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Saving a nation way past breaking point

The following article appeared in the Irish Examiner on 20 January2009.

With nearly 2,000 dead from cholera and food shortages high, Zimbabwe is in dire need of a new plan, writes Tom Arnold.

With the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe continuing to deteriorate on foot of the ongoing political stalemate and collapse in the economy, I am visiting the country to get a first-hand view of the situation on the ground.

When I visited Zimbabwe in 2005, I was shocked by the level of suffering urban township dwellers in Harare faced. Operation Murambatsvina, a government policy to clear the slums, led to the displacement of 750,000 Zimbabweans. At the time, Concern Worldwide responded by building temporary shelters for the displaced through local partners. The determination of these people to rebuild their lives gave me hope for their future.

Four years on, the situation for the poorest Zimbabweans has worsened and they are now faced with a deepening humanitarian disaster in what the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has described as a “multi-sector crisis”.  It encompasses food and agriculture, water and sanitation, health, education and HIV and Aids. 

By August 2008, with the collapse of water and sanitation infrastructure, the township dwellers I met in 2005 were faced with raw sewage flowing down their streets. Sewage contaminated the municipal water supply and soaked into groundwater, infecting water sources with deadly bacteria.

Six months on, cholera is in 55 of Zimbabwe’s 62 districts, it has killed nearly 2,000 people and sickened 38,000 more. In Chegutu, a rural district of 240,000 people, where Concern has been coordinating the cholera response, burst sewage pipes, contaminated water and the collapse of the health services in the main town has resulted in a surge in cases since mid-December.

In Chegutu’s cholera treatment centre alone, they are getting about 15 cases of cholera per day, with an average of two fatalities per week but, fortunately, with water trucking they now have sufficient clean water. When we walked around townships, we saw long queues of people who a week ago had no water, but now are able to avail of water they need for their families.

With the flight of a third of Zimbabweans to neighbouring countries, and the internal migration of many more in their desperate efforts to find a better life or to survive, the disease is, however, spreading to new areas.

Experts say that the first to die from cholera are those with HIV and AIDS and the malnourished.

The UN estimates that 400 people die from AIDS in Zimbabwe every day. With over 15% of the adult population living with HIV infection, vulnerability is high. More than a million children have been made orphans as a result.

As you read, rain which has been erratic in recent years, trickles down on Zimbabwe’s fertile soil.

Once “the breadbasket of Africa”, many fields now lie idle with weeds shoulder-high. Maize should be chest-high by now. With an absence of fertiliser and seeds for farmers and the best commercial land lying empty, Zimbabwe faces another year of food shortages.

The World Food Programme estimates that over 5.1 million people need food assistance. These food needs will last long into 2009. Scenes of frantic desperation for food have been witnessed at food distribution sites operated by Concern. People are surviving on one meal a day and wild foods. While we target the most vulnerable and poorest people, the food needs of the communities in which we work far outweigh the food available.

While the political crisis deepens in Zimbabwe, international efforts to find a solution to the crisis need to find a drastically new solution. New and vigorous mediation efforts are needed, with a lead from the African Union and South African Development Community, to push leaders into suspending their own stalemate. Next week at the AU summit, a solution must be found. 

The implosion of Zimbabwe can no longer be tolerated.