Fears of disease outbreaks mount

via Fears of disease outbreaks mount | The Zimbabwean by Edgar Gweshe/Thabani Dube 18.09.13

Water shortages in Zimbabwe’s urban areas have reached a critical level, raising fears of disease outbreaks.

Doctors and aid agencies have already raised a red flag, warning of a looming catastrophe unless emergency measures are put in place to rectify the situation.

Some hospitals have had to ask patients to bring their own water from home. “The situation has to be rectified because that in itself is a health time bomb. As for the City Of Harare, we hear that they have finished their refurbishment work so maybe we have to wait and see if the situation is going to improve,” said Rutendo Bonde, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights.

The impact of water shortages has seriously affected sanitation and hygiene in cities, especially in high density suburbs. Large parts of Gweru, for example, have gone without water for several weeks, forcing residents to resort to abandon the use of conventional toilets in their homes. They are now using nearby open spaces for relief.

“In areas such as Kadoma, Chegutu, Gwanda, Harare and Chitungwiza, we had to step in to purify the water after realising that the council was failing to meet its obligations,” said Takemore Mazuruse, a Red Cross officer.

Cholera swept across Zimbabwean towns and cities in 2008, forcing international aid agencies to mount a massive operation to contain the scourge after nearly 100 000 people were at risk. Thousands died from the epidemic.

Christopher Zvobgo, the director responsible for water and sanitation in Harare, said the capital was headed for a disaster as consumption increased while the pumping capacity remains unchanged during the dry season.

“We are now into peak season where water demand is high. Generally, we are producing a total of 550 mega litres per day from our two water treatment plants Morton Jaffrey and Prince Edward water treatment plants,” he said. This quantity is less than half the daily consumption level.

Zvobgo saidonly two pumps at thePrince Edward water plant were working, threatening supplies to Chitungwiza. “We have been back-feeding water supplies from Letombo Reservoir in Msasa to supply Chitungwiza. In Harare, only one pump is working due to breakdowns.”

Chitungwiza only needs a daily supply of 45 mega litres. But the town is now receiving a mere 12 mega litres every day.

“We use a tracking system of any suspected diseases so that they are dealt with before they go out of hand,” said Gloria Gonese, the Chitungwiza Director of Health Services. “The water-borne disease cases recorded so far have been below action threshold, which means the situation is under control.”

Although four cases of typhoid were recorded in August, said Gonese, the town’s officers remain on high alert to manage a potential outbreak.

Harare says it has borrowed $144 million from a Chinese bank, the Import and Export Bank, specifically to refurbish its collapsing water distribution infrastructure which leaks nearly half of what is being pumped from Lake Chivero. Most of the pipes are over 50 years old and need urgent replacement. The city spends $3 million on water treatment chemicals every month.

Dr Portia Manangazira, a senior government epidemiologist, said the absence of a specific budget line for water-borne diseases meant that the Health Ministry has to rely on international donors in the event of an outbreak.

Economist Innocent Makwiramiti said the situation has been worsened by the government’s lack of capacity to address the water and sanitation problem. “The economy is just as good as dead. There is nothing much for infrastructural development.”

To tackle water shortages and avert a humanitarian crisis, the government needs external help, said economist John Robertson.

“However, the problem is that we have not been meeting our payment obligations and we have disqualified ourselves from borrowing from most credit institutions,” he said.