Four of 12 suspected cases of cholera have so far been confirmed in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, according to the city's director of health services.
The source of the waterborne disease, an intestinal infection leading to severe dehydration from chronic diarrhoea and vomiting, which can result in death within 24 hours if left untreated, may have been caused by a discharge of untreated effluent into the reservoir supplying the capital with drinking water two weeks ago.
However, other observers say that the failure to distribute water by the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), the parastatal supplier, has resulted in many people drawing water from shallow wells, which are also suspected of harbouring cholera bacteria.
Before President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government created ZINWA, which is wholly responsible for supplying water to Harare's residents and industry, distribution was handled by the local municipality.
City director of health services Dr Prosper Chonzi confirmed to IRIN that there was a cholera outbreak in the capital's eastern suburbs, where water provision has been the most erratic, and said all cases of diarrhoea were being tested for cholera. "We suspect that the cholera outbreak could have been caused by the contaminated water that residents are drinking - most of them are fetching water from shallow unprotected wells, which are easily contaminated."
Percy Toriro, the Harare municipality spokesman, said they had deployed water bowsers in residential areas where cholera had been detected. "We want to try as much as possible to ensure that the outbreak is contained and does not spread ... an ambulance ... is on standby, and is ready to ... [take] any people displaying any cholera symptoms [to be treated]." Public health officers have been dispatched to the affected suburbs and disease prevention awareness campaigns have been launched.
A spokesperson for the Combined Harare Residents Association, Precious Shumba, said the health problems afflicting the capital were a consequence of the municipality being run by officials appointed by central government rather than by elected officials.
The city's elected executive mayor, Elias Mudzuri, of the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, was removed from office in 2003 on charges of incompetence and replaced by a commission consisting of members of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.
According to Shumba, "There is no doubt that the cholera outbreaks that we are witnessing are a result of what happens when unelected, and therefore unaccountable, people are picked to run local authorities. The elected Harare council was able to provide safe water to the residents. The current commission is also unable to collect refuse, exposing residents to more disease outbreaks, and we anticipate that more waterborne diseases will rock the capital."
The recent breakdown of the capital's largest sewage treatment plant resulted in the discharge of 72 megalitres of raw sewage into Mukuvisi River, a tributary of Manyame River, which flows into Lake Chivero, Harare's chief source of drinking water.
When a delegation of ZINWA officials visited the sewage plant recently, the plant manager blamed a shortage of foreign exchange to buy spare parts to repair aging equipment for the discharge of effluent into one of the city's main reservoirs.
"We need Z$20 billion (US$80 million) to restore work here and, if it is made available today, then the plant will be operational by June," plant manager Simon Muserere told the delegation.
Zimbabwe's economy has been in freefall in recent years, with the formal economy shrinking by 65 percent, agricultural production down by 50 percent, unemployment touching 80 percent and inflation running at 1,281 percent, the highest in the world, causing a slew of shortages, including food, fuel, medicines and foreign currency.