More than 3,000 cases of diarrhoea have been reported in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, in the last two months, as residents struggle with water shortages.
"We have so far recorded 3,600 cases of diarrhoea since the first cases of the outbreak were reported in August this year, and since then figures from the city's Health Department indicate that we have been getting between 300 and 400 new cases of diarrhoea every week," said Phathisa Nyathi, spokesman for the Bulawayo City Council. "We expect the situation to worsen until we get adequate rains and the water supply situation normalises."
Since the outbreak was first reported in August, the city has experienced a 10-fold increase in cases, from 300 to 3,600, up to the second week of November.
Low rainfall and an inability to keep up with the demands of a growing population in a depressed economic environment have left many of Bulawayo's 1.5 million residents in the grip of water shortages and often having to obtain water from unprotected sources.
The city's water woes began early this year, when three of its five supply dams were decommissioned due to low water levels. The two remaining dams have failed to meet its daily water requirement of 120,000cu.m, pumping out only 69,000cu.m.
Nyathi said the council was working with the World Health Organisation in Bulawayo, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), Health Ministry teams and several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to contain the outbreak.
Health Minister David Parirenyatwa said his ministry was monitoring the situation in Bulawayo and Harare, where diarrhoea outbreaks have also been
registered. "We have teams that are dealing with the outbreak and people are getting treatment in Harare and Bulawayo, and we have put in programmes to contain the outbreak."
The struggling Bulawayo city council has resorted to transporting water in bowsers, where people can queue to fill their buckets. The global charity, World Vision International, has sunk boreholes in most high-density suburbs to complement water supplies, but the few boreholes cannot keep up with demand.
Residents constantly complained about the long water-rationing periods. "We have not received water for five days now, and the water bowsers from council have not brought water," said Mandla Nkomo. One day, his family were forced to drink the water from a hand-dug well near their home and had to be hospitalised.
Charles Mpofu, a Bulawayo city councillor, said the actual number of diarrhoea cases was much higher than those being reported, as many people resorted to visiting private hospitals when they became ill because the government hospitals had no medication.
"The city is sitting on a time-bomb, because the statistics we have are those from council hospitals and clinics, and do not reflect figures from private
hospitals, and very soon we will get a cholera outbreak, which is more serious than diarrhoea and dysentery outbreaks." Mpofu said the council was working frantically with partner organisations, such as UNICEF and international charity Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF), to provide water purification tablets.
The water shortages have also had a negative impact on industry and the manufacturing sector, which require large volumes of water in their daily operations. Bulawayo and the surrounding Matabeleland region have faced water problems for more than two decades.
Successive governments since 1912 have postponed construction of a water pipeline from the Zambezi River to alleviate perennial water shortages in Bulawayo. Known as the Matabeleland-Zambezi Water Project, the pipeline is envisaged to create a green belt through Matabeleland North Province.