HARARE - The dire water crisis across Zimbabwe, as a result of a prolonged El Niño-induced drought, has not only seen millions starve but is now posing a serious health hazard in the country, with the Health ministry warning of communicable disease — cholera and typhoid — eruptions.
Last week, the Environment ministry raised the red flag over dam storage levels in the country, warning they were at dangerously low levels, with those in Masvingo region as low as 20 percent capacity.
The health emergency has been compounded by the proliferation of shallow wells in urban areas — as people try to curb the water crisis — which exposes them to polluted and contaminated drinking water.
Since the beginning of the year, 60 new cases of typhoid have been recorded in Harare, with others in Masvingo and Mutare being confirmed recently by the National Microbiology Reference Laboratory.
The water crisis has seen local authorities, including Harare City Council, rationing water, with some areas going for five days without running water.
Long winding queues at boreholes in residential areas have become the order of the day. Health minister, David Parirenyatwa, said all they could do, for now, was alert the nation of a looming health crisis, particularly as the rainy season approaches.
“For us as a ministry, it is important for the country to know that health is one of the possible casualties of a drought,” he said on Friday.
“We might have an outbreak of typhoid or cholera,” Parirenyatwa said, warning that “our people should be very alert, if you are suspicious boil the water...please don’t drink from shallow wells”.
“The only thing that we can do is call attention to this emergency in the health system. Once you don’t have enough water, you know that impacts on sanitation, and if it impacts on sanitation you’re already inviting communicable diseases,” Parirenyatwa said.
“... when it rains we have floods or flash floods and that water sweeps all the dirt into these shallow wells, you can expect a disaster, so we are very alert,” he said, adding that “we want our people to know, now is the time to be very careful about the water you drink, it’s critical, very very critical.”
Zimbabwe is haunted by traumatic memories of people who succumbed to cholera during its unprecedented outbreak between 2008 and 2009, which claimed about 5 000 lives while 10 000 people were infected throughout the country.
Out of the total number of cholera cases, 50 percent were reported in Budiriro — a high density suburb in the capital, Harare.
Cholera and typhoid are highly communicable diseases transmitted mainly through contaminated water and food, and are closely linked to poor environmental management.
Symptoms of cholera include severe watery diarrhoea that can manifest in as little as two hours or up to five days after infection, and can then trigger extreme dehydration and kidney failure.
With such a short incubation period, cholera can easily explode into an outbreak.
Interruptions to potable water supplies together with overcrowding and bursting of sewage pipes as well as uncollected garbage aggravate factors of an outbreak.