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Growing threat of water-borne diseases in Zimbabwe

In Sub Saharan Africa, half of all hospital beds are likely to be taken by patients who are ill because of dirty water or bad sanitation and aid experts in Zimbabwe are concerned numbers in the country are rising.

A leading cause of mortality among young children, diarrhoea now results in 4,000 deaths annually according to a recent Multiple Indicator Monitoring Survey (MIMS) compiled by the government and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The survey also showed a 20 percent increase in the under-five mortality rate over the last two decades.

A new report by IRIN highlights a worsening situation with sanitation as one reason for increasing sickness. In some rural areas, pit latrines are no longer emptied and have become unusable. This means locals are relieving themselves in the open. According to a 2011 report from UNICEF, over two-fifths of rural Zimbabweans defecate in the open. And though there are regular outbreaks of cholera and diarrhoea, many rural-dwellers seem unaware of the links between poor hygiene and disease, blaming sickness in their children on other causes. 

With the wet season arriving, some aid workers are worried a major cholera epidemic could strike the country. With sanitation facilities unusable in many rural areas, heavy rains wash human waste into water sources. A third of rural Zimbabweans still use water from unprotected sources. And cholera now strikes annually; according to the World Health Organization, there were 68,153 cases of the disease in 2009, though the actual number could be higher as some cases in remote areas go unreported.

In the 1980s, Blair pit toilets were constructed in many villages to improve sanitation. These have a wire mesh which allows gases to escape from decomposing waste, but prevents flies from reaching the septic tank. However, many of these toilets are not being maintained. 

New low-cost toilets and improved waste-collection technologies offer some hope for future improvement. For example, in Uganda, one non-governmental organisation, Water for People, is trialling the emptying of pits with specially adapted motorcycles. These can service remote areas, where trucks are too large to reach pit latrines. However, a senior manager at the organisation says that for such innovations to prove workable, costs need to be low enough for local businesses to enter the market and take advantage of the advances in waste technology. Zimbabwe’s economy has begun to stabilize over the last few years and investment is taking place in key sectors such as mining and agriculture. But it may be some time before the waste and sanitation industry is seen as vital to the health and economic prosperity of the country.

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