According to Prosper Chonzi, Harare's City Health Director, unreliable water supplies and sewer blockages have led to a surge in diarrhoea cases. The official daily newspaper, The Herald, quoted him as saying that Harare's 60 clinics were now attending to more than 900 cases of diarrhoea every day.
Many more are being treated at private health institutions. Chonzi told IRIN his department had ordered all clinics to treat cases of diarrhoea free of charge to encourage people to seek treatment, which would prevent infection from spreading.
Most of Zimbabwe's public infrastructure is in a state of disrepair. The country 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 in recent confidential correspondence with bank chief executives, seen by IRIN, Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono said inflation had shot up beyond the 7,000 percent mark in June.
The Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) took over the provision of water and sewerage services two years ago from the efficient, elected Harare Municipality, but it has failed to raise money to repair the city's sewerage treatment plant, resulting in untreated human waste being diverted into Lake Chivero, the city's main source of water.
ZINWA has maintained that it does not have the foreign exchange to import spare parts to refurbish the outdated water treatment works, and residents have had to contend with water cuts, at times lasting for more than six months.
A dire shortage of fuel and poor funding has also made ZINWA unable to attend to burst sewer pipes, resulting in effluent flowing into the streets of many Harare townships.
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 had gone without clean water for months, forcing them to resort to shallow unprotected wells.
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".
The ongoing power cuts made it difficult for ZINWA to provide water, because the 20-hour outages meant they could not pump water to residential homes, Mutezo said.
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 quickly 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
IRIN visited the high-density suburbs of Mbare, Dzivarasekwa and Budiriro in Harare, and saw the sewage flowing in the streets. Susan Tarwisa, a vegetable vendor in Glen View, told IRIN it was not surprising that many 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.
"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.
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 they feared outbreaks of cholera and diarrhoea caused by falling hygienic standards.
"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."
In June, more than 20 people died of diarrhoea in the gold mining town of Kadoma, 138km south of Harare, in Mashonaland West Province. The town had no tap water for weeks because the water treatment plant had broken down and there was no money to repair it.