Cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe fueled by chronic water shortages

Zimbabwe has been fighting for months to stop the spread of deadly cholera in its cities and villages due to a lack of pure water.

Cholera, an acute diarrhoeal infection caused by consuming food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, can spread rapidly in cramped and dirty conditions.

It has become a kind of ominous reaper for this southern African nation; in 2008-2009, over 4,000 people died when the water-borne disease struck during an already tumultuous period.

This outbreak first struck back in February and as October ended official figures from the Health and Childcare Department are listing nearly 6,000 cases and some 123 suspected fatalities.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who won disputed elections for a second term in August, has pledged a nationwide borehole-drilling initiative.

This will be supported by solar-powered water points, which will primarily serve the approximately 35,000 villages that lack access to safe drinking water.

In Harare, residents can go weeks or even months without a consistent water supply from the Harare City Council.

In Harare's satellite township of Chitungwiza, more than 50 fatalities were reported as October ended - all from cholera.

It is the same scenario in Mutare, the principal city in Manicaland's eastern highlands. There are more cholera infections and the city is struggling to provide its residents with clean water.

Cholera is cheap to treat with rehydration salts - and simple to avoid altogether if people have access to clean water and adequate toilet facilities.

Mike Ryan, director of emergencies for the World Health Organization, described cholera as a poster child for poverty, social injustice, climate change, and conflict a few days ago.

It is not straightforward to see which of these can be placed on President Mnangagwa's government, However, the reported cases of cholera indicate a lack of will, ability, or both to prevent further outbreaks by providing clean water.

In the southern suburbs of Harare, the quest for water is visible. Many roads are traversed by wheelbarrows to reach community centers and churches with boreholes willing to share their water and open their faucets.

Critics point to the disparities in affluence between those who can afford to drill boreholes in their backyards and those who cannot afford to do so.

In urban areas, city councils, which are frequently governed by the opposition, blame the government's desperate lack of investment in supplying new equipment and cleaning chemicals to purify the water.

That the government is always caught off guard demonstrates a depressing lack of investment in its urban and rural water systems.

Director of the Harare Residents' Trust, an NGO that claims water shortages in the capital are worsening, Precious Shumba implored the government to assist councils more.

In more affluent areas of the capital, residents coordinate their own rubbish collections through community initiatives - but elsewhere the streets have turned into rubbish dumps because the authorities no longer organise collections.

With the onset of the seasonal rains, many are concerned that cholera, which lurks in shallow pools of water, will be difficult to combat due to the months' worth of grime and filth.

They continue to fight to keep their children away from water taps and puddles and face the daily challenge of determining what is or is not safe to drink.