It takes a special moment to bring people together. The residents of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-biggest 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. However, 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 southwest of Zimbabwe, raising fears of worsening water shortages before the rainy season starts in November.
In an imaginative response, the 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.
“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 program by council, which has seen a reduced amount of water entering the sewerage system,” council spokeswoman Nesisa Mpofu said. “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.”
“This is done to prevent any sewer blockages as we anticipate longer periods without water in the reticulation system,” Mpofu said.
Power and water outages are common in Zimbabwe after years of political turmoil and economic meltdown. Eddie Cross, MP for Bulawayo South, said the first synchronized flush had been successfully observed.
“In the townships and the central business district, it was pretty much universally done,” he said.
Poor hygiene and sanitation have caused numerous disease outbreaks in Zimbabwe in recent years.
Failure to flush could cause sewage overflows and disease, Cross said.
“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 said.
He said 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,” Cross said.
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,” he said.
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.”