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The cholera crisis in Zimbabwe: Understanding the policy and politics

For the past four months, the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe has hit headlines in international news media and drawn widespread condemnation. Over 2,770 deaths (and still counting) have been reported from more than 50,000 reported cases of cholera infections since August 2008. It is expected that more people risk infection unless the cholera epidemic is swiftly contained.

Responses to the cholera outbreak have been wide and varied. Predictably, the ‘government’ of Zimbabwe’s initial reaction ranged from denying that there was a cholera epidemic, to attributing the outbreak to EU and US ‘sanctions’ imposed on ZANU-PF ruling elites, and to an appeal for international assistance. Amongst donors and bilateral agencies, the response has been more robust. The European Commission provided US$12 million, while the British government pledged $15 million to the fight against cholera. UNICEF is reported to have secured sufficient chemicals to treat Harare’s main water supply for two to three weeks, with another four months’ worth of supplies on their way. UNICEF is also distributing water purification tablets and supplying 360,000 litres of clean water daily to Harare’s poorest suburbs. USAID/OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance) has pledged $6.8 million in emergency assistance for the cholera outbreak.

Although the donor and NGO response to the cholera outbreak is commendable, it does not focus enough attention on the underlying factors that have contributed to the crisis. A key contributory factor has, perhaps, been Zimbabwe’s water policy, adopted in 1998 as part of the broad water sector reform programme. Two key principles lie at the heart of the water reform policy. First, ‘water was to be treated as an economic good’, with payment required for service provision --  the  ‘water user pays’ principle. The argument was that, by attaching a price to water, consumers would use it more efficiently, and water fees would enable the national water authority to invest in improving water supply to residents.

Second, the reform sought to limit the role of the state and local authorities (i.e., city and rural district councils) in water management, and led to the devolution of responsibilities for water supply and management to a national water authority, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA). In short, ZINWA is responsible for the supply and management of domestic water in urban areas. ZINWA also operates on a commercial and self-financing basis, whereby it provides its services at a significant fee to generate the revenue it needs to finance its administrative and water supply functions.

Despite the promise of the water reform, the stories that are emerging from Zimbabwe indicate that, the urban areas, particularly Harare, are currently epicentres of an unprecedented cholera epidemic. What went wrong?

There are several contributory factors, some intrinsic to the water policy itself, while others are tied to the political and economic crisis. First, ZINWA inherited a sophisticated, but old, network of urban water supply infrastructure from local authorities. The infrastructure required effective maintenance and management, ranging from repair of broken-down pipes to wastewater treatment. ZINWA, however, lacked the human, technical and financial resources to undertake these tasks, with the result that infrastructure fell into disrepair, leaks were not repaired and sewage flowed in the streets of poorer and densely populated suburbs, such as Budiriro, Tafara, Mabvuku, and St. Marys.

Second, with twelve digit inflation and high levels of unemployment, treating water as an economic good became a fanciful proposition post 2000. This was exacerbated by the fact that water treatment chemicals are imported, and require foreign currency to be purchased. Foreign currency in Zimbabwe is largely non-existent on the formal market, though there is increasing shift towards the formal adoption of US dollars (or British Pounds and South African Rand) in daily transactions. In this context of economic crisis, with high inflation, high unemployment, and lack of foreign currency, ZINWA did not have the financial resources to manage and supply safe water to residents. ZINWA has had to depend on the central bank to finance its core activities. In short, lack of money also meant that ZINWA could not afford to finance its core activities, including the purchasing of water treatment chemicals.

The current intractable political crisis, and its implications on the economy, and policy environment, has wreaked havoc on the neo-liberal principles that underpinned the water reform. In other words, the post-2000 political developments presented the architects of water reform with an unexpected situation. . The current political crisis distracts the political leadership from an effective response to  the roots of the recent cholera outbreak, thereby undermining efforts to develop a long-term policy solution. Such a solution may range from repairing the water supply infrastructure, to making access to safe water a right for poor people.

 It is vital to ask three key questions. First, does the cholera outbreak warrant a re-think of domestic water supply policy as promoted in global water policy reforms of the 1990s? Second, to what extent has water policy reform contributed to the deterioration of safe water supply and sanitation, exacerbation of the political crisis and state fragility in Zimbabwe? And third, how can NGOs, donors and bilateral agencies best respond to immediate and long-term urban water supply and sanitation needs to prevent a future cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe? By asking these questions we seek to probe a little more deeply into the roots of current cholera outbreak and to draw lessons and options for future policy in the sector.