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Open sewers, blackouts and no water: life in Zimbabwe

NCE gained an exclusive insight into the state of Zimbabwe's infrastructure this week as the World Bank prepared to launch a major reconstruction funding package in the event of President Robert Mugabe's exit from power.

Currently awaiting the results of its presidential election, Zimbabwe is a country with infrastructure crippled by its dire economic condition.
The official inflation rate of 160,000% is equivalent to a halving in value of the country's currency every five days.

Unable to borrow externally with total external debts of £2.5bn and in arrears to institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the country's infrastructure is crumbling due to lack of maintenance.

One engineer inside the country said power blackouts were a regular occurrence and streets in parts of the capital Harare had turned into open sewers after pipes had blocked and burst.

Zimbabwe's ageing road network – well developed by African standards but mostly built in the 1950s and 1960s – is also failing so badly that journeys are regularly treacherous.

"The national road network was well maintained in the past but there has been very little maintenance in recent years," said the engineer, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from Mugabe's regime.

"The Department of Roads struggles just to keep up with pot-hole patching. There is a need to rehabilitate large parts of the network.
"The road network in the cities and towns has not been as well maintained as the national network and is more heavily trafficked – much of it is failing and needs reconstruction."

Households regularly go without drinking water during the week as there is only enough treated water to supply what heavy industry there is left, such as mining.

"In Harare much of the reticulation [supply network] was installed in the 1950s and 1960s and needs to be renewed," said the engineer.
"Wherever you go in Harare, you see water from leaking pipes and some visible leaks run for months before they are fixed. Current estimates put non-revenue water (leaks)at over 40% – this in a system that once considered non-revenue water above 10% to be worthy of attention."

The World Bank ceased lending to the African nation in 2000 when in fell behind on its loan repayments – its arrears to the bank stood at £266M in July 2007.

Despite this the World Bank is ready, along with IMF and the UK's Department for International Development, to launch a package of funding covering immediate humanitarian and longer term infrastructure needs should Mugabe leave power.

A World Bank spokesman was unable to reveal details of the recovery package, as the organisation wished to avoid prejudicing the outcome of the election, or any subsequent "run-off" vote where Mugabe would go head-to-head with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

However, if Tsvangirai was to take power and the recovery package put in place, the civil engineer speaking to NCE said it would need to be firms from outside the country that delivered the rescue package.

"Everybody has lost staff because we can only pay a fraction of what a person can earn in other places," he said.

"If there were to be a turnaround, the consulting industry could rebuild its capacity quite quickly since it requires far fewer people than the contractors. Given the scale of the works needed, there will probably be room for new players to come in.

"Rebuilding the capacity of the Zimbabwe contracting industry will be harder. The construction boom in South Africa has soaked up all the region's capacity – from steel fixers and carpenters to engineers. Local contractors will not be able to rebuild capacity quickly enough to respond to a significant increase in the work load, so external firms will need to come in."

Chinese firms were the most likely to carry out most of the rebuild, he said.
"A lot of contracts have been awarded to them (the Chinese) but most have stalled due to lack of funds. However, they seem to be taking the long view. In Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana, Chinese contractors are competing successfully against South African and local contractors because they offer lower prices than anybody else.

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