Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Looking for someone on Monday and Thursday at 7 p.m.? Check the bathroom.
Days of water outages can have a mean effect on a city, and the biggest problems may be bubbling out of sight. With no water running through the sewage pipes, dangerous backups can pose festeringly destructive problems to a city's infrastructure.
So when the water dried up recently in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second biggest city, officials knew a disaster was gestating in the city's aging sewer system. The rainfall had been lower than usual over the summer, and a water emergency was declared back in July. Despite rationing efforts, the situation did not improve. Much of the city faces extreme shortages, and some neighborhoods have gone without water for a week straight.
This would be bad news in any city, but it's particularly devastating for Bulawayo, where the aging infrastructure is overtaxed. "In the last 15 years the population in our cities has doubled. Harare now has about 4.5 million people and Bulawayo has 1.2 million to 1.3 million," a member of parliament told The Zimbabwean. "Our infrastructure was built to serve only 600,000 people."
Without water keeping the sewage system moving, official worried backups would destroy the city's wastewater infrastructure from within. So they came up with a solution - twice weekly citywide toilet flushings. Every Monday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., every household in the city is instructed to flush their toilet – a synchronized act of sewage maintenance that may well unclog the city's pipes, according to this article from The Associated Press.
Not everyone is so thrilled. Activist leader Magondonga Mahlangu told the Associated Press that the toilet flushing campaign is emblematic of the city government's incapacity to take on the major issues affecting the lives its people. "It just goes to show that someone in the council has lost touch with the real issues on the ground and is failing to deal with real problems," Mahlangu said.
But a citywide upgrade of the sewage system is not likely to happen anytime soon, despite the need. For now, the city will have to rely on its people to come together in this time of need and, at the precise time, flush for Bulawayo.
Image courtesy Flickr user country_boy_shane