Picture: iSTOCK
Picture: iSTOCK

Harare — Bensen Muzamba knows the cost of water only too well. He runs a maize farm outside Harare, but because of poor rains at the start of the season, he was forced to purchase water to irrigate his crop — something he can ill afford.

As with many farmers across the country, he relies on rainfall,  and struggles if it does not come when expected.

“It’s tough when you have to buy water ... and sellers demand foreign currency,” Muzamba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, inspecting maize plants on his land about 15km from Harare.

As Zimbabwe struggles with the fallout from a slow start to the rainy season, bulk suppliers that deliver water in tankers have increased their prices, citing the high cost of extracting groundwater. And with dam levels down — though recent rains have helped — cities such as Bulawayo have been exploring ways to curb water consumption in homes.

Meanwhile, violent clashes have erupted over shortages of fuel and a government-imposed fuel price hike, while US dollars, one of Zimbabwe’s main currencies, are hard to come by.

Groundwater is essential to ensure farmers can grow enough food crops, but some borehole owners in Harare have been selling 1,000 litres of water for about $30, twice the going rate in October.

The Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa), a government agency, charges $10 for 1,000 litres from state-owned dams — but even that is expensive for farmers used to free rain.

Washington Zhakata, director of the climate-change department at the ministry of lands, agriculture and rural resettlement, said declining rainfall in the past couple of decades has caused Zimbabwe’s groundwater levels to fall and shortened the time periods in which water is available.

This, he said, had affected farming nationwide.

“The distribution of rainfall across the country has been uneven, coupled with extended dryness,” Zhakata said by e-mail, linking the shifts to global warming.

Average temperatures around the world have already risen about 1ºC above pre-industrial times, and Southern Africa is expected to see drier conditions as warming continues.

Sobona Mtisi, an independent researcher on water and climate change in Zimbabwe, said rainfall has been low but the nation had enough groundwater stocks to meet rising demand. Still, Zimbabwe would benefit from better methods for managing its groundwater, he said.

“[It] needs to be managed sustainably through an effective and evidence-based groundwater policy,” said the UK-based Mtisi.

In a bid to deal with the long-term effects of patchy rainfall, Bulawayo is proposing technological interventions to cut water consumption

Despite rains having picked up this month, forecasters’ concerns persist that an El Niño weather pattern could result in below-average rainfall this season, said Tamburiro Pasipangodya of the Zimbabwe Meteorological Services Department.

Up to early January, most parts of the country had received less than 75% of the long-term average rainfall, and a smaller amount than in the past three seasons, she noted.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network said seasonal rainfall is set to continue across Southern Africa this week, bringing some relief from dryness, including to parts of Zimbabwe.

Turning off the tap

As rains become more erratic, Zimbabwe is looking to irrigation to cushion its food supplies against drought.

In the 2019 budget in November, finance minister Mthuli Ncube allocated nearly $1bn to the agriculture ministry to fund irrigation and borehole rehabilitation, among other measures, to improve water sources for farmers. And in a bid to deal with the long-term effects of patchy rainfall, Bulawayo is proposing technological interventions to cut water consumption.

In the last week of December, water levels in Bulawayo’s dams dropped to 60% from 65% in early November, Zinwa said.

The city has long turned to groundwater for relief during dry spells, but a recent council report said the municipality had failed to maintain its boreholes, compromising future water availability.

This month, the Bulawayo authorities said they were looking at installing water flow regulators in homes. According to the city’s director of engineering services, Simela Dube, the devices would be part of water management efforts allowing consumers and the municipality to save water.

The regulators would restrict consumption to predetermined levels decided by households, depending on how much water they need, he told council chambers. Residents would be able to use between 1m3 and 5m3 of water per day, compared with now when they can turn on their taps at will even if they cannot pay their water bill.

However, there are concerns the new proposal will meet resistance from customers who have previously rejected pre-paid water meters, said city councillor Sikhulilekile Moyo, calling for more consultation.

Jacob Mafela of the Bulawayo Residents Association said that schemes to save water are generally welcome. “We support all initiatives which, at the end of the day, benefit residents,” he said. “It is historically known that the city faces water challenges, but we need consensus.”

Meanwhile, as El Niño-linked rainfall uncertainty continues, farmers such as Muzamba — most of which lack insurance against crop failures — are despairing of help. “We will keep asking government for assistance — though we know the money is not there.” 

Thomson Reuters Foundation