A plastic pipe protruding from the ground gushes water non-stop, while a boy tries to position a dish beneath the pipe’s mouth. A lot of water is leaking. As it seeps into the ground, an earthy scent fills the air.

A few paces away a group of sullen faced women, young men and children sit on empty containers arranged in a linear order. There are less than 20 people, but the containers outnumber them four times. There is no chatter synonymous with most informal gatherings. The people here sit in silence, bearing the scotching mid-day sun, waiting for their turn to get water.

Jimmy Mahachi (48) approaches the long-faced small crowd and introduces himself. He is a founding trustee of the Cleveland Action Alliance Trust – a community-based organisation that advocates for residents’ right to access to water as well as wetlands preservation.

Mahachi greets the people, and they respond reluctantly. “We have been here for hours, the queue is not moving,” they tell him.

Mahachi does routine checks at water points around the area to stay abreast with the gravity of the water situation in his community. He has been living in New Mabvuku, a suburb in Harare, since he was a toddler, in the early 1970’s.

“Do you know we have not had tap water here in Mabvuku for more than 30 years? Our constitutional right to access to water has been tampered with for a long lapse of time.”

“People mostly get water from unprotected sources. The few boreholes that are functional are not enough and have become a source of contention,” he states.

Once in a blue moon – three times a year at most – some few sections of New Mabvuku get dripping tap water for a few hours. The water – like all the water supplied by Harare City Council – is unsafe for human consumption. So the people in this area rely on groundwater from wells and boreholes. For groundwater to remain fresh, it is recharged by wetlands – the RAMSAR website indicates.

Now it is precisely these wetlands that are in danger of drying out. On the outskirts of New Mabvuku is a Ramsar site known as the Cleveland Wetland, which is under threat. Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention - an international treaty signed in 1971 which calls for wetland conservation.

The wetland sustains the Cleveland Dam – a subsidiary water source to Harare and neighbouring towns – Chitungwiza and Norton.

The Cleveland Wetland and the Dam are reportedly at risk of drying up if a local chemical company - Zimbabwe Phosphate Industries (ZIMPHOS) - continues to draw huge amounts of water from the dam. A deal between the Harare City Council and ZIMPHOS is enabling the chemicals company to abstract water unlimitedly from the Cleveland Dam, which it uses for its operations.

In return, ZIMPHOS supplies the city authority with water treatment chemicals.  Harare City Council uses a total of eight chemicals to treat the water it supplies to residents in the few suburbs that receive tap water. Normally, an average of three chemicals are used to treat water in other cities worldwide. But Harare’s water requires more chemicals because it is so dirty even at its source. As a result, the city struggles with the cost of water treatment chemicals. The deal with ZIMPHOS is meant to ensure a consistent supply of the chemicals.

Information from the Upper Manyame Sub-Catchment Council – a statutory body that monitors use of water bodies – indicates that ZIMPHOS draws a total of 100,000 litres a day from the Cleveland Dam. This has led to the dam’s water level dropping excessively. In October last year before the rain season started, the dam had gone down to less than ten percent holding capacity.

Environmental activists such as Mahachi say this rate of water obstruction is unsustainable.  Mahachi and a group of other New Mabvuku residents who have formed a community organisation of volunteers advocating for wetland preservation are concerned that any disturbance to the Cleveland Wetland will worsen their already dire water scarcity situation.  

Members of the Cleveland Action Alliance Trust are unhappy with Harare City Council’s decision to allow ZIMPHOS to abstract water unlimitedly from the Cleveland Dam without engaging residents – the chief victims of destruction of water sources.

“Cleveland Dam and Wetland, by virtue of them being situated near New Mabvuku, have to one way or the other supply us with water. Wetlands are crucial to water availability. I’m a resident of a suburb with a Ramsar designated wetland but I struggle to access water and decisions pertaining to that wetland are made without consulting us. this of course affects us a lot,” Mahachi said.

However, residents of New Mabvuku are not the only ones perturbed about the rate at which ZIMPHOS abstracts water from Cleveland Dam. Mohammed Surtee, director of Haka Game Park, parts of which are situated on the Cleveland Wetland, also fears for the animals in the park. Surtee and his family established the park more than 20 years ago to conserve vegetation and wildlife while offering recreational services such as game viewing, canoeing, and fishing to tourists.

Haka Game Park is home to about 270 species of wildlife, whose survival depends on water in the Cleveland Dam. Surtee told this reporter that this number is in danger of dwindling if the natural ecological system at the park is disturbed due to excessive water abstraction.

“A lot of aquatic species, water birds that were resident at Cleveland, had to find alternative places because there just was no water at Cleveland for two reasons: droughts that we have been having in the last few yearsand the rate of abstraction of water by ZIMPHOS. This left a lot of species struggling to access water,” Surtee said.

Facing this potentially devastating situation, Surtee joined forces with other environmental activists to seek justice over the issue. Now Mahachi and his group, Surtee and another organisation of environmental lawyers called Advocates4Earth are fighting towards the goal of saving the Cleveland Wetland.

The first steps for justice were taken at the end of last year. A case was filed at the High Court of Zimbabwe by Advocates4Earth accusing ZIMPHOS and the Harare City Council of carrying out a project without assessing its impact to the environment. The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) - a state organisation whose mandate is to oversee the upholding of environmental laws and practises in Zimbabwe - was also listed as a respondent to the case, for failing to do its job.

Director of Advocates4Earth, Lenin Tinashe Chisaira, said it is very worrying that public institutions which are supposed to be protecting the environment are not abiding by environmental laws.

“Harare city council gave ZIMPHOS the authority to take water from Cleveland Dam. We have all these authorities and government departments that are supposed to take care of the environment, but they don’t sync with each other and at the end of the day it’s the people that suffer."

“It is very unfortunate that public institutions in Zimbabwe don’t respect the mandate of other public bodies like EMA,” he said.

Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Act (Chapter20:27) stipulates that an environmental impact assessment exercise be carried out before the commencement of any project – including water abstraction.

On paper, the first successes can be reported by the prosecution. A judgement by consent was reached on the case. ZIMPHOS, Harare City Council and EMA admitted that an environmental impact assessment exercise was not carried out before abstraction of water from Cleveland Dam - as is required by law. In addition, the High Court of Zimbabwe ordered the three parties to conduct an environmental impact assessment and ensure that all their operations are abiding by environmental laws within 90 days, from October 13, 2020.

But as is so often the case, it is taking time to  be implemented, and the situation does not seem to be improving for those affected in New Mabvuku and the surrounding wetlands.

“We are still waiting for the environmental impact assessment report up to now,” Chisaira said.

Despite the abundant rainfall of the 2020/2021 season, water levels in the Cleveland Dam are starting to fall again. This is because of rising temperatures in the region resulting from climate change.

Surtee said ZIMPHOS should look for alternative sources of water for their operations so that it does not draw so much water from the Cleveland Dam, which the chemicals company is still doing up to now, even after the High Court judgement.

Efforts to get a comment from ZIMPHOS by this reporter were fruitless.

Environmental activists - Mahachi and Cleveland Action Alliance Trust - continue to fight for protection of wetlands, in the hope that one day, authorities will listen and act.