By STEPHEN KAPAMBWE -
LUSAKA Water and Sewerage Company (LWSC) officials are holding their breath as they closely follow the cholera outbreak in some parts of Lusaka.
The waterborne disease has spread to John Laing, Kabanana and Chawama townships.
The LWSC has a good reason to be concerned because the people threatened by cholera are not just those thought to be drawing contaminated water from shallow wells, but also those in townships and suburbs like Chalala, Kamwala South, Chelstone and Avondale, who rely on boreholes for their water supply.
This is because towards the end of last year, the National Water Supply and Sanitation Council (NWASCO) warned that over 80 per cent of private boreholes supplying water to the majority of households in Chalala alone, was contaminated with effluent.
This was attributed to the interaction between water from the boreholes and discharge from septic tanks which are placed in close proximity.
According to Nwasco director Kelvin Chitumbo, the pollution was discovered during an annual routine water sampling.
Mr Chitumbo said boreholes and septic tanks were interacting because they were located close together, a problem thought to have been caused by lack of coordination between Lusaka City Council (LCC) and LWSC regarding service provision.
“For instance, the delay to connect developers to the water and sewer systems is what forces property developers to resort to boreholes for water supply and septic tanks for sewerage and this, in most cases, compromises the quality of water,” he said.
Both, LWSC and LCC public relations personnel admitted this problem and attributed the water contamination to what they termed reversal planning, meaning providing basic services like roads, water, sewer and electricity after people have developed their pieces of land.
Ordinarily, areas earmarked for development are serviced with roads, electricity, water, sewerage and drainage before people are allowed to build their properties.
This service is partly paid for by property developers who, by law, are required to pay service charges even before plans for their properties are approved.
But this has not been the case for some townships like Chalala.
LCC assistant public relations manager Brenda Katongola said Chalala, in particular, was an illegal settlement until 2002.
By then, the population in the area had already grown significantly.
In any case, the LCC’s mandate was restricted to inspecting building plans of new structures to ensure people were placing septic tanks at a safe distance from boreholes and that the tanks were built to specifications.
“People bring plans and we approve them when we are satisfied that everything is according to set specifications.
“But when it comes to water, the people who handle that are LWSC,” she said.
Ms Katongola regretted that property developers, in some cases, do not follow the specifications on their building plans, hence the contamination of water in the boreholes.
She called for public awareness to ensure people consuming the contaminated water take appropriate measures to avoid losing lives.
She warned that if left unchecked, water contamination was a time bomb that would endanger many people’s lives.
Lessons can be drawn from events of 2010 when Lusaka experienced torrential rainfall which led to flooding.
The floods, coupled with poor sanitation, led to a deadly cholera outbreak which, by March 24, 2010, affected over 2,500 people out of whom 41 died.
The worst affected townships were Chipata, Kanyama, Kamwala and Chawama where up to 130 new cases were being reported per day.
The outbreak was blamed on contaminated water from shallow wells which the residents in the affected townships consumed.
The shallow wells were built close to pit latrines that discharged effluent even before the 2010 rainy reason started.
What happened in those townships six years ago is what the LWSC fears could happen even now.
With evidence already provided that some of the underground water sources might be contaminated, LWSC is now urging people who depend on boreholes to ensure their water is treated before consumption.
LWSC public relations officer Nshamba Muzungu warned that people sourcing water from boreholes were in danger of being infected with cholera if they did not treat their water.
He dispelled the belief that underground water from boreholes was safe and appealed to residents getting that water to treat it before consuming it.
The company has opted to give the residents free water from its kiosks to ensure that more people have access to clean water.
The sale of water from communal taps has been suspended in Kanyama, John Laing and Chibolya townships to allow more people to have access to clean and safe water to curb the further spread of cholera.
LWSC has also started carrying out a door-to-door sensitisation campaign in Kanyama to promote hygiene and hand washing.
The company has increased the chlorine dosage for the water supplied by water trusts in peri-urban and would soon be distributing chlorine in those areas.
The LWSC would soon receive a consignment of chlorine from UNICEF to distribute to all the peri-urban areas regardless of whether there are cholera cases or not.
“Residents of Lusaka are advised to ensure that they access clean and safe water supplied by the company in order to avoid taking contaminated water and getting infected with waterborne diseases such as cholera,” Mr Muzungu said.
The water utility is working hand in hand with the Lusaka Province medical office which has urged residents to seriously heed to messages of cholera prevention.
Lusaka Province medical officer Kennedy Malama told State broadcaster ZNBC that cholera was initially reported in Kanyama before it spread to John Laing, Kabanana and Chawama.
“We are sensitising the public on the ways to prevent cholera, but the question is, what are the people doing with those messages?
“They need to put those prevention messages in practice,” he said.
Parts of Chelsone and Avondale have gone for years, in some cases, without water to a point where – as in the case of Chalala people have resorted to sinking boreholes.
The placement of septic tanks in close proximity to the boreholes is what has created the pollution of the underground water which could lead to cholera spreading in such communities.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon residents relying on boreholes to take preventive measures as cholera looms large over communities exposed to contaminated water.