Zimbabweans have been given the good news and bad news about their water supplies. First, the government declared the end of the devastating cholera outbreak; then, residents in the capital, Harare, were told to expect widespread cut-offs of water supplies over unpaid bills.
When the last case of the waterborne disease in the Harare township of Budiriro was recorded on 3 July 2009, the cholera epidemic that began in August 2008 had claimed the lives of more than 4,200 people out of about 100,000 known cases.
Health and child welfare minister Henry Madzorera told local media: "The nation experienced the worst cholera outbreak between August 2008 and June 2009, but the epidemic has been successfully contained and has ended."
Zimbabwe's dilapidated water reticulation system and decaying sanitation system were widely blamed for Africa's worst outbreak in 15 years. The collapse of infrastructure mirrored the country's rapid economic descent, when routine maintenance of the water and sanitation networks was neglected and the scarcity of foreign currency meant water treatment chemicals could not be imported.
The Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) was unable to provide clean water - or any water at all - so residents took to digging shallow wells, which were contaminated by the raw sewerage spilling into the city's streets. The responsibility for water provision has now reverted to local municipalities.
Analysts link the fading away of cholera to the onset of the dry season, which reduces favourable conditions for the waterborne disease to spread, and to widespread education programmes.
"All districts, provinces and cities will conduct post-mortems of the epidemic in their areas, evaluating their responsive strategies, and plan forward for future outbreaks, which have a strong likelihood of recurring in view of continued sewerage and water problems," Madzorera said.
Raw sewage still spills onto the streets of some suburbs, providing a dank reminder of the danger that cholera could return with the coming rainy season, but work on restoring the city's water and sanitation systems has begun.
No free water
Harare's municipality this week placed a slew of adverts in the local media, warning residents that the water supply would be disconnected if they did not settle US$23 million in outstanding accounts, and has since made good on their threats.
"Harare Water would like to inform its valued customers that with effect from Monday, 27 July 2009, there will be a massive disconnection of water in the low-, high-density, commercial and industrial areas to all those consumers with outstanding water bills," the adverts said.
The mayor, Muchadeyi Masunda, dismissed complaints by residents and insisted that all monies owed be paid. "I have not received water at my house for more than four years but I still pay my bills. No one is going to be relieved of their obligation to pay their dues to council," he told IRIN. "What we may consider is to reduce the amounts, but not total waiver."
|If clean water is cut off, then it will force residents to look for alternative sources, which will obviously be dirty. Disconnecting water is like cutting off life|
Unemployment is estimated at 94 percent, and since the local currency, the Zimbabwean dollar, was withdrawn as an antidote to hyperinflation, the accounts are expected to be settled in US dollars.
"We have held several meetings with residents, who have said they are prepared to pay outstanding bills so that we can restore service delivery. I think we are winning the heart-and-minds war after explaining to residents that our coffers are dry," Masunda said.
"I have been assured by senior staff that as things stand, they are ready for any cholera outbreak, and that they learnt their lessons in the last outbreak," he said.
However, the government minister responsible for water, Sam Sipepa Nkomo, disputed the mayor's claim. "The residents cannot be expected to pay for water which they did not receive or use."
There was concern that cutting off water supplies could fuel another cholera epidemic. "Instead of disconnecting water supplies to residents and commercial interests with genuine outstanding bills, the Harare authorities should negotiate easy payment methods, otherwise we will have another cholera disaster," he said.
"Remember, cholera killed more than 4,000 people and infected close to 100,000 people. Water is life, because everything that we do revolves around water," Nkomo pointed out.
"If clean water is cut off, then it will force residents to look for alternative sources, which will obviously be dirty. Disconnecting water is like cutting off life."