While the major focus has been on economic problems Zimbabwe has been facing owing to a severe liquidity crunch, which has led to company closures and massive job loses, a huge humanitarian disaster is emerging. This as the government fails to provide social services, including clean water.
The water woes have not spared two of the country’s biggest referral hospitals, Parirenyatwa Central Hospital and Harare Central Hospital, signifying how big the water problem is, particularly in the capital city.
A weekly internal report by the ministry of health and childcare on epidemic-prone diseases, deaths and public health events says 328 people have died nationwide of common diarrhoea since the beginning of the year and more than 190 500 have been treated for the condition.
Children below the age of five were the worst affected with most deaths occurring in urban areas. The report attributed most cases to unsafe drinking water.
The report says last year more than 560 people died from water-borne diseases and 590 753 others contracted related conditions, whereas in 2012, only 307 deaths were recorded. Typhoid, common diarrhoea and dysentery have accounted for most of the deaths.
As the economic situation worsens the provision of social services is further deteriorating, sparking fears of a humanitarian disaster in Harare.
Weeks without water
A snap survey by the Mail & Guardian in and around Harare showed that most high-density suburbs have gone for weeks without water, forcing residents to resort to using shallow wells. Others are spending hours queuing at boreholes that were drilled by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund at the height of the cholera outbreak in 2008.
In Chitungwiza some households said they had not had running water since January, forcing many to dig shallow wells in their yards.
“We have no choice but to act on our own. The council is not providing water although water bills are still coming. We are forced to act by digging wells so that we at least have water. I’m aware the water is not safe but I have taught my family members to first boil the water before drinking it,” said Misheck Mazarura of Zengeza 2.
“Such is our life. We have to live without clean water and live in darkness most of the time due to erratic power supplies.”
Mazarura said some enterprising people were now making a living digging boreholes for residents.
“They are charging $100 for a 6m-deep well, which is good money considering the number of people who require their services,” he said. He said the number of diarrhoea cases was also on the rise owing to the failure to provide clean water.
Affluent suburbs not spared
The more affluent northern suburbs such as Mandara and Greendale have not been spared and have gone for years without water, forcing residents to buy bulk water from private companies.
Water tanks have become a common sight at many houses in Harare’s leafy suburbs and many others have been forced to sink boreholes on their properties. Private companies are charging as much as $2 500 to sink a residential borehole.
Harare Residents Trust executive director Precious Shumba said the entire service delivery was poor and the water supply situation is now desperate in Harare.
“The hardest hit areas are Mabvuku, Glen Norah, Kuwadzana Extension, Chitungwiza, Budiriro, Tafara and northern suburbs, which rarely receive municipal supplies,” said Shumba.
Most residents said they had resorted to buying many containers, which they fill with water whenever it is available.
“Basically we fill anything that can hold water, be it the bath tub, pots or tins because you never know when water will be available next. We find ourselves queuing for many hours at boreholes,” said Molline Chidombwe of Warren Park D.
“Other than providing water the council is also failing to collect refuse and as a result many dumping sites have emerged. Actually, every open space is now a dumping ground and we are fearing an increase in diseases once the rainy season starts,” Shumba said.
In the crisis, good Samaritans have emerged, providing free water to desperate residents. A number of Belvedere residents, mostly of Indian origin, have put water taps outside their gardens for the public. Long queues are common as people with vehicles from areas such as Warren Park, Kuwadzana, Dzivarasekwa, Kambuzuma and Mufakose take advantage of the kind gestures.
Closure of intensive care unit, water challenges at hospital
One of the biggest indicators of the government’s failure to provide social services, however, was the recent temporary shutting down of the intensive care unit at Parirenyatwa Hospital, which forced patients to be transferred to Harare Hospital.
Major operations that required patients to be admitted to the intensive care unit after a procedure were cancelled as a result.
Sources at the institution said the closure was because of a failure to maintain the ventilation system and to rehabilitate medical equipment.
