Lifestyle & Belief

Anatomy of a cholera epidemic


The seeds for Zimbabwe's alarming — and worsening — cholera epidemic were sown in 2006.

That was the year Robert Mugabe's government seized control of the water supply from local city councils, which had provided their residents with reliable supplies of clean water for decades.

“Zimbabweans understand very clearly that the cholera is a manifestation of misgovernance. When we grew up here, nobody died of cholera. Now we see so many people dying. People see it as caused by misrule by Zanu-PF (Mugabe’s party),” said a Harare journalist.

Zimbabwe's cholera deaths rose by more than 20 percent this week to reach more than 2,700, according to figures released by the World Health Organization. More than 48,000 Zimbabweans have fallen ill with the disease, said the WHO.

Here is why Zimbabwe is moving backward: 

The Mugabe government took control of public water treatment, stopping municipalities from providing that essential service after elections in which the city councils became controlled by the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The Mugabe government created a new agency, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa), to control water treatment in all municipalities. The new agency became known for inefficiency and corruption. Civic organizations like the Combined Harare Residents and Ratepayers Association warned that the rapid deterioration in water treatment would cause an outbreak of disease.

Large, densely-populated areas stopped receiving water for months at a time. Broken sewage pipes were not repaired, creating conditions for the spread of disease.

“Our water treatment collapsed when Zanu-PF seized control of it, that is on the mouths of all Zimbabweans,” said MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa. “They took control to increase their system of patronage, to create another looting avenue no matter what the cost to the health of the people.”

Mugabe said last month that the cholera epidemic had been “arrested,” but the new figures from the WHO show that far from being controlled the disease is spreading. The cholera has also spread to neighboring countries, including South Africa.

In Harare the water situation is so bad that the International Red Cross has stepped in to repair water purification systems and pumping stations to deliver water to Chitungwiza, Harare’s largest township with a population of more than 1 million. It had been without running water for more than 13 months.

This week the Red Cross also restored clean water to Harare’s main prison, Chikurubi, where 10,000 prisoners and staff did not have water for months.

Zimbabwe’s humanitarian crisis has been dominated by the cholera epidemic but widespread hunger and high infection rates of HIV/AIDS are also serious problems.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, on January 22, visited Harare’s Budiriro township, called the “capital of cholera” because of the high numbers of deaths there. He said the suffering must end and said that a summit of 15 southern African leaders could help end the suffering of Zimbabwe’s people by breaking the impasse that has left Zimbabwe without a functioning government for more than 10 months.

In March last year opposition leader Tsvangirai received more votes than Mugabe, but a run-off election needed to be held because he did not garner more than 50 percent of the votes. Tsvangirai boycotted the run-off election, charging that 180 of his supporters had been killed by Mugabe’s agents.

Mugabe, 84, has continued to rule as president but the opposition controls Parliament. In September last year Mugabe and Tsvangirai agreed to form a power-sharing government. It has not been formed because Mugabe took all the strategic ministries for his party. In addition, Tsvangirai charged that Mugabe had continued the abduction and torture of opposition supporters.

The regional summit on Jan. 26 will try to break the impasse, but the neighboring leaders have so far avoided putting pressure on Mugabe.