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Unpacking delivery challenges for urban water supply – Insights from Harare

Water is the lifeblood for urban settlements. Disruptions in supply and/or wastewater management hold enormous risks, both for human health and economic wellbeing. It goes without say that the investment in bulk water infrastructure requires strategic and long-term perspective. However, in the southern African context, many city engineers responsible for urban infrastructure on the ground face a multiplicity of challenges that may frustrate their efforts to plan proactively.

To explore this topic further, the Future Resilience for African Cities and Lands (FRACTAL) programme hosted a think tank workshop for the City of Harare, Zimbabwe, designed to engage city stakeholders involved in the upgrade of the primary water treatment plant in Harare, the Morton Jaffray (MJ) Water Works. The issues that emerged during discussion in Harare, serve as an illustrative case study, as they highlight some of the broader challenges common to urban water delivery in Southern Africa.

While the Harare municipality had developed plans for staged refurbishment of MJ water treatment works, evidence shows that it took an outbreak of a cholera epidemic in Harare in 2008 to trigger implementation. A more recent cholera outbreak, that occurred in 2018 reinforces the case that crises triggers decision-making.

For Harare, an ambitious vision and strategy could assist in avoiding knee jerk decision-making and ensure that service delivery meets the needs of a rapidly growing city without compromising basic human needs. This would also enable improved resilience against climate change.

Political interference may also result in developments that run contrary to technical recommendations. The Harare engagement references cases where politicians have facilitated developments that infringe on the City bylaws and best practice. This has led to urban development within restricted areas such as wetlands. The consequences of this are not only environmental, but also have a knock-on impact on water quality and flood attenuation – factors which then bear direct costs for the City (through increased cost of water purification and the need to resolve incidences of flooding within residential areas).

Clearly defined roles are required as mitigation against the situation where political decisions can defeat the ends of service delivery. Technical decision makers, guided by partners such as scientists and researchers, are the ones who should recommend required infrastructure investment. The politicians, as policy makers, provide oversight for technical decision makers.

Linked to political issues, are challenges relating to policy and legislation. In the case of Harare, the City has very limited delegated decision-making authority over water. Thus, while the City has the authority to supply water within jurisdiction, they have no mandate on the procedural paths for water service delivery, which is the ambit of central government. With respect to finance, the City has borrowing powers but, as illustrated in the case of the loan required for the refurbishment of the MJ water works, this was only secured after a national election period, with the City official being disconnects from repayment terms.

As with the issue of political interference, the policy and legislation disconnect entrenches low levels of harmonisation between government entities and erratic law enforcement. National legislation designed to protect stream banks and wetlands is flouted, causing pollution of water bodies such as Lake Chivero, again with cost implications for the City.

To address these challenges FRACTAL recommends that by-laws are more strictly enforced and that campaigns are introduced to help cultivate a culture of stewardship of the environment amongst citizens.

A lack of adequate financial resources at City level, not only inhibits autonomous action, but also leaves the City officials vulnerable to the terms on how loans are used, and the route that development takes, in some cases at the expense of initially tabled plans. In addition, budgets in the Harare City Council do not appear to prioritise the water sector, affecting water service delivery in the city.

FRACTAL notes that water sector budgets should be prioritised, both at local and national level, given the essential lifeblood and livelihood role that water plays. Domestic resource mobilisation strategies by both central and local government would limit overdependence on funders and ultimately skewed decision-making for the development, as well as the pressure that is placed on citizens as part of loan repayment schemes.

Although the picture might seem gloomy for Harare, there are solutions. FRACTAL envisions what should take place for Harare to meet an ideal situation: standard inclusive decision-making processes and a system that accommodates researchers and decision makers working side by side in producing knowledge that is essential for decision-making in the city. Transformation within the decision-making processes, would improve the possibilities for future-orientated decisions and more sustainable development. Accountability, transparency and collaboration among key stakeholders is required.

This think piece has highlighted some of the factors that underpin decision-making for the water sector in many other cities in southern Africa – similarly the solutions posed have wider application for effective delivery in the water sector and for building resilience in the cities more generally.

Download the Think Piece: Exploring perspectives that underpin decisions for southern African urban development – Insights from Harare, Zimbabwe here.

Harare is one of the cities participating in the FRACTAL research programme. The FRACTAL research programme is working alongside local government authorities in several southern African cities, to help design climate-responsive development plans.

This article was written by Amanda Dinan.