Jeffrey Gogo Climate Story
HARARE’s renewed problems with preventable water-borne diseases do not come as a surprise — it’s been long in the making — because the city is ill-prepared for climate change-related threats on human health.
And as the city’s health director, Dr Prosper Chonzi, rightly admitted in an interview with this writer on January 27, “the conditions on the ground — water cuts and poor sanitation — are conducive for a typhoid outbreak.”
Rising temperatures will, as they say, double the trouble, now and in future. Global warming has increased the risk of disease outbreaks such as malaria, and as water becomes more scarce other water-related diseases will multiply, scientists say.
Speaking against the background of a resurgence of the life-threatening plague called typhoid, with a total six people now known to be infected, Dr Chonzi worries the number of people with the disease might be much higher than those reported.
“We thought we had gotten on top of the situation, but now we are back to square one,” said Dr Chonzi in exasperation, and as health officials battle to control the latest outbreak in Glen Norah, Hopley and Hatfield.
Last year Harare handled more than 40 typhoid cases, mainly from Budiriro and Glen View, he said.
According to health experts, typhoid is caused by drinking water or eating food contaminated with faecal matter, and from poor sanitation.
It may not show for over 20 days after infection. Common symptoms include headache, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, rash, fever and others.
Typhoid can be treated with anti-biotics, and vaccines are available for prevention.
Shameless Harare authorities
Now, city authorities must bow their heads in collective shame at this pathological failure to protect residents in a modern metropolis like Harare – the so called Sunshine City – against backward diseases like typhoid.
For those down with typhoid — and others waiting in the wings living in perpetual fear of contracting the severe fever — the sun does not shine anymore. And here is why.
In December, Harare was forced to cut its already inadequate household water supply by 18 percent to 450 million litres a day, just over half of the city’s daily needs, leaving thousands of residents without enough safe drinking or washing water.
The city blames the cuts on depleted water levels at Lake Chivero, its main source, and on extreme pollution from raw sewage and industrial chemical waste.
Harare’s densely populated townships like Hopley are much more vulnerable to large water-borne outbreaks, with poor hygiene and sanitation everywhere.
In some places, wells are sunk within spitting distance of the blair toilet – yes, blair toilet in the former Sunshine City, the capital city — something unheard of a couple of decades back.
Harare Residents Trust director, Precious Shumba, said the city supplied only 55 percent of its 2,1 million residents with water, according to their own analysis.
The rest rely on private boreholes, community boreholes sunk by aid agencies, streams and on shallow unprotected wells.
This is what makes Harare a perfect breeding ground for disease. And that ground has been under preparation for the past 20 years, made worse by frequent droughts, ballooning population, ageing equipment, poor strategic planning, and runaway pollution. Hope rests far in the horizon, if at all.
“The only permanent solution (to typhoid) is through the provision of adequate clean water, improving sanitation and better waste management strategies,” said Dr Chonzi.
“Otherwise, we are chasing after a moving target all the time.” But we know that at a time we expect city authorities to be aggressive on disease control, Harare does not have an immediate lasting solution to the water crisis.
Climate change threat
Last week Water and Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri appeared to be responding to Harare’s long-term needs when she said Zinwa, the national water authority, had reached an agreement with Chinese engineering firm, Sino Hydro, for the construction of the 155 billion litre-capacity Kunzvi Dam.
Kunzvi dam, which has been on the cards for the past quarter century, and to be built 60 kilometres east of Harare, is expected to end the city’s water woes — and it will.
But this agreement is just a Memorandum of Understanding, nothing to bind either party legally, only a show of some mutual intent and purpose.
The multi-million dollar project has been in the pipelines for too long, talk of it elicits bitter derision from residents who have endured Harare’s long-standing ineptitude, but Kunzvi dam’s eventual completion will be a crucial intervention.
In the meantime, the devastation from sporadic water and vector-borne outbreaks will continue, as Harare remains ill-prepared for neither climate change-induced water shortages nor high pollution and rapid urbanisation.
According to the UN expert panel on climate change, disease outbreaks and infections will escalate due to rising global temperatures.
In tropical countries like Zimbabwe, where temperatures have climbed 0,8 degrees Celsius since 1900, malaria will increase severely by 2080, it warns, as water-related illnesses rise.
Warmer temperatures create fertile breeding conditions for the malaria-carrier, Anopheles mosquito while frequent flooding could aid the spread of disease.
Droughts will achieve no less devastation.
Scientists say climate change has an indirect effect on infectious diseases, with climate and shifts in weather patterns influencing the pathogens (bacteria, viruses, etc.) and their hosts (insects or other animals), and consequently how humans are exposed.
Harare should prepare adequately for these seemingly inescapable eventualities.
God is faithful.