Health crisis hits rural Zimbabwe

Posted: 2 May 2006

Author: Oswald Sithole

A huge health crisis is developing in areas where hundreds of thousands of poor rural Zimbabweans and their families have been resettled on commercial farms as part of President Robert Mugabe's socially and economically disastrous land reform exercise.

Mugabe's ZANU PF government moved some 400,000 rural families on to Zimbabwe's mainly white-owned commercial farms over the past six years without a corresponding development of health and sanitary structures.

As conditions have deteriorated on the once rich and highly developed farms, a major health crisis is developing.

As rural people were resettled on the farms, some 900,000 farm workers and their families were simultaneously displaced from their homes on the land, according to new statistics by the Farm Community Trust of Zimbabwe, FCTZ, an organisation created by trade unions and the Save the Children Fund UK to raise farm labourers' standards of living. However, these workers remain huddled in some pockets of the farmland and continue to compete with the new peasant settlers for increasingly scarce and ill-equipped health services.

Most farms no longer have fresh water supplies because pipes are in disrepair and pumps have stopped working for lack of spares. The new settlers cannot afford water purification chemicals, and the main water sources are now streams and dams.

Latrines needed

"The situation is terrible. We know the risks of waterborne diseases such as bilharzia, cholera and dysentery that we could catch, but there is really no choice," said Savious Muromba, a veteran of Zimbabwe's 1970s liberation war resettled at a farm in Odzi, about 32 kilometres outside Mutare in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands. He said most settlers had hoped the government would quickly move to provide basic sanitary facilities on the farms when the land confiscation process was deemed to be complete.

People, said Muromba, were using open land as toilets while they waited for the government to construct pit latrines called Blair Toilets. The latter were developed to improve rural sanitation during the 1980s at Zimbabwe's Blair Research Institute. Its clever design makes use of air currents, a septic tank-like pit and fly traps to create an odourless and hygienic toilet not dependent on water supply.

Most of the settlers cannot afford the six bags of cement necessary to construct a Blair Toilet. During the rainy season, just ending, human waste from the surrounding bush has been seeping into the reservoirs from which the new settlers draw their water for domestic use.

With the government unable to afford to build clinics for the resettled villagers, their leaders have proposed using abandoned white farmhouses as health centres. "This is the best option, pending the establishment of permanent clinics," said Farai Bazaya, a health worker.

In desperation, the Zimbabwe government has appealed to the United Nations Development programme, UNDP, to provide help for people resettled on the confiscated farms. But first, the UNDP has called for a comprehensive survey to identify the scale of the problem. Agostinho Zaccharia, UNDP's resident representative in Zimbabwe, told IWPR, "Before this has been achieved, we can't even talk about the next step."

FCTZ's national director Godfrey Magaramombe told IWPR that his organisation is deeply concerned by the lack of sanitation on the farms. "The situation is bad," he said. "People are drinking surface water from streams and dams and this water needs to be treated or boiled to reduce the risk of infection. Since farm occupants cannot afford electricity they are not able to get the power needed to pump their water from unpolluted boreholes."

In the first two months of this year 51 cholera deaths were reported countrywide. In the absence of toilets and clean water on the occupied farms, further and more serious disease outbreaks are feared.

Health facilities

Even before Mugabe launched his land reform programme, government policy had contributed to the deterioration of health facilities on commercial farms by discouraging the development of public infrastructure on private land. Research conducted by the FCTZ showed that up to nine out of ten farm workers had to walk more than 20 km to get to the nearest clinic, contrary to government policy that no one should have to travel more than eight km.

For the majority of farm worker communities, the only contact with health services is through basic health care workers employed by the FCTZ. These workers were recruited from among the farm labourers and their families and trained in first aid and other simple health care provision.

The disruption of farming communities has resulted in a corresponding dislocation in this programme on most resettled farms. Some of the health workers have been displaced from the farms where they used to live, while those health activities that were supported financially by the former farm owners have collapsed. Previously, each heath care worker covered two or more farm villages consisting of about 400 people.

Four charities running home-based care projects for HIV/AIDS patients on farms in Mashonaland West and Mashonaland Central provinces had to abandon this work in the face of the farm invasions and the violence that accompanied them. These were the Batsirai AIDS Group, the Red Cross Society of Zimbabwe, Silveira House and the FCTZ.

UNAIDS estimates that more than 20 per cent of adults in Zimbabwe are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and that there are over 100 000 AIDS orphans on farms in the country. Farm worker communities are among the worst hit by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The government has yet to announce what, if anything, it plans to do about the deteriorating conditions on the resettled farms or even acknowledge the looming public health disaster there.

Oswald Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

Source: Institute for War and Peace Reporting, April 21,2006. (iwpr.net was named by the Sunday Times (UK)as the best alternative news website in 2003).