Saturday, February 14, 2009

Botswana: Cholera outbreak causing rising resentment of Zimbabwean refugees

The detection of cholera in northeastern Botswana is causing rising resentment of the Zimbabweans fleeing their homeland's collapse, and is being used by opposition parties in an election year to slam President Ian Khama's government.

In late January and early February 2009, Botswana's parastatal, the Water Utilities Corporation (WUC), found traces of vibrio cholerae bacteria in the Shashe reservoir near Tonota village, about 35km south of Francistown, the country's second city, and in Letsibogo Dam near Mmadinare, about 25km northwest of the mining town, Selebi Phikwe.

The dams have been decommissioned and the surrounding areas put on high alert, but among residents there is a growing suspicion that the authorities are covering up a cholera outbreak, as both water sources lie close to Zimbabwe, where 3,513 people have died and 73,105 cases of the disease have been recorded in the past six months.

"It is obvious there is already a cholera outbreak, but the ministry is just trying to do some public relations to contain the situation," Lebogang Thutlwe, originally from Mmadinare but now living in Selebi Phikwe, told IRIN.

"I was at the village last week, and people are very disturbed. The WUC guys just told us the area was now on high alert, but they do not want to tell us where the bacteria is coming from. Maybe it is already in the village."

The Mmadinare representative in parliament is Ponatshego Kedikilwe, the Minister of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources, but all media enquiries were directed to the WUC.

According to an update by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on 9 February, "The numbers of people affected by cholera in Botswana and Namibia are but a few."

The WUC has not disclosed the source of the cholera, but Thutlwe is convinced the disease arrived with an "illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe". "I have no doubt this is the case - there are many Zimbabweans here, and most often they bring lots of stuff infested with cholera."

Zimbabwe's downward spiral under the stewardship of President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has seen millions of its citizens head to neighbouring states to escape hyperinflation, food shortages that are afflicting more than half the population, and the cholera outbreak.

Cholera under control

"This is a serious issue and I believe the immigration people should now thoroughly screen everything that is brought into the country from Zimbabwe. If it means disinfecting people for cholera, like they do for foot and mouth, so be it," Thutlwe said.

In December 2008, the government waived the US$4 consultation fee clinics charged foreign nationals if the patient was showing symptoms of cholera.

WUC spokesperson Matida Mmipi told a local newspaper, Mmegi, that residents in the area were concerned about nothing. "Our water purification experts shall henceforth work with the Bobirwa Sub-District, which gets raw water from the WUC to supply Mmadinare village. WUC water supply to Selebi Phikwe shall also be monitored closely," he promised.

"The detection of bacteria does not mean there has been or there shall be a cholera outbreak. This is just a precautionary measure we are taking to ensure we are on the safe side, always," Mmipi said.

"The Corporation would like to reassure the public that it will continue with periodic sampling and analysis to monitor water quality throughout the water supply and distribution network. The corporation is monitoring the situation closely and should there be any further developments, the public will be informed promptly."

Letsibogo Dam has been declared a restricted area, and the fishing season, scheduled to open on 28 February, has been delayed indefinitely.

"I am very confident our experts shall be able to eliminate the [cholera] bacterium through effective water treatment methods. We would like to reassure the public that its water is treated to the highest standard, and tests have revealed that all its treated water remains free of the vibrio cholerae bacterium," Mmipi said.

However, Thutlwe dismissed the reassurances about the spread of cholera. "In Zimbabwe, that is how it started. The government kept on denying that there was a cholera outbreak even when people were dying. They only admitted it when it was too late. If we are not careful, we might get ourselves into the same trouble."

Opposition parties use cholera for political capital

Opposition politicians are seizing on Zimbabwe's cholera pandemic and the threat it poses to Botswana as an illustration of the government's aloofness towards its citizens.

Moeti Mohwasa, spokesperson and publicity secretary for Botswana's main opposition, the Botswana National Front (BNF), commented: "For example, they are currently building multimillion dollar houses for ministers when there are not enough classrooms at schools; some schools operate without stationery. The BDP [ruling Botswana Democratic Party] government has failed the nation."

Dumeland Saleshando, the sole member of parliament for the Botswana Congress Party (BCP), echoed Mohwasa's sentiments, saying government ministers allegedly lived luxuriously when people were suffering.

The BDP came to power after independence from Britain in 1966, and has held regular elections and adhered to a constitutionally imposed limit on presidents to serve a maximum of two terms.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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