/ 22 November 2013

The spectre of another outbreak of cholera haunts Harare

The Spectre Of Another Outbreak Of Cholera Haunts Harare

Five years after more than 4 000 people died during a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, Human Rights Watch says the city is at risk of another outbreak. And it does not help that officials are denying the severity of the sanitation situation.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released this week, Harare's dilemma is a bursting population that is burdening its old infrastructure. The city still uses the same pipes that it did in the 1980s, when its population was 600 000. Now it tops four million.

Human Rights Watch investigated the availability of potable water and sanitation in Harare between September 2012 and October 2013. Residents of Harare and surrounding areas such as Chitungwiza, Norton and Ruwa require about 1?200 ­megalitres of water a day, but Harare City Council produces about half of that demand.

A significant amount of the treated water is also lost to leaks, leaving ­residents and industrial businesses with even less.

The city's water is not safe for consumption, which is something the city is not open about. The Human Rights Watch report also raises this issue, saying the number of people who have fallen sick from contaminated water is startling.

In the past year, more than 3 000 cases of typhoid have been reported in the city, but the number is likely higher because many cases go unreported, Human Rights Watch says.

Unsafe water
A laboratory analysis carried out by the Standards Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ), the results of which were made public last month, confirmed the presence of harmful coliform bacteria in tap water.

The sample was taken from Mbare township. The SAZ's recommended total plate count of water that it considers safe for consumption is 100, the Mbare sample was more than 300.

Residents in areas such as Chitungwiza, Glenview and Budiriro have resorted to fetching water from shallow wells or boreholes sunk with the help of Unicef in 2008 to help contain the cholera outbreak. Areas such as Zengeza 2 and St Mary's in Chitungwiza receive water only once a week.

Areas that are more affluent, the northern suburbs of Greendale and Highlands, hardly get water at all.

The report also found that boreholes drilled during the 2008 outbreak were not maintained and many are now contaminated; yet out of desperation, people still draw water from them.

Human Rights Watch says residents are not receiving any information from government departments about the safety of the water.

"The water we get from the tap is not good. Sometimes it smells like fish, sometimes it smells like raw sewage. But when it comes in we have no choice and we have to drink it anyway," a resident from Dzivarasekwa, identified only as Stella, told Human Rights Watch.

Flowing sewage
Open defecation, open sewers and flowing sewage are also contaminating wells, the report indicates.

Although the Harare City Council recently secured a $144-million loan from China for rehabilitation and expansion of its water treatment plants, a city engineer who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity revealed that the money was not enough to normalise the water and sewerage reticulation system in the capital because of problems, including the poor quality of raw water, ageing equipment and poor revenue inflows.

He said the local authority and surrounding towns were also pumping raw sewage into the city's supply dams, resulting in contamination of water, making it more difficult to purify.

As a result, he said, the city was using eight different chemicals to purify water at a cost of about $3-million a month.

Uphill battle
A resident of Budiriro township told Human Rights Watch: "People are suffering in this area because there is no water and it is a big problem. Hopelessness is now the order of the day."

Harare acknowledges that it is facing an enormous task. "Some of the infrastructure in use is over 60 years old. The economic life of most pumping plants is 15 years. Beyond this point, the operational efficiencies drop and breakdowns increase. The city is therefore having to deal with frequent breakdowns at the treatment works and this reduces the water output," the city said.

Another problem is that residents are not always willing to pay their bills.

The government recently directed all local authorities to write off all debts owed to them — an act that the opposition party said was an election gimmick to ensure urban support for Zanu-PF. Now residents are reluctant to pay, hoping for another round of benevolence.

Uncollected rubbish
Harare Residents Trust director Precious Shumba said although chances of a cholera outbreak had reduced because of a marginal improvement in the water supply situation, the onset of rains would present several problems.

"The eastern and northern suburbs of Harare remain marginalised in terms of water supplies. These areas rarely get consistent water supplies from the municipality, meaning they have to find alternatives — boreholes and private water sellers," said Shumba.

She said three problems need to be addressed; water quality, refuse collection, which is inconsistent, and water supply, which is erratic.

Human Rights Watch said residents dump rubbish, including dead pets and human faeces, in any open space — even in residential areas and shopping centres.

Harare and Bulawayo, the country's two largest cities, are particularly vulnerable to cholera because they are located on watershed divides. Water draining out of the city flows into the drinking water sources, all of which are located downstream of these return flows.

A father of two from Mufakose township, identified as James in the Human Rights Watch report, sums it up: "We usually get 20 litres of water from the borehole. I budget the water so the 20 litres can last the four of us for several days.

"Even people who have more family members make 20 litres last. When there is no water going to the borehole, it is really stressful — waiting in the lines for hours and all the violence. So we have to make our 20 litres last."