Cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe fuelled by ineffective sewerage systems

Children walk past a makeshift house at a slum in Hatcliffe, Harare December 9, 2008. Up to 60,000 people in Zimbabwe could be infected with cholera in the worst case if the epidemic spirals further out of control, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Tuesday. The known number people with cholera in Zimbabwe stands at 13,960 with 589 deaths, although the true extent of the outbreak which began in August is unclear, according to the U.N. agency. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo (ZIMBABWE)

Cholera, which was killing people in Harare this week, was an epidemic waiting to happen – again – in parts of the city where many water pipes are damaged, and broken sewerage systems have been in urgent need of repair for more then a decade.

Cholera has erupted at the same time this year as it did in 2008, the dry season. Then more the 4000 people died and about 100000 were infected. It was the world’s second-largest cholera epidemic, and the city council was shocked then at the number of the broken pipes in the dingy, cramped, western townships, home to ever more working-class people, most of whom were unemployed then and now.

So far at least 30 people have died from cholera this month, and about 3000 infected, mostly in the same part of the city as in 2008. A state of emergency has been declared and all pubic events have been cancelled.

The pipes in one of the worst affected suburbs, Budiriro, are still broken, residents say, so people are short of piped water in their modest homes, and many continue to use water from small wells they have dug in their small gardens, and the water in some of those wells is infected with sewage from leaking underground pipes.

Former mayor of Harare, Ben Manyenyeni – who refused to make himself available for a second term in office after the July 30 elections – said in an interview late last year that the city was so short of cash it could not undertake the kind of maintenance that was needed.

He said the city of Harare was “bankrupted” when Ignatius Chombo, the allegedly corrupt Zanu-PF local government minister who repeatedly interfered with the city council, cancelled all ratepayers’ debts, including current accounts, ahead of the 2013 elections in a bid to win votes from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). “That (loss of that) amount, more then $300 million (R4.4 billion), was devastating. We can’t recover from it,” he said last year.

But in that interview he also criticised some MDC councillors: “They are in this because they can give over-paid jobs to their relatives, and they are happy to contribute far too much revenue to the city’s soccer team (instead of) fixing pipes, and they want to go to workshops all the time, which does nothing for the city but costs so much money.” He also said many city councillors were not educated enough to hold office.

Manyenyeni, an MDC supporter when he was appointed mayor in 2013, said he had been shocked to find out how many MDC city councillors were “disappointing”.

The MDC has been in control of Harare since the first credible council elections in 2002.

But it did little for the city, not least because there was never any money to fix much, and the party refused to downgrade council salaries to be in line with other similar jobs after Zimbabwe moved from valueless local dollars to US dollars in 2009.

Manyenyeni said last year that many city councillors ensured their relatives got jobs with the city because the posts were paid so well – a security guard employed by the Harare City Council earns nearly three times what a policeman earns, A nursing sister at the Harare City Council earns more than three times what a government-employed nursing sister earns, and significantly more than the best paid nursing sister in the private sector.

He also said last year that Harare needed an executive mayor to cope with the city’s difficulties, not least overpayment of salaries to its workers.

After the cabinet was announced last week, Manyenyeni said he the new local government minister, July Moyo, was “a sensible man. I think the city will be able to work with him”.

Others who remembered the shocking cholera epidemic of 2008 said it was right that the state had declared a “state of emergency” and cancelled all public events. But, one ratepayer said it was wrong to try and chase vendors away from the city centre, and the city needed to make substantial alternative arrangements, such as providing emergency toilets and water. “They (vendors) have to work in the city. It is the only chance they have to feed their families,” said the ratepayer.