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Dispatches: Averting Another Cholera Outbreak in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s disastrous sanitation situation has left it in grave danger of waterborne disease outbreaks – something its government publicly acknowledged in a press conference yesterday.

In fact, the government officials who announced Zimbabwe’s new emergency preparedness plan sounded a lot like our Human Rights Watch team when we discussed the very issue the week before in Harare when we launched our report, "Troubled Water".

If the government is sincere about stepping up preparations for possible disease outbreaks around the country, the time is now, as the rainy season has begun and cases of diarrhea are already on the rise.

Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, is in crisis and the health of millions of citizens is at risk, our report shows. Many residents have little access to potable water and sanitation services, and often resort to drinking water from shallow, unprotected wells that are contaminated with sewage, as many are forced to defecate outdoors.

It’s these conditions that contributed to a severe outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe in 2008 and 2009 – the worst cholera outbreak on the African continent in 15 years. Roughly 4,200 people died and over 100,000 were sickened.

Harare’s sanitation problem isn’t just its old and crumbling piped water network. Money that is supposed to be allocated for water and sanitation delivery is used for other purposes, and at every level of government, providing clean water and proper sanitation to residents has not been a priority.

That’s why the news of this government press conference in Zimbabwe was heartening. The minister of health and child welfare hit on many of the same points we raised, saying, “We are all aware of the fact that there are issues of hygiene, water and sanitation, provision of safe adequate water, timely refuse collection in our cities. Enforcement of local authority by-laws are of great importance if we are to avert these huge diarrhoeal cases.”

If the government of Zimbabwe pays greater attention to the health of its citizens and takes a serious step towards enforcing its own laws and meeting its international obligations to provide water and sanitation, the many Zimbabweans currently at grave risk face a brighter future.

Otherwise, as a friend in Harare said as we were leaving the country, “The rains will come, and it will be more of the same.”

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