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Harare: Aid Workers Struggle to Stop Cholera Spreading

They warn outbreak could get worse, as rainwater washes human excrement into open drains of stricken slums.
By Chipo Sithole
Shamiso Mushonga, eight months pregnant with her third child, feels like a prisoner in the two-room shack she shares with her other two children in densely populated Budiriro.

She said she is so afraid of the cholera that since August has already killed hundreds in this Harare slum – including her husband in September – that she cannot allow her children to go out to play. She has not left her cramped quarters for the past four days, only going to the market with her children firmly in tow.

The last time she remembers going outside was to buy vegetables, which she said she boiled thoroughly before cooking.

Budiriro, a vast, squalid wasteland of shacks and refuse, is home to hundreds of thousands. The shanties resemble a collage of scrap lumber, rusted metal and chicken wire.

The suburb is part of a semi-complete housing development where neither a sewage system nor a fresh water supply was ever put in place. Most residents have no potable water or latrines, and people here relieve themselves in the bush because the few toilets there are blocked.

The city slum presents a picture of total neglect – stinking pools of stagnant water, overflowing drains and rotting garbage out in the open.

With the onset of the rainy season, there has been a sharp increase in the incidence of the water-borne disease in Budiriro.

“It’s raining cholera, literally,” Mushonga tells IWPR.

Aid agencies warn that in spite of their efforts to try to halt its spread, the cholera outbreak could get worse, as rainwater washes human excrement into the open drains.

“People are living in extremely bad conditions here,” said a water and sanitation expert with Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders.

“As you can see, there are mountains of rubbish everywhere. So, when the rains started coming – and it’s been raining heavily here in Harare recently – the rain has been washing all this rubbish and it is mixing with all the excreta that is lying around in the community because the people don't have access to latrines.”

Overcrowding in Budiriro compounds the problem. The slum has experienced massive population growth since Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out Filth) was carried out in 2005. The slum-clearance drive left 700,000 mostly opposition supporters homeless, as bulldozers flattened their homes.

Large numbers of patients throng makeshift health centres set up by aid agencies, as public hospitals here have been closed.

At a United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, truck delivering clean water, dozens line up, waiting hours for a few buckets for washing, drinking and cooking. When the supply runs out, they scoop it out of filthy drains or the pools of water that have run through the rubbish heaps in the township.

The whole area is plagued by water and sewage problems, notes Professor Heneri Dzinotyiwei, an opposition member of parliament for Budiriro and a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.

“Health care services are flooded with patients suffering from water-borne diseases since the onset of the rains,” he said.

“Every other day, residents complain about the blocked sewage pipes. We have appealed to the government department responsible for this and they are not forthcoming. The threat of an even worse epidemic breaking out is looming large in my area and the authorities will be held responsible for it.”

The situation is similar in other slums and low-lying areas in the city, including Glen View and Glen Norah, where open spaces are littered with garbage, which has not been removed for months.

And it’s not just Harare which is affected. Since August, cholera has spread through nine of Zimbabwe's ten provinces. As of December 16, more than 17,000 cases had been reported, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA.

Aid agencies say with the onset of the rainy season, fresh cases of cholera have been detected in Chegutu, 100 kilometres west of Harare, where 60 people have died over the past week. There are also reports of new infections in Masvingo, almost 300 km south-east of Harare, and in the town of Nyamapanda, which lies close to the border with Mozambique.

According to the UN, the death toll in country now stands at over 1,000.

When the disease first broke out, President Robert Mugabe appeared to be in denial, saying he was on top of the situation.

He claimed that sanctions imposed by western countries had prevented the government from buying chemicals to treat the water supply.

The 84-year-old leader later claimed that Zimbabwe's former colonial power, Britain, had embarked on biological warfare against the country, branding cholera part of foreign aggression and attempted genocide against Zimbabweans.

On December 3, the Zimbabwean authorities seemed to acknowledge the gravity of the situation with health minister David Parirenyatwa requesting international assistance to tackle the outbreak.

The response has been immediate, with international financiers and western governments providing clean drinking water, purifying tablets and medicines.

But donors have voiced outrage at statements by Mugabe that the epidemic has now been brought under control, even as UNICEF reported that the disease has spread to two-thirds of the country and has begun spilling over into neighbouring Botswana, South Africa and Mozambique, mainly because of heavy rain.

While UNICEF is trucking in fresh water supplies to the country, this is still not enough to meet the demand.

In areas where the supply runs out, people are forced to buy water from neighbouring suburbs. The trade in water is rife with profiteering – the cost is ten times higher than what the residents with piped water pay to the Zimbabwe National Water Authority, ZINWA.

In a place where many people live on less than 50 US cents a day, most simply cannot buy it and are forced to scoop it out of filthy drains.

Though the government claims that it is addressing sanitation problems, the reality on the ground is different.

“The situation is pathetic. Our life has become worse than pigs. The overwhelming stench is just unbearable,” said Raymond Mutasa, a Budiriro resident.

Mutasa dragged this reporter over to a heap of rotting garbage.

“When we pass this area we pinch our noses to avoid the stench,” chips in Shupikai, another resident, adding that they burn incense at night to make things bearable in their houses when having supper.

When you ask residents whether government officials visit them, they stare at you.

“Yes, they have started coming after the media started reporting on the deaths from cholera,” said Patricia Mnkuli, a vegetable vendor, sarcastically pointing at the heaps of garbage surrounding the dustbins and a pool of stagnant dirty water that has turned green with scum.

Mushonga said she will remain indoors with her two children until the situation is under control.

“I cannot lose any more people to this disease,” she said.

Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained reporter in Zimbabwe.

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