Untreated sewage makes its way into drinking water

The dumping of untreated sewage into Lake Chivero, the main water supply dam of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, has finally caught up with the authorities, with an upsurge in cases of diarrhoea and dysentery in the city.

Harare's 60 public clinics are attending to more than 900 cases of diarrhoea every day, according to City Health Director Prosper Chonzi. He told IRIN he had ordered the clinics to treat patients free of charge to try and halt the spread of infection.

Zimbabwe's cash-strapped public infrastructure is in a state of disrepair. Unable to raise money to overhaul Harare's sewerage treatment plant, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) has diverted untreated human waste into Lake Chivero, the city's main source of water.

Compounding problems, a dire shortage of fuel has prevented ZINWA from attending to burst sewer pipes, resulting in effluent flowing into the streets of several Harare townships. City residents have also to contend with regular water cuts as a result of power outages.

The hardest hit have been areas like Mabvuku and Tafara, where there has been no potable water for more than six months. Several people in Mabvuku died of cholera earlier this year after residents were forced to resort to shallow unprotected wells.

Government response

The minister of water resources, Munacho Mutezo, whose ministry oversees ZINWA, told IRIN in a statement that the government had recently made available Zim$100 billion (about US$400,000 at the parallel market exchange rate) for the refurbishment of water and sewage treatment plants.

"My ministry would like to assure residents that ZINWA is doing everything within its reach, with limited resources at its disposal, to ensure normal service," he said in the statement. Mutezo said normal supplies of water would resume "soon". 

Precious Shumba, spokesman for the Combined Harare Residents Association, called on the government-appointed city leadership, and the ministries of health, water resources and local government to move faster to avert what he described as an "unmitigated health disaster".

"There are biting water shortages, caused partly by a porous water reticulation system that has all but totally collapsed. In every suburb that we have visited in the high-density areas over the last two weeks, sewage was flowing in the streets, creating fertile environments for the spreading of waterborne diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, which have begun to affect many residents," Shumba said.

Burst sewer pipes

Susan Tarwisa, a vegetable vendor in Glen View, told IRIN it was not surprising that some residents were complaining of stomach ailments.

"Very few people can afford medical treatment, and the few who can afford to visit hospitals cannot afford or find the medical drugs. There are many people who are suffering in their homes," she said.

"People are drinking unsafe water from shallow boreholes. They don't have enough water to wash vegetables or plates which they use, creating a breeding ground for waterborne diseases."

Johnny Rodrigues, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, an environmental activist group, told IRIN that the implications of discharging raw effluent into the capital's main water source were beginning to be felt.

''In every suburb that we have visited in the high-density areas over the last two weeks, sewage was flowing in the streets, creating fertile environments for the spreading of waterborne diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, which have begun to affect many residents''

"For a long time we have warned that diverting raw sewage and industrial effluent would have the effect of causing an outbreak of waterborne diseases," he said. "The lake into which the effluent flows is where residents catch fish for resale in urban Harare, and this creates another front ... [for diseases to] spread, especially since the fish are sold in open, unhygienic conditions."

Harare's water woes are partly caused by power cuts, but its long-suffering residents will perhaps take some solace from reports that normal power supplies are to resume in early 2008.

The Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, the state power utility, has received a US$40 million loan from its Namibian counterpart, NamPower, to refurbish the Hwange Thermal Power Station in Matabeleland North Province, which will generate an extra 330MW of electricity, 150MW of which will go to Namibia for five years in exchange for the loan.

Bulawayo

In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, the municipality has decommissioned four of its five supply dams and instituted water rationing so strict that it has left people without the precious commodity for weeks at a time. Residents told IRIN that feared there would be disease outbreaks.

"People are going for several days without bathing, and the little water that they get is being stored for drinking and cleaning utensils," said Mlamuli Tshuma. "Residents who are lucky to have boreholes are making brisk business by selling water to desperate families."

Zimbabwe is saddled with crippling foreign exchange shortages and the world's highest inflation rate. The official inflation rate has been pegged at around 3,700 percent, but  reportedly hit 7,000 in June.

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