Health and Child Care Deputy Minister Paul Chimedza confirmed the closure but said the unit was now fully operational although rehabilitation work was still in progress.
Health and Child Care Deputy Minister Paul Chimedza. (Aaron Ufumeli)
“The Parirenyatwa intensive care units, comprising the adult unit, B7, and the paediatric unit, A4, are both functional.
“The two units were closed for a very brief period as a result of a malfunctioning system for the supply of medical air. The two compressors have since been repaired and/or undergone maintenance,” he said.
“A new medical air supply line has been laid, spares for 11 ventilators were secured and a tender for an additional six ventilators has been floated. The problem has since been addressed and both units are open.”
Chimedza confirmed, that during the closure, patients requiring an intensive care unit were transferred to Harare Central Hospital, whereas “elective major surgery, which could wait, was deferred while urgent cases were operated on at Harare Central Hospital.”
On water, Chimedza said the city of Harare was indeed experiencing challenges with the water reticulation system.
“The hospital’s water supply will therefore, from time to time, be interrupted,” he said.
Chimedza also said the hospital had back-up water tanks at strategic points throughout the institution.
“The maternity hospital, just as an example, has a 40 000-litre back-up tank, which feeds directly into the water reticulation system. The back-up tanks have a capacity of about 150 000 litres. We also have a standing arrangement with a company that delivers water bowsers which are placed at strategic points of the institution,” said Chimedza.
Last month, however, the hospital’s infection control officer, Salome Bhiri, said health workers were ferrying water in buckets from borehole tanks around the institution to wards.
The hospital was no longer different from rural district hospitals, a situation compromising effective and efficient service delivery, she said.
“We are facing serious problems because the tap water hardly reaches the patients’ wards. In some wards, only one tap is functional and you find that two wards may be sharing a single tap. This is not healthy considering that this is one of the country’s biggest referral centres,” said Bhiri.
Nurses at Parirenyatwa also complained to the M&G that they spend hours collecting water from outside boreholes for their patients’ use. But Chimedza denied this.
“It is not true to say that nurses are made to fetch water from boreholes at the hospital. In the extremely rare instances where water has to be ferried from boreholes, this is the responsibility of nurse aides and not of professional staff,” he said.
Chimedza also said only one case of cholera had been reported since the beginning of the year, although typhoid cases peaked around week 12, 13 and 14, but have decreased. He did admit, however, that the dangers of not having adequate water at the hospital are obvious as infection control becomes poor.
“There may be a spread of diseases from patient to patient so water is critical in the operation of any hospital.”
Besides water, most local authorities are also failing to collect refuse, resulting in increased dumping in the city.
The chairperson of the Bulawayo Residents Association, Winos Dube, said although water was a perennial problem, the state of roads is the major problem in the city.
“The roads are bad, and we are not only talking about the roads in the suburbs, but even in the central business district. We have patches on the roads and they are very bumpy, which you would not expect in a city centre,” he said.
The president of the Urban Council Association of Zimbabwe, Martin Moyo, admitted members of his organisation across the country were failing to provide adequate services but said it all comes down to the state of the economy. He said almost all local authorities had failed to get money for capital projects in the past decade, which has led to infrastructural decay.
“Normally we use ratepayers’ money for maintenance and the provision of services, but rehabilitation of infrastructure falls under capital projects, which require money from the government or banks in the form of loans. We have not been able to do that, hence you see most local authorities failing to rehabilitate water, sewer and road infrastructure,” he said.
“Money from ratepayers alone cannot fund capital projects. Even the government has not been able to engage in any capital project in the last decade other than the rehabilitation of the Plumtree-Mutare Road, which is being funded by the Development Bank of Southern Africa.”
Moyo said the infrastructure in most urban areas, including the water and sewer reticulation infrastructure, was old and needed replacing hence frequently bursting pipes.
Besides, he said, most local authorities were struggling to collect revenue from residents because many people were out of employment and cannot afford to pay rates, which was negatively affecting their work.