Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe, has long struggled with drought and a decrepit infrastructure. The city’s one million residents have access to running water only 72 hours a week due to drought conditions: local dams have lacked water runoff for the last 20 months. Bulawayo, unlike much of Africa, actually is full of flush toilets - which are now contributing to the city’s water crisis.

Meanwhile, city officials have worried that austere water rationing could cause the city’s aging sewage pipes to dry and then become blocked or even worse, burst. So Bulawayo’s leaders asked the residents to participate in a “big flush” concurrently at 7:30pm on Saturday evening. Whether a city that flushes together stays together, however, is yet to be determined. Confusion and frustration with the country’s government festered as citizens were reminded once again about Zimbabwe’s incompetent public officials.

Blame for Bulawayo’s water scarcity lies all over the map. Critics point to the legacy of corruption and bungling under President Robert Mugabe that transformed Zimbabwe from one of Africa’s richest countries into an economic basket case. Others would highlight the decades of colonization. The real culprit, however, is the drought festering for almost two years in southwest Zimbabwe and an infrastructure that has begged for new pipes for over 30 years.

Bulawayo, toilets, water free toilets, drought, Zimbabwe, Leon Kaye, flush mob, Robert Mugabe, water scarcity

Bulawayo toilets

The success of Saturday night’s flush-in was mixed. When The Guardian asked a local human rights activist about the flushing order, Jenni Williams replied, “They forgot to tell us and we would not be able to do it anyway.” And to demonstrate the difficulty of participating in a massive flush exercise when many residents lack water, Williams reported that when asked her colleagues, the universal response was: “With what water?” Confirming that this idea was one best suited for the crapper, another interviewee said, “You don’t have any alarm to remind you.” Other residents reported to the Associate Press that they were unaware of the civic exercise, even though some bureaucrats had threatened to fine households that did not participate in the ambitious flush fest.

Another human rights activist, however, told the BBC that the giant flush went smoothly and was an exercise in local family dynamics. The BBC quoted Dumisami Mpofu as saying, "I made sure my wife and children flushed the toilet at 19:30 to avoid blocking our own toilet. So far, the flushing of toilets was a success here in Cowdray Park township.”

Not everyone was impressed; one resident told the BBC that the initiative was “a joke,” and suggested that the city find donors to replace the aging sewer pipes.

Scatological jokes aside, Zimbabwe’s political situation plunks the country a notch above North Korea among countries where international aid organizations want to scale water stewardship programs.

If there’s a number one and a number two lesson to be learned from what is going on in Bulawayo, then 1) the toilet, a Victorian era invention that has changed little the past 150 years, needs a complete reinvention because 2) with the way the globe’s population is surging while fresh water supplies plummet, the world cannot afford to have 7 billion, let alone 9 billion people, all use flush toilets. This sorry episode in southwest Zimbabwe is yet another example of why the quest for the water free toilet is a disruptive technology the world needs sooner rather than later.

Published earlier today on Triple Pundit. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photos courtesy Wikipedia.

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. Based in California, he is a business writer and consultant. His work is has also appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He's pictured here in Qatar, one of the Middle East countries in which he takes a keen interest because of its transformation into a post-oil economy. Other areas of interest include sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). As of October 2013, he now lives and works in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.