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Zimbabwe’s Typhoid Outbreak Worsened by Water Scarcity and Poor Sewage Infrastructure

Outbreak underscores gap between a wealthy elite and those who have fewer choices about where the can source their water from

A typhoid outbreak in Zimbabwe has been claiming lives and infecting dozens over the past few months. The outbreak, which is likely due to an over-stressed sewage system and lack of clean water, is widening the gap between a wealthy elite who can afford to import bottled water to escape disease and those who have fewer choices about where they bathe or how they quench their thirst.

photo of water faucetPhoto by Robert AllenLack of clean water and an overstressed sewage system are likely causes of Zimbabwe's ongoing typhoid oubreak, which as so far infected an estimated 600 people.

Typhoid — a serious bacterial infection that results from consuming contaminated water and food, or from close contact with someone who is infected  — was first detected in Zimbabwe´s capital Harare in December 2016, when a 13-year-old girl succumbed to its complications.

The outbreak is the worst in Harare, the capital city 2 million where authorities have had to activate a typhoid treatment camp. As of early February, there have been two confirmed deaths, and more than 600 suspected cases, the majority in Harare and its adjacent suburbs. 

The cause of the outbreak has been the subject of some dispute, but many experts agree that Harare’s over-stressed sewage system, with pipes designed in the 1960s and some last cleaned in the 90s, is a major part of the problem.

“Raw sewage finds itself flowing unchecked into household pipes because the system for transporting waste is not functioning,” says Jadagu Garikain, an academic at the University of Zimbabwe´s School of Rural and Urban Planning.

The need to upgrade the capital´s sewer system has remained unaddressed since the late 1980s. Given Harare’s growing population, the current infrastructure has outlived its lifespan. “The capital’s main sewer treatment plant can only treat 54 out of its required 154 mega liters per day,” Garikain adds. “Lack of electricity, engineers, [and] chemical agents is the fatal reason.”

Paired with the sewage problem is the issue of access to clean water — an emotionally fraught issue in Harare, one of Africa´s most water-stressed cities. Suburbs can endure three years without seeing a drop ooze out of pipes thanks to a severe shortage of cash to import purification chemicals,  an exodus of qualified water engineers to South Africa, Australia and beyond, and, according to Transparency International Zimbabwe, a government accountability organization, illicit awarding of water contracts to dodgy water companies.

On luckier days, when there is water, what comes out of the city’s taps “is undrinkable liquid,” says Precious Shumba, chair of the Harare Residents' Trust, the biggest civic pressure group in Zimbabwe. “Often we see visible dirty particles floating" in the water, she adds.

“Citizens only use [tap] water to bathe,” Shumba says, and buy bottled water to drink. But that is expensive. The average daily income in Harare is $1.03 a day, according to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, but Shumba says, “a family of two needs $2 dollars every day… just for a 2.5 liter tube of water to cook breakfast….  The city´s poorest are resorting to boiling rusty well water to drink.”

Transparency International Zimbabwe believes poor land development polices have compounded water and sanitation problems. The group points to “the corrupt allocation of land by politicians at variance with local authorities’ physical and special planning,” included parceling of land for development “on top of sewer pipes, at recreational facilities like football pitches and wetlands, or undesignated spaces."

Christopher Magadza, an environmental professor at the University of Zimbabwe School of Rural and Urban Development, notes that “wetlands can act as a natural purification agent for Harare's water.” When they are built upon, this ecosystem service is lost.

The government, however, has placed the blame elsewhere — on Zimbabwe´s street vendors. The country has one of the highest unemployment rates in Africa, according to World Bank figures, and many people work in informal markets. According to the Zimbabwe Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (VISET), Harare has more street vendors than any other city in Southern Africa. The capital is now a bewildering jungle of street maize roasters, pineapple scotch carts pushers, merchants selling bathing rocks or loudspeakers that advertise rat killing poison to rush hour commuters.

In response to the outbreak, Harare City Council issued a directive in January banning all fruit and vegetables vendors from the capital — impacting thousands of jobless graduates, laid off civil servants, and out-of-luck men and women who sleep on the streets.

“An abundance of fruit and vegetables vendors is generating garbage and hazards of diseases spreading,” says David Parirenyatwa, Zimbabwe´s health minister, justifying the ban. “We are grappling with 2,000 suspected cases of typhoid nationally. The capital is home to 76 percent of the infections.” (The minister’s estimate of the number of cases, however, didn’t match up with the lower figures reported by the country’s media.) 

Josephine Ncube, Harare City Council town clerk, has also accused vendors of picking rotten fruits from the streets, washing them, and selling them back to unsuspecting customers.

Hawkers are furious over the vegetable sale ban.

“Vendors are not criminals. We are self-job workers, navigating Africa´s worst economy,” says Lorraine Sibanda, president of the Zimbabwe Chamber for Informal Economy Association, the largest street vendor trade union in Zimbabwe. “Why hasn’t Zimbabwe health minister directed city councils to eradicate fecal mess flowing in Harare townships?” she asks.

“The cause of Typhoid disease outbreak is the government of Zimbabwe!” says Dr. Pedzisayi Ruhanya, director of Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, alluding to the disrepair of the Harare sewage system and high joblessness rate in the city. “Elite families are drinking imported water,” he adds, citing comments by Zimbabwe´s finance minister, who has said that water imports have reached “crazy” levels

Others have called on the government to take action. The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights issued a statement saying that it “continues to be worried and appalled by the failure of the City of Harare and the Government of Zimbabwe to stem the continued spread of typhoid and failure to prioritize safe, clean water and environment as key tenets of a strong primary healthcare system.”

The government, for its part, has established an emergency infections treatment camp at Beatrice Hospital, Zimbabwe´s most important infectious diseases control clinic. “Rapid Response Teams are on standby 24 hours [a day] to comb outbreak areas and scale back Typhoid infections,” says health minister David Parirenyatwa

Meanwhile, fears of the highly-infections disease traveling beyond the country´s borders has caused neighboring South Africa to put its clinics on alert.

Ray Mwareya
Ray Mwareya is an international reporter for the Global South Development Magazine.

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