It was a crumbling infrastructure that led to the outbreak of cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 1,000 people in Zimbabwe have died of cholera since August, and more than 16,000 have been sickened.
The country had one of the best water and sewer systems in Africa. But over the years it all went to seed.
AdvertisementThis year, sewers have become broken or blocked, and officials have run out of money to buy chemicals that kill bacteria in drinking water.
"They used to have a very safe, modern system, and now that system is no longer being maintained," says Andra Tamburro of Water Advocates in Washington, D.C. "So people are going now back to their traditional sources, whether it be rivers or wells, and they have been contaminated with the cholera bacteria."
The situation is likely to get worse now that Zimbabwe's rainy season has begun, Tamburro says, because rain tends to carry untreated sewage into water supplies.
The lack of clean water is a new problem for people in Zimbabwe, says Duncan Steele, who grew up there and now works for the international health organization PATH.
Steele told Jon Hamilton of NPR radio that as recently as last year, he didn't hesitate to drink the tap water in hotels in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare.
But now that cholera has become established in the city's water supply, he says, "it's going to take considerable effort to get rid of it and get back to a situation where people can feel safe with the water they're drinking. It is a very negative development."
Steele says there are vaccines that can help prevent cholera, but they are not useful for stopping outbreaks because it takes several weeks before they offer any protection against sickness.
WHO officials predict the epidemic could spread to more than 60,000 people in the coming months.