Cholera spike projected amid biting water crisis

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7 mins read

Brenna Matendere

Harare—There are growing fears that the current cholera outbreak will get worse as the local and central governments struggle to provide adequate potable water to residents.

Increasing cholera cases forced government to declare a state of emergency on 16 November 2023.

According to UNICEF, Zimbabwe recorded 15,571 cases, 67 confirmed deaths and 280 suspected fatalities from 57 out of 63 districts in Zimbabwe as of 5 January 2024.

The organisation adds that there was an increase in cholera cases over the Christmas holiday owing partly to mobility among holiday makers and the onset of the rain reason.

An informal survey by NewsHub in Harare, which has recorded among the highest number of cases by city and town, revealed that most residents were still grappling with acute water cuts running into weeks.

The Harare Residents Trust (HRT) director, Precious Shumba, confirmed the festering water shortages and feared that they would push cholera cases and deaths up in the short-to-medium term.

Failed dismally

“The city of Harare has dismally failed to provide water to the residents of the Harare metropolitan province. Braeside, Arcadia, Hatfield, Kuwadzana and a host of suburbs have gone for at least two weeks without water supplies from the city of Harare.

“This situation weakens the capacity of the council to combat the cholera outbreak. Without consistent water supplies, residents are prone to disease outbreaks,” said Shumba.

Lake Chivero is the main water source for Harare, Chitungwiza and other locales like Epworth, Norton and Ruwa.

Shumba blamed aged infrastructure for the long-drawn water crisis in Harare and the surrounding areas.

“Underground water pipes are clogged with sand and rust, and require urgent replacement, especially in the pre-independence suburbs like Mbare, Mufakose, Dzivarasekwa, Kambuzuma, Mabvuku, Tafara and Highfields.

“The solution lies in prioritising pipe replacement in the neediest areas on the water distribution network,” he said.

At the beginning of December 2023, the City of Harare released a tight water rationing schedule that has seen areas such as Mabvuku, Epworth and Borrowdale getting it once a week.

The council said the rationing was due to reduced capacity at the Prince Edward waterworks.

Populous south-western suburbs like Marimba, Rugare, Budiriro, Glenview and Glen Norah which were hotbeds of a devastating cholera outbreak in 2008 and remain highly vulnerable have been scheduled to receive tap water on weekends, but they are going for longer periods without any.

Harare is currently generating a quarter of the required 1,200 mega litres but widespread leakages mean that residents and industry are getting less than that amount.

Itai Rusike, the Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) director, told NewsHub that the failure by the Harare city council to provide residents with constant water has resulted in consumers adopting alternative sources of water that are exposing them to cholera.

“Almost every household in Harare’s high density suburbs has a shallow well and we are also aware that most of the townships are relying on boreholes. As a result of the rains, most of those shallow wells have become contaminated with dirt.

Contaminated

“Most of the boreholes are also contaminated with sewerage and uncollected refuse. All these cases are contributing to the escalation of cholera in Harare,” he said.

The Groundwater Management Institute says the failure of municipal infrastructure to provide adequate water in Zimbabwe has led to a dependence on groundwater, with 80 percent of Harare’s population relying on boreholes and wells.

But half of the groundwater sources are contaminated, according to the Harare municipality epidemiology control officer, Michael Vere.

Vere says their own studies had revealed that the water was contaminated with human waste and E-coli bacteria that are linked to cholera.

According to the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), health authorities have struggled to contain the high number of admissions in Harare following the outbreak.

The epicenter of the latest outbreak in Harare was the densely populated suburb of Kuwadzana, which accounts for nearly half of the reported cases yet it still suffers severe water cuts.

In November, when Harare was declared cholera state of emergency, the then mayor Ian Makone, said the disease outbreak had similarities to the 2008 one.

The 2008 cholera epidemic resulted in 98,585 reported cases and 4,287 reported deaths, making it the largest and deadliest in the history of Zimbabwe.

Over 10 months of the 2008 outbreak, there was a high fatality rate of 4.3 percent.

The epidemic began in late August in Chitungwiza, a high-density centre that has endured serious water shortages for decades.

A July 2017 study report in the Health and Human Rights Journal cited lack of stable water supplies as the major driver of the 2008 cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe.

“A breakdown in the most basic elements of water and sanitation infrastructure underpinned the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe. Water supply became increasingly erratic while quality deteriorated,” noted the report.

The 2008 cholera crisis led to a near-paralysis of basic services in the country as it coincided with hyperinflation.

The government announced in late 2023 that a public enterprise, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) had taken over water supply from the Harare municipality, accusing the local authority of bungling management of the precious liquid, but the move is yet to achieve desired results.