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When Nature Calls, Harare Hangs Up

Harare, the city that dreams of world-class status by 2025, faces a unique throne crisis. And no, we’re not talking about a political one. We’re talking about the humble, yet essential, public toilet.

The lack of functioning public restrooms in Harare is a pressing issue, especially for women, whose health and dignity are flushed down the proverbial drain.

Picture this: Harare Gardens, Copacabana, Charge Office, and Sam Nujoma Street. These aren’t just locations on a map but landmarks in the city’s grand tour of the defunct loo. Each bears the ominous sign “Not in Use — No Water,” a message that’s becoming as iconic as the city’s aspiration for world-class status. It’s as if the city council decided to give the citizens an interactive exhibit of urban decay.

The real stars of this show are the brave vendors, street dwellers, and commuter omnibus drivers who’ve turned service lanes and dark corners into makeshift restrooms. One might say they’re making the best out of a bad situation, but the reality is more unsanitary than optimistic. The recent cholera outbreak, while on the decline, still looms as a dire reminder of the public health stakes.

Now, let’s sprinkle some GRB magic dust on this murky situation. For those unfamiliar, GRB is not a fancy way of saying “let’s spend money equally on both genders,” but a strategy to ensure that public funds are allocated in a way that meets the needs of all citizens, with a keen eye on the impact on women and girls. The idea is brilliant: if you fix the toilets, you fix a lot more than just the plumbing.

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In theory, it sounds like the ultimate solution. In practice, it’s like a New Year’s resolution – great on paper but hard to stick to. The current GRB approach seems to subsidize everything but prioritize nothing, leaving public toilets in their current state of disarray.
In a twist of irony, while GRB promises to address women’s health and dignity, Harare’s public toilets – or lack thereof – continue to mock these noble intentions. With the city’s population far outgrowing its facilities, the council needs a real plan, not just good intentions.

A plan that involves more than sporadic water supplies and makeshift mobile toilets. A plan that prioritizes clean, accessible public restrooms, ensuring Harare’s streets don’t double as lavatories.

Harare City Council spokesperson Stanley Gama as quoted in the media recently, casually note, “We distribute what (the amount of water) we have.” “For example, during weekends, we don’t have water in the central business district, so we will be distributing it in places like Mabvuku and other areas, so our water (supply) is very limited.” Translation: Don’t hold your breath for a functioning toilet downtown on weekends.

In its GRB Statement for 2023 , HCC noted that “Gender considerations informed decisions concerning external revenue with need to prioritize WASH resulting in about 90% 0f IGFT allocation going towards WASH.”

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The Harare Residents Trust director, Precious Shumba, isn’t amused. “Residents expect to find their public toilets open and accessible up to around 9pm when most people leave the central business district,” he says, urging the council to install back-up water storage or provide water bowsers

Simple, right? Yet, it seems the council’s priorities are as murky as the alleyways behind those closed restrooms.
But who needs those when you have mobile toilets? Yes, the council’s masterstroke – pay-to-pee portable potties.

These entrepreneurial endeavors offer a glimmer of hope and relief. However, as Gama explains, they too are subject to the whims of bureaucracy. They pay for licenses, operate in designated areas, and often face the same water shortages as their static counterparts.

As the city marches towards its lofty goal of world-class status by 2025, it must first address the basic needs of its citizens. Public toilets, often overlooked and underfunded, are critical, especially for women’s health.

Gender Responsive Budgeting offers a pathway to prioritize these essential services. However, without genuine commitment and strategic allocation of resources, Harare’s dream will remain just that—a dream.

So next time you walk through the CBD, hold your nose and remember: in the grand theater of urban management, the humble toilet is more than just a convenience—it’s a litmus test for the city’s true priorities.

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Multi-award winning journalist/photojournalist with keen interests in politics, youth, child rights, women and development issues. Follow Lovejoy On Twitter @L_JayMut

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