When Peter Sibanda, Director of Engineering for Bulawayo City Council, says his only interest is “purely to get water,” you take him at face value. From his seventh floor municipal office, the thunder clouds can be seen rolling towards the city of 1 million people.

Yet, no matter how much rain was to fall in a day, it would be pittance against what is currently needed in this southern part of Zimbabwe. The last time the five storage dams feeding Bulawayo were filled was in 2001, the year after Cyclone Eline devastated Mozambique. Since then it has been nothing less than devastating drought that has befallen this troubled land. 

In 2002, zero net inflow into the dams was recorded and very little has been recorded since. 

Two of the dams have been decommissioned due to insufficient water levels. The remaining three are collectively standing at 29 per cent capacity. With Zimbabwe’s dry winter season just around the corner, this is a dire situation.

In response, Bulawayo has rationed all water users in the city to 65 per cent of their normal consumption, and an existing aquifer, Nyamandlovu (elephant meat), forty kilometres north-west of the city centre, has been tapped for domestic and industrial use. In line with national inflation, water tariffs have risen some 1 060 per cent over the past year.

Sibanda, however, is not the only one in Bulawayo desperately watching the dam levels. Tommy Rosen works for the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), and is Catchment Manager for the Umzingwane River, the headwaters of which feed Bulawayo’s dams before the river meanders through Matebeleland South and ultimately empties into the Limpopo River that borders Zimbabwe with South Africa. Although Rosen and Sibanda are good friends, they are at loggerheads over the water’s use. 

In 2000, Zimbabwe introduced progressive river management legislation based on the natural geography of river catchment basins, as opposed to provincial (state) boundaries. The only problem is that Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, has historically been supplied by the Umzingwane’s waters despite technically falling outside the borders of the river’s basin. As there are no other adequate water storage facilities to serve the city, conflict over water use arises during times of water scarcity. 

I have district managers in the catchment area complaining that Bulawayo is taking their only available water, leaving nothing for downstream needs,” says Rosen, referring to the 3 million people living in his catchment, which includes 11 towns of various sizes. Under the new legislation, each river basin is made up of sub-catchment councils reporting to an overriding single catchment council. Through these structures, all water users are represented and collectively decide on who receives how much water. 

My role is simply to advise the councils on the technical aspects and the amounts of water available,” explains Rosen. Zinwa is also responsible for the more arduous task of providing bulk water supplies to urban and rural users - something that is increasingly complicated under the current economic hardships that the country faces. 

Rosen is, however, aware that his task is more complex than what he describes. With such little water to share, how does one ensure equitable and pragmatic decision-making? 

The Silalalbhuwa Dam, some 150 kilometres downstream on the Umzingwane, is a case in point. It feeds both a 400 hectare community irrigation scheme growing maize for local villages, and a fully-fledged export cement factory. In times of drought, the irrigators are invariably requested to reduce their demand to secure the jobs dependent on the continued operations of the factory. 

Those who feel disgruntled can appeal to their sub-catchment council or even their local political representatives. “Perhaps this is the beauty of the catchment council system,” says Rosen. “It is up to the water users to decide who uses the water.” It does seem democratic, but one wonders how effective a system it will be if the drought continues – perhaps exacerbated by climate change. 

In the meantime, people like Peter Sibanda and Tommy Rosen will continue to watch out for both the rain and the dam levels in their constant and delicate balancing act between competing water uses. If rain falls and the dams fill, many of their problems will simply wash away.
Written by Alex Hetherington