HEALTH and environmental experts have said the rising death toll from the cholera outbreak in Harare and other parts of the country is a clear indication that the government does not have the capacity to deal with the epidemic.
The state media earlier this week reported that nine people have died at Beatrice Road Infectious Diseases Hospital since the first reported outbreak, while the independent media put the death toll at much higher than that.
Human Rights doctor Douglas Gwatidzo said it was clear that the government has failed to contain the epidemic as people were still dying from the contagious disease three months after the first outbreak.
He said: “The government simply doesn’t have the ability to handle the situation. They are only applying intervention methods instead of dealing with the causes of the problem.”
Government has set up a cholera clinic at Budiriro 1 Polyclinic and a ward at the Beatrice Road Infectious Diseases Hospital in an effort to contain the outbreak.
Gwatidzo said the government could never be on top of the situation unless there was an improvement in water supply in urban areas and the unblocking of sewer pipes.
On Tuesday, the Herald published a map illustrating the water situation in Harare metropolitan with areas like Budiriro, Mabvuku-Tafara and Haig Park marked under areas with perennial water shortages.
The water management body, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority, according to Gwatidzo, is to blame for the cholera outbreak because it has failed to supply water consistently.
“There is no better way to deal with this crisis than identifying the source of the problem, which we all know, is Zinwa’s incapacity to deal with Harare’s water management and correcting it,” he said.
Gwatidzo said areas like Mabvuku have not had water since February and this will aggravate the epidemic as people would be forced to use water from unprotected sources. Â
He added that public hospitals could not deal with cholera cases as they have been paralysed by critical staff shortages and the non-availability of medicines.
Since last month many doctors and nurses have not been reporting for duty citing poor remuneration and working conditions.
“Doctors are not going to work as they can no longer watch their patients die while their hands are tied by the failure of the state to provide drugs and other medical supplies,” Gwatidzo said.
A Harare-based environmental lawyer and head of research at Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association, Shamiso Mutisi, concurred with Gwatidzo’s argument that at the moment the state has neither the financial capacity nor the human resources to deal with the outbreak.
Mutisi pointed out that in order to deal with the crisis the government needed capital to repair the pipes that supply water to the various urban areas in Harare as well as water treatment chemicals.
Mutisi said: “Without any scientific proof one can see that the water we are getting from Zinwa has a green pigmentation which is evidence that it is not being treated and is not safe for human consumption.”
He added that people living in low-income areas were faced with a double blow after contracting the highly contagious disease as public hospitals, which used to cater for them, were turning them away because doctors and nurses were on strike.
The executive director of the Institute of Water and Sanitation Development, Noma Neseni, said the government on its own lacks the capacity to deal with the outbreak as a lot of money was required for the treatment of water and repair of water and sewer pipes.
“The government on its own cannot deal with the crisis as it lacks the financial capacity needed to deal with the root cause ofÂ the crisis; which is lack of waterÂ treatment chemicals and the repair ofÂ water and sewer pipes,” said Neseni.
Neseni said the only way forward would be for the business community to join hands with the government and avail funds to help Zinwa acquire water treatment chemicals as well as repair pipes.
She said the water is being contaminated by leakages from blocked sewer pipes, which flow into the water body.
Another environmental expert, Webster Muti, said what makes water safe or unsafe is an intricate balance of many factors. He said these factors relate to the purification, storage and distribution stages of the water supply system.
“It is a fact that Harare is producing less than 60% of its water requirements due to the overwhelming demand and of the 60%, at least 20% is lost due to burst pipes. This makes the quantity of Harare water supply inadequate,” Muti said.
The overwhelming demand affects the purification process of the water in that the “residence time” of the untreated water in the treatment plant is reduced to less than half the intended time.
Residence time is the average time water spends in a treating plant.
According to Muti this reduced residence time affects the stabilisation processes for various water treatment chemicals to the effect that there is short-circuiting of the treatment process from the water treatment plant to the body of the consumer.
Muti said the fact that there are unintended residual chemicals whenever the water is treated is a real health hazard.
This short-circuiting is noted when one allows a sample of tap water to settle in a clear container, one will see a collection of sediments at the bottom of the container and this is evidence of incomplete sedimentation process.
The tap water has an unfriendly odour and taste, which shows that the removal of dissolved organics from the water is incomplete and the organics are persistent right to the consumer.
The presence of these dissolved organics, Muti added, raise concerns when the water is chlorinated as the organics and the chlorine will form the much-dreaded chloro-compounds that are linked to carcinogenic tendencies.