Threat of waterborne disease from unsafe water

HARARE, 15 April 2011 (IRIN) - Jennifer Madongonda, 43, shares a seven-roomed house with three other families the low-income suburb of Budiriro, about 15km southwest of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. Seven months ago the municipality cut off water supply because they couldn't pay the bill.

"Water supplies to this suburb are very erratic. People get running water at most four times a week and for short periods, but for us who live at this house, it means nothing because we accumulated a huge bill that we are struggling to pay," Madongonda told IRIN.

"We used to rely on the boreholes that were set up in 2008 but most of them have broken down and no one has come to repair them. Our neighbours don't want to share their water because they are afraid they will accumulate huge bills too."

Budiriro was regarded as the epicentre of the cholera epidemic that began in August 2008 and lasted for a year before it was officially declared at an end in July 2009. The waterborne disease killed more than 4,000 people and infected nearly 100,000 others, and all water sources were found to be contaminated in the working class ssuburb.

Many neighbourhoods had dug shallow wells after the collapse of water and sanitation infrastructure in Zimbabwe's economic implosion, creating ideal conditions for the proliferation of cholera, which infects the gastrointestinal system, causing vomiting and diarrhoea that can lead to acute dehydration; left untreated, it can kill within 24 hours.

To combat cholera, donor organizations, including the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Zimbabwe, drilled scores of boreholes, but many have since fallen into disrepair and at night it is not uncommon to see long queues at the few remaining working boreholes as residents jostle to get water for the next day.

"We now cook at all sorts of times - sometimes at midnight or early morning - when we manage to get water. We can hardly spare any to wash clothes because we don't have containers big enough to store it," Madongonda said.

A stream about 5km away is used for laundry and bathing. "Many women complain of skin problems and we suspect it is because the water is polluted with sewage and dangerous chemicals dumped in the stream by factories. It will not be long before there is another cholera outbreak," she warned.

UNICEF Zimbabwe's head of communications, Micaela Marques de Souza, told IRIN the boreholes drilled "in response to the 2008/09 cholera outbreak were handed over, and are being maintained by Harare City [municipality]".

UNICEF had "also supported training of the staff of Harare City in the operation and maintenance of these boreholes. In order to ease the water shortages in these areas and Harare City, UNICEF has recently provided spares and tool kits [for the boreholes] to the Director of Health Services," De Souza said.

In 2010 UNICEF drilled 43 additional boreholes in Harare, and is assisting in the rehabilitation of the capital's main source of water, Morton Jeffery Water Works, where the pumps regularly break down because the municipality does not have enough money to buy spares.

"I am aware of the fact that most of the boreholes, even some drilled last year, have broken down because there are too many residents using them and some of them are careless, but I am surprised that we are supposed to be repairing them," a senior health official in the municipality's public works department, who declined to be named, told IRIN.

Reticulated water is also becoming scarce In Glen Norah, the suburb next to Budiriro, where boreholes were also sunk to combat the cholera epidemic.

"A lot of people use the bush and buckets to relieve themselves because of the water shortages. Toilets are overflowing and our children suffer from running stomachs most of the time." The tap water was "suspicious", because whenever supplies returned briefly, it was dirty, Glen Norah resident Trymore Purazi, 28, told IRIN.

"We have been advised by health officials to leave the water to settle, but it is difficult to heed this advice because, in most cases, we would have waited the whole day to have water to cook and we would be very hungry," he said.

Chris Magadza, a researcher at the University of Zimbabwe, told participants at a recent workshop that "clinical studies carried out on Harare's water supplies, and the results obtained, revealed that the water bodies carry a significant amount of pollutants, which pose a potential health risk."