Every service breakdown in Zimbabwe produces its own brand of shysters – currency swindlers, fuel hoarders, fertiliser thieves, offer-letter forgers. One of the most noxious is the water bandit.
All areas of Harare suffer water shortages – some have not received water for five years – as a result of the failure of government and city council to manage the task of drawing, treating and distributing water from Lake Chivero.
In come the water bandits. Pumping industrial quantities of water from domestic boreholes, they deliver to the 50 percent of low-density area homes that don’t have boreholes and have to depend on Harare Water. A welcome relief to the buyer, but severe stress to those whose shrinking water table is being drained by the supplier.
“We are in crisis,” said hydrologist Tim Broderick. “People think we are on an underground lake. The ground water we have is all recharged directly from rainfall. We need three years of rainfall of over 1,000 mm a year. Last year we had 700 mm. This year it’s only just approaching 800 mm.
“Three years ago by September-October I started getting calls from people, saying my borehole’s pumping air. Last year it started in July. This year come August I bet we’ll start receiving calls.”
There is a clear example of the unsustainable and illegal abuse of other people’s water in the small suburb of Meyrick Park, in Harare west, which receives municipal water once a week.
On Sherwood Drive, opposite a small shopping centre, in the yard of a quaint 1940s-built Cape Dutch style house, a 5,000 litre green plastic tank sits atop a three-metre high gantry, with a fat hose that discharges water.
Usually around 6.30am every day, including public holidays but not on Sundays, a dark blue five-tonne truck, with four 2,000 litre tanks chained to the bed, lumbers out of the filthy, littered yard with a stagnant swimming pool, on its first trip of the day. At the side of the vehicle is a small petrol engine to pump water out of the tanks.
The truck returns a couple of hours later, the tanks are refilled and it heads out of the gate again, sloshing water over the broken concrete driveway. The process is repeated, up to seven times a day, the driver often delivering late into the night, according to neighbours.
At $20 per 2,000 litres, it means the operation earns up to $560 a day, or $17,000 a month, drawing on communal water free of charge.
It also means that in a single day the borehole draws up to 60,000 litres from the area’s water table, enough for a normal household for a month. The operations were first noticed in late 2000.
The latest version of the Water Act states that it is “an (criminal) offence” to extract water commercially from within urban boundaries without a permit. Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) officials confirmed that the operator of the business “has not applied for a permit.”
Violation of the law carries a fine or up to six months in jail, or both.
The operator is a South Korean national (name supplied) who runs a bottling plant in Msasa for “purified” water from the borehole on the property where six families living on the property have had to use the yard for defecation, neighbours said. He lives in Borrowdale Brook. Attempts to contact him failed.
The issue has been reported to police and to ZINWA but action has yet to be taken.