate this problem, public boreholes were drilled in hard hit areas. However, as more and more boreholes have been drilled all over the city and more and more water is being drawn out for uses beyond just household use (for unpermitted commercial or industrial use, and to keep the gardens of the affluent verdant and lush all year round) the water table has dropped. Now many of the most desperately needed boreholes, where people have little access to clean water, have all but dried up.
We’re all drinking from the same ‘cup.’
Imagine that underneath Harare, below our gardens, lies a series of water bodies, some linking to each other in a big network, and holding all our water. When it rains, new water collects in the vleis around town, sits in the waterlogged soil, and then filters slowly down through the layers of soil and rock, and into the water table below.
When we drill a borehole down into one of those bodies of water, it is like sticking a giant straw down into the tank and sucking out the water. Of course, if too many straws are sucking out too much i.e. more than can be replaced by rainfall, the supply is going to run out. Every body of water has a limited capacity and because the underground aquifers are connected to each other, practices in one area of the city can affect the quality and supply in other areas.
We all agree that businesses shouldn’t be drawing out huge quantities of this valuable resource that belongs to everyone and selling it off for their own profit. But should we, as private users, be depleting the water table just to water our lawns, and even our verges, expecting tropical looking gardens all year round? Especially in a country that has such difficulty meeting the basic water needs of its people?
According to the Water Act of 1989, all underground water belongs to the State. This fact is important because the State must regulate and monitor usage and supply. It is in everybody’s interest that they are able to do this well: so that industry is not overusing or polluting the common water supply; so that commercial water sellers are not abusing the resource; and so that the water quality is being monitored for relevant pollutants to ensure that it does not pose any danger to consumers’ health.
Home-owners are required to obtain permits for boreholes. Permits are inexpensive and can be obtained at City of Harare offices in Cleveland House, cnr Leopold Takawira and Speke. Ideally this should be done before drilling and drilling without a permit is a legal offence. City of Harare does allow and encourages home-owners to obtain permits retro-actively where necessary. A secondary, time-bound, renewable permit is also required in order to draw water.
Once boreholes have been approved, City of Harare can test the water to ensure it is fit for consumption. This is an important step as some borehole water in Harare has been found to be contaminated by dangerous pollutants. Steps can then be taken to make it safe to use, for instance which type of filtering is required. At least then you’ll know what it can be safely used for.