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HEALTH-ZIMBABWE: Cholera Now a National Emergency

Stanley Kwenda

HARARE, Dec 4 2008 (IPS) - "Funerals of people dying of cholera are a common feature of our daily lives," said Tapiwa Hove, a resident Budiriro, a high-density suburb of Harare. "But it seems no one cares. Sewage is flowing all over. It's like living in hell."

Raw sewage -- urban sanitation in Harare has collapsed due to poor planning and the economic crisis. Credit:  IRIN

Raw sewage -- urban sanitation in Harare has collapsed due to poor planning and the economic crisis. Credit: IRIN

With the official death toll standing at 565, Zimbabwe's government has declared a growing cholera epidemic a national emergency and appealed for international assistance.

Even before the government's appeal, Budiriro was teeming with aid workers frantically trying to distribute water from big water bowsers to desperate residents. There is commotion and the exchange of harsh words, as children, men and women with toddlers strapped to their backs try to secure at least a bucketful of clean drinking water.

"We are thirsty in this land of plenty. Dry taps have become a way of life," says Hove.

Davison Makanga reports on the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe

All across Harare, people tell of how healthy-looking people are dying within hours of consuming the dirty water that many residents have resorted to in the absence of clean drinking water. "People are dying at an alarming rate. There are funeral wakes in many households. The government might try to deny this, but the reality is there for all to see," said Hove.

Local rights groups such as the Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights estimate the death toll is already over 1000, much higher than the government admits. To make matters worse, there are very few places where people could go and seek medical attention as most hospitals are either closed or functioning without basic equipment.

And there are fears that the situation will only grow worse. "What I am afraid of is that now that the rain season has come, all faeces lying in the bushes will be washed into shallow wells and contaminate the water," health minister David Parirenyatwa told state media. "Management of water and sanitation is primary to the cholera problem."

CARE International, Red Cross Society and United National Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) are building latrines, distributing medicines and hygiene kits and have taken over ZINWA's responsibility of delivering water, and repairing blocked sewers across Zimbabwe to mitigate the cholera emergency.

Most of Zimbabwe's urban areas have gone for several months without water. Many urban households are unable to use their toilets, which are completely blocked by overflowing sewage. Last month, key institutions such as the High Court and Parliament buildings in Harare had to be closed because of the acute lack of water.

Zimbabwean cities have battled to provide water and refuse collection services while the country is subject to frequent power cuts, a result of a severe foreign currency squeeze. The current cholera outbreak is blamed on broken down sewers, uncollected garbage and a shortage of clean drinking water in Zimbabwe's cities.

To the daily search for currency, bread, oil and transport, Harare residents now spend much of their time looking for water. Those still fortunate enough to be in formal employment now carry with them an empty bucket of water to work every day, in case there is clean water at the work place. Those in other hard-hit areas such as Budiriro and Glen View have to walk distances of up to five kilometres to get water at local council boreholes.

Those still receiving water from the taps hardly dare risk using it. "The water comes out with a heavy smell. It's sometimes greenish in colour, other times brown. It's never helpful at all, in fact, we only use it to clean the toilet," said Tadiwa Chireya, a gardener in the upmarket suburb of Greendale.

President Robert Mugabe's government – which is still firmly in control of the administrative affairs of the country until a unity government is put in place – blames the water woes on sanctions that it says were imposed on Zimbabwe by Western countries.

The European Union and United States have imposed targeted sanctions on senior Zimbabwean officials because of authoritarianism and human rights abuses. International donors from these countries are feeding nearly one-half of the population and in recent years have provided most of the drugs used in government health service including those that are now used to treat water and victims of cholera.

Water is only the latest casualty as public services in most Zimbabwean towns have been deteriorating for more than a decade because of a lack of maintenance by the cash-strapped government.

The first democratically-elected mayor of Harare, civil engineer Elias Mudzuri is just one of the experts who warned several years ago that the city's water distribution and sewage systems were on the verge of collapse and needed urgent attention.

In 2004 the running of water affairs was transferred from local authorities to ZINWA. The move gave ZINWA powers over water provision and charging of tariffs but the responsibility of maintaining water and sewer pipes was left to the local authorities.

"ZINWA took over responsibility of water provision, equipment such as cars and other engineering equipment but reneged on taking over the responsibility of repairing the infrastructure, yet it had taken away all the monetary means of meeting such responsibility which came with revenues of water usage," said a Harare City Council engineer who asked for anonymity.

Under this arrangement ZINWA would collect revenue for water usage but the responsibility of fixing and maintaining Harare's water system was left to Harare City Council engineers whose financial capacity has been drastically reduced. At one point the city council was faced with an exodus of disgruntled engineers. Many others left the country for neighbouring countries while those still in employment often refuse to take instructions from ZINWA.

Zimbabwe's Minister of Water Resources, Munacho Mutezo, under whose leadership ZINWA falls, has refused to comment on the catastrophic water shortages. Although there is plenty of water in the dams, Zimbabwe's cities, without water treatment chemicals or the means to carry out needed repairs to the water and sewage systems, will continue to face the devastating water woes.

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