It takes a special moment to bring people together. The residents of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, will remember where they were and what they were doing at 7.30pm on Saturday.
Flushing their toilets.
The sound of thousands of lavatories gushing across the city was the result of an unorthodox attempt by local officials to clear waste accumulating in the city’s sewers after weeks of drought and avoid blocked sewage pipes after days of severe water rationing. But not all residents got the memo.
Bulawayo currently rations water for 72 hours each week. Its two main supply dams have been drying up because of drought in the arid south-west of Zimbabwe, raising fears of worsening water shortages before the rainy season starts in November.
In an imaginative response, Bulawayo city council asked its more than 1 million residents to flush their toilets simultaneously at 7.30pm on Saturday when water supplies were restored. They claimed the measure, to be repeated every three days, is vital to clear waste accumulating in sewers.
Nesisa Mpofu, a council spokeswoman, said: “The public is advised that there is a need to schedule a flush exercise of the reticulation system in all areas that do not use septic tanks. This is due to the recent water shedding programme by council, which has seen a reduced amount of water entering the sewerage system.
“All residents of Bulawayo are invited and expected to participate in this exercise. Every household is requested to flush their toilets systematically at 7.30pm.”
She added: “This is done to prevent any sewer blockages as we anticipate longer periods without water in the reticulation system.”
Power and water outages are common in Zimbabwe after years of political turmoil and economic meltdown. Eddie Cross, MP for Bulawayo South, claimed the first synchronised flush had been successfully observed. “In the townships and the central business district it was pretty much universally done,” he said.
Failure to flush could cause sewage overflows and disease, Cross warned. “We get blocked-up sewers and we have raw sewage flowing in the streets. There are no diseases yet but that’s the fear. It’s very hot and cholera is a risk.”
He argued that the main cause of the problem is drought. “We’ve had no run-offs into our dams for 20 months. We’re in a precarious position. We have to look after our water or we’ll run out completely.”
Neglected infrastructure is also an issue. “We’ve been saying that Bulawayo’s water pipes need attention for 30 years. We haven’t built a new dam since independence. There’s no short-term solution and no miracle in sight.”
Some residents complained that they had not been told about the 7.30pm ritual and that it would be impractical. Cont Mhlanga, a playwright, actor and director, said: “I’m not sure how effective it would be. People would forget. You don’t have any alarm to remind you. If you’re out, the kids might be watching TV and won’t do it. It’s a tricky option.”
The human rights campaigner Jenni Williams has been without water for three days. Contacted on Sunday, she asked her colleagues in the activist group Women of Zimbabwe Arise if they were aware of the flushing directive. “They’re all saying: ‘Flush with what water?’” she reported. “They forgot to tell us and we would not be able to do it anyway.”
Williams added: “It is extremely embarrassing. It is unfortunate the media should know about it before the citizens. The whole water shortage smacks of disorganisation, corruption and political interference. It’s one mess-up after another.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012
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