Review: Water, History and Politics in Zimbabwe: Bulawayo’s Struggles with the Environment, 1894-2008.

Author(s) Muchaparara Musemwa
Publisher Africa World Press
Year 2014

This book is a solid attempt to understand the interface of water, politics and history in urban Zimbabwe and in particular Bulawayo city (between 1894 and 2008). The focus is placed on Makokoba, one of the earliest townships in Bulawayo. The author should be credited for braving and undertaking such a controversial, sensitive and emotional subject. The central argument of the book is that ‘water typifies the social, political and economic relations embedded in the process of urbanization and municipal governance and politics’ in the city of Bulawayo (p. 187). To support this assertion, the book makes a number of other key arguments.

First is that the struggle for water in the city of Bulawayo has ‘historical, colonial and post-colonial antecedents’ (p. 1). In the colonial era, most ‘African’ townships were under-served as part of the colonial regime’s spatial segregation philosophy and practice. Further, Bulawayo Municipal Council battled to take control of water from Bulawayo Waterworks Company, a private company responsible for water between 1894 and 1924. Such resistance presumably inspired the legendary refusal by the city to hand over water and sanitation functions to ZINWA, a government created entity between 2005 and 2008.

Second is that Bulawayo’s water woes are not only attributed to environmental catastrophes, but also to the political construction of both pre-and post-independence Zimbabwe. This, one would argue, is true in most Zimbabwean cities especially with the authoritarianism and centralisation philosophy shown by the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) government since 1980. This contestation for urban control has pitted local authorities against central government, a dynamic that has been evident not only in water but also in electricity, vehicle licensing, housing, public transport and sanitation. In this regard, as the book rightly points out, ‘the provision of water in colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe has been the preferred object of social and political control in the country’s urban areas’ (p. xviii). Water constitute the largest percentage of total municipal budgets, hence the state has often showed potency to control such a vital resource.

Third is the destruction of urban livelihoods. The cost of keeping gardens went beyond the reach of many due to water rationing. People whose livelihoods relied on gardening and selling vegetables, especially the old and women, were the most affected. At the household level, the unavailability and increasing purchase price of vegetables affected the dietary needs of families. Fourth is that when people were confronted with water scarcity, local coping strategies emerged. These strategies included recycling wastewater, informal street networks of communicating impending water cuts, water sharing and mothers bathing children in pairs. Such water rationing had a gender dimension: namely, it affected women most.

Fifth is that the rise of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and its control of cities and urban centres in the post-2000 era intensified centre-local state contestations. In Bulawayo, the relations between the city and the state suggest that ‘water is crucial not just as a revenue earner but also in affirming power in urban, if not national governance’ (p. xxiii). As alluded to above, the battle for the control of urban areas between Zanu-PF and MDC was fought over the production and supply of water services. Most urban centres except Bulawayo succumbed and handed over water to ZINWA. However, the government entity was under-capacitated, and presided over a cholera epidemic with claimed over 4,000 lives. In January 2009, the government of Zimbabwe backtracked and directed that ZINWA hand water and sanitation functions back to local authorities. However, contradictions and tensions ensued again. Up to this day, most local authorities are still to recover from the handover and Bulawayo’s perceived sound governance is attributed to its resistance to the takeover from the centre.

The book argues tellingly that the challenges of water in Bulawayo and Makokoba in particular have roots in political decisions. Whilst that might be true, the author does not go a step further to provide the political construction behind such decisions. By and large, assuming that such political decisions are made at city level, the author’s assertion of regional marginalisation becomes questionable. This stems from the fact that Bulawayo city council compared to other 31 urban centres in Zimbabwe seemingly enjoys more autonomy from central government. In this regard, this city would be expected to have a comprehensive water plan to address such water shortages. Second, over the years the political and administrative wing of the City, to a larger extent, is dominated by people from the Matabeleland region. This dispels the notion of ethnicity and regionalism as explanatory factors in the City’s water shortages. Rather, water shortages in Bulawayo can attributed to the absence of long-term planning, a condition affecting many urban centres in Zimbabwe. In comparative terms, all seven cities in Zimbabwe (Harare, Bulawayo, Kwekwe, Kadoma, Masvingo, Gweru, and Mutare) are suffering from this condition, as they do not have capacity and infrastructure to provide all urban residents with water.

The author suggests that ‘ethnicity and regionalism were principal tools around which the state allocated resources away from Matabeleland’ (p. xxi). To prove that requires comparative analysis with other regions, for instance Harare the capital city. Further, one needs to use Public Sector Investment Programme funding in water allocated to major cities over the past three decades by central government. Zimbabwe has two metropolitan regions, Harare (capital city) and Bulawayo. In fact, the politics of water and sanitation in Harare looks similar to that of Bulawayo. This is mainly because the deterioration of water and sanitation delivery in the capital city is a result of ‘intricate political and municipal governance issues, the historical city-state tensions, and the impact of rapid urban population growth’.[1] Critical academic work that involves issues of regionalism and ethnicity requires producing considerable evidence as burden of proof. For instance, the issue of Makokoba in Bulawayo can be equated to chronic water shortages in Mabvuku (settlement started in 1952) in Harare’s eastern suburbs. The settlement has gone for more than 10 years without supply of water from the city of Harare.

The author argues that the advent of independence did not bring about increased water security in Bulawayo. This must be looked at along with Zimbabwe’s development policy. Successive Zanu-PF policies after independence featured rural development more prominently than urban development. Suffice to say, the urban challenges the country is grappling with, such as housing, water, transport, and electricity among others, are partly explained by the Zanu-PF government’s reluctance to problematise urban development as a key development priority.


Davison Muchadenyika is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Social Development, School of Government, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa. He has a master’s degree in Development Management and an M.Phil in Administration. His PhD research focuses on Social Movements, Housing and Urban Transformation in Zimbabwe. His other research interests include African cities, international development, and governance.


[1] Musemwa, M. (2010). From ‘Sunshine City’ to a Landscape of Disaster The Politics of Water, Sanitation and Disease in Harare, Zimbabwe, 1980–2009. Journal of Developing Societies, 26(2): 165–206.

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