GOVERNMENT has raised the cholera prevention alert level in the wake of an impending freshwater crisis that could trigger the diarrhoeal disease.
This comes as the El Nino-induced drought conditions take their toll on the country’s fresh water sources.
El Nino is an irregularly occurring and complex series of climatic changes affecting the equatorial Pacific region and beyond.
Occurring after every few years, the weather phenomenon is normally characterised by the appearance of unusually warm, nutrient-poor water in the tropics, typically from late December to late January.
The El Nino effects include reversal of wind patterns across the Pacific, triggering drought in Africa, Australasia, and unseasonal heavy rain in the Americas and Europe.
Since the beginning of Zimbabwe’s traditional rain season in October last year, the country has received mostly below normal rainfall resulting in record low water levels being recorded across the country.
And the water levels continue to decline sharply due to erratic rains.
Environment, Water and Climate Minister, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, in a rare case of government alertness, has made a cholera alert.
Past experience has seen government denying all possibilities for a disaster of any kind, dismissing all early warnings as the work of alarmists.
However, Muchinguri-Kashiri said as a result of the El Nino, there has been a severe drought in Zimbabwe which is threatening to dry up all lakes, rivers and dams that supply portable water to urban areas.
Cholera, spread mostly through water and food that would have been contaminated by human excreta containing the bacteria, is an infection of the small intestine by some strains of the bacterium vibrio cholera.
Risk factors for cholera — also classified as an environment disease — include poor sanitation, not enough clean drinking water and general poverty.
Muchinguri-Kashiri said the rate at which Zimbabwe is losing its portable water sources provides for a rich breeding ground for the bacteria, adding that there was a possibility of another devastating cholera outbreak similar in proportion to that of 2008, which was declared a state of emergency owing to its severity.
The rapid spread of the waterborne disease is attributed to a confluence of events that create a perfect storm in which the disease, described by the World Health Organisation as easily treatable, thrives.
The 2008 cholera outbreak was triggered by a compound of factors that included the collapse of municipal services such as potable water supply; poor refuse collection and sanitation; and a health service system hamstrung by a crumbling economy, which all conspired to officially claimed more than 4 000 lives while nearly 100 000 more other were infected.
“Citizens of Zimbabwe, this address is a clarion call for all of us to be highly responsible and adopt measures that will ensure that we go through the drought period together,” said Muchinguri-Kashiri, adding: “All WASH services, namely water supply, sanitation and hygiene rely on availability of water. No one wants to go back to the experiences of 2008-2009 cholera outbreaks. We have learnt our lessons and we cannot take second chances.”
The adverse condition, said Muchinguri-Kashiri, was also being exacerbated by drying up boreholes in most rural areas where the boreholes are the only source of safe portable water. When they dry up or break down, villagers are forced to compete for drinking water with livestock in rivers and unprotected wells.
Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) figures show that a total of 12 991 boreholes have dried up across the country, presenting a serious crisis, which is forcing many people to travel long distances to scavenge for water from unprotected sources.
Mashonaland Central province is one of the worst affected with 2 699 dysfunctional boreholes followed by Mashonaland East which has 2 074.
“I wish to call upon our village water point communities, our water pump mechanics to rise to the occasion so that pump breakdowns are kept to the barest minimum,” she pleaded.
ZINWA also reported that water in the country’s dams has plummeted to critical levels, averaging 51 percent.
Last week, the Financial Gazette reported that Zimbabwe’s largest inland lake, Mutirikwi, has virtually dried up amid surging demand for irrigation water in the Lowveld sugar estates.
The minister also said borehole water levels in urban areas are also under serious threat as the water table dwindles in the face of rampant water mining by residents who have resorted to groundwater as an alternative to the scarce municipal water.
City of Harare is also regularly disconnecting water, citing low water recharge, high pollution levels, lack of treatment chemicals and a woeful reticulation system that perpetually leaks more than 50 percent of all purified water meant for homes and industry.
The call comes at a time when a massive typhoid outbreak has been reported in Harare, which was also the epicentre of the deadly 2008 cholera epidemic that spread across almost all the Southern African Development Community states.
City of Harare health director, Prosper Chonzi, confirmed the typhoid outbreak in the capital, which, as one of the many diarrhoeal diseases that are of less lethality than cholera, is largely seen as a precedent to the impending crisis should Muchinguri-Kashiri’s clarion call goes unheeded.
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