As Zimbabwe’s capital stinks up, its millionaires build private sewers.

In November, when ultra-wealthy residents of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, unveiled the country first ever private sewer plant and harvested surplus treated water to nourish their golf courses, a headmaster in the capital’s poorest township had just penned a furious letter to authorities that raw faeces have overwhelmed his school’s driveway.

Such is the hopelessness of collapsed sewer plants in Zimbabwe’s capital, that residents in Borrowdale Brooke, Harare’s richest suburb, cast aside authorities and pooled $USD660,000 to build their own private sewerage cleaning plant.

Millionaires’ sewers

Borrowdale Brooke is dubbed ‘Millionaires Island’ by some inhabitants of Harare. It is a cluster of roughly 600 mansions with the likes of the country’s gilded army generals who carried out a coup in 2017, Olympics stars, and presidents cocoon. These residents are barricaded from an impoverished city where pumps failed way back in 2001 and faeces sometimes topple out of kitchen taps.

“We build our private sewer plant because the City of Harare is incapacitated from a broken economy and mushrooming settlements,” says Mr Rusty Markham, the parliament representative whose constituency covers Borrowdale Brooke. The capital’s infrastructure has not been repaired in last 30 years, he says. “Borrowdale Brooke’s own sewer pump broke down in 2002. Nothing was happening. Actually our sewer plant was leaking water down into rivers.”

To shield themselves from the stink that the poor live with elsewhere in Harare, Borrowdale Brooke’s 600 households extracted a $USD200 monthly levy from each family for four years. The design of the new plant is sleek and of European standards, adds lawmaker Markham.

“Water goes into the plant. It is neutralised by additional air and bacteria. 85% of the sewerage waste that goes in there is extracted as grey water. The grey water is in-fed back into Borrowdale Brooke homeowners, into their golf courses and gardens.”

“We don’t rely on government. We build our own solar, gas, boreholes,” boasts James Staki, a chartered accountant and resident of the Borrowdale Brooke. The private sewer plant serves 99% of homes in the Borrowdale Brooke enclave.

The poor must pay in

The poor of Harare City will have to pay in to the private sewer scheme to have their waste cleaned by the plant. In a hard-beaten city, where many face starvation, this is a big ask. “I haven’t heard of outsiders joining yet,” says Markham.

Engineers lay Harare sewer pipes (photo by Wise Jet Crane)

Runaway sewer

The stink of runaway sewer in Harare city is grim and deadly. Faeces have jammed school and homes pipes. Flies have invaded drains. At one Warren Park Government School, in a major township, the headmaster wrote to authorities on 9 September that, pupils have been sickened by diarrhoea because borehole water is compromised by fresh sewerage. “The school entrance is now a hazard and eyesore,” the headmaster wrote a public letter.

Half a billion litres of untreated sewage flows into Harare’s daily water source, according to the state agency Environmental Management Agency of Zimbabwe (EMA). The subsequent absence of oxygen means shoals of dead fish now clog water clarifiers at Morton Jaffray’s plant (the city’s main sewer cleaning plant) and other lakes. Francis Manjengwa, a biomedical scientist from the University of Zimbabwe has warned that lake fish sold in the capital’s unchecked vending tables could be soiled with E Coli bacteria. This is why eaters end up in emergency clinics. Francis says that when he tested the fish, “Significant levels of microbial contamination above international standards in both fish and water were recorded.”

“The fish of Harare smells sewerage. It’s laughable but serious,” echoes Harare taxi driver Hamudi Tineyi who says the fish once sickened him along with his family. .

Harare’s sewer treatment infrastructure was designed for fewer than 1 million people, says Markham. “We now have a day population of 4 million. In all purposes, sewer plants have collapsed. Pipes are over 50 years old. It’s total helplessness. The city must limit population and build skywards before the watershed collapses too. Municipality, government is corrupt. Billing system is chaotic. Only 30% of pumped water reaches homes. Of that only 15% is paid for.”

Because of desperation, the capital´s municipal clinics are dispensing free aqua tablets as a precaution for the poor who might drink its sewerage infested water. The city’s water now requires a whopping thirteen chemicals to be cleaned to acceptable levels, says Brighton Gava, a water biologist with Areka Laboratories, a non-profit that tests the chemical quality of public water for municipalities in Zimbabwe. This is hard for stomachs of consumers.

No more public sewers

It is because of this dysfunction that the wealthy cluster of Borrowdale Brooke erected their own private sewer plant. “Our sewer plant recycles 85% of used water and uses it as grey water. Our 300 to 400 megalitres of water means we don’t have to draw and stress Harare’s already burdened fresh water,” says lawmaker Markham. Fresh water that Harare city must send to Borrowdale Brooke’s community has been reduced by 60%, along with sewerage services. “Our 600 households no longer exploit boreholes and the water table. We protect ground water.”

Mansions in Borrowdale Brooke (photo by Xandatoto)

Rich fellows, private problems

The wealthy building their private sewers and abandoning townships to wallow in stink is problematic, says Tich Nkomo, a sociologist at the Zimbabwe Rusitu Bible College. “Rich fellows are creating their own sewer solutions, so what’s next? Private police, electricity?”

He cites that Zimbabwe’s wealthy army generals call Borrowdale Brooke enclave their home. “Senior state officers live in this Borrowdale Brooke hideout. It is just a coy way of taking care of themselves and seeing off the poor die of cholera from burst sewer pipes.  Millionaire self-funded sewer projects are not benchmarks for the poor,” adds Tich Nkomo.

“We need a unified response. Cholera disease from sewer pipes does not respect suburb boundaries,” admits Markham the lawmaker of Borrowdale Brooke.

Ray Mwareya is a freelance Zimbabwe/Canadian reporter and essayist whose work is published in the likes of Yale e360 Magazine, Reuters and The Guardian. Join him on Twitter at @rmwareya