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Australia Opens Aid Pipeline to Help Zimbabwe Fight Cholera

Zimbabwe's water, sanitation, and health crisis has received a $10 million boost from the government of Australia to help restore basic services as officials fight off an appalling cholera emergency. Half of the money will be directed at sanitation projects coordinated by the UN Childrens Fund (UNICEF). The other $5 million will help pay salaries of local health workers, many of whom have been sidelined by the country's enormous financial strains.

Reacting to Australia's water assistance, acting State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Wednesday that Washington is reviewing its aid policy. "We've said basically that we want to see how this unity government performs before we can make any type of decision on providing assistance. Humanitarian aid we will continue to provide, but that was clearly a decision taken by the Australian government," he noted.

The US has curtailed almost all except humanitarian aid to the former Harare government for several years to show its disapproval of the policies directed by President Robert Mugabe. But the US Agency for International Development (USAID) did contribute $6.2 million last December for Zimbabwe water, sanitation, and health programs.

Red Cross (IFRC) Senior Water and Sanitation Officer Robert Fraser says the Australian contribution is a welcome addition to the international effort to resolve Zimbabwe's cholera emergency.

"We certainly welcome all efforts of the international community to assist vulnerable communities in Zimbabwe, and we ourselves have long-term sanitation programs, particularly supported by the European Union. And we are looking forward to expanding those activities that we have in Zimbabwe. And so anybody else who can support those longer term programs will reduce the number of people in Zimbabwe that are vulnerable to diarrheal diseases," he said.

Almost 88-thousand Zimbabweans have fallen victim to cholera since the crisis began in August of last year, and almost four thousand have died from the outbreak, which is attributed mainly to the collapse of sanitation services, corruption of the urban water supply, and shortcomings in local and urban garbage collection systems. Some foreign governments, including Australia's, had previously shied away from sending finances beyond humanitarian help for fear that the funds would be misused by the Mugabe government. Fraser says he cannot confirm that the new unity government in place since February 11, with Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister, has redesigned spending practices, but he points out that international aid agencies have had a long, constructive working relationship with government, water and health professionals in Zimbabwe.

"Our longer term programs in Zimbabwe have not suffered from any sort of negative inputs from the government at all. And we are very pleased that especially at the grassroots level, we've had a lot of support and very easy interaction with the Zimbabwe government, and therefore, I think perhaps that some of the press reports are unfair. It is possible to work very well in Zimbabwe with government," he said.

Fraser describes the Red Cross role in Zimbabwe's sanitation and water rehabilitation as a collaborative effort, working closely with other international agencies under a United Nations umbrella.

"Of course, UNICEF leads the WASH Cluster, Water and Sanitation and Hygiene Cluster, of which we are a member. So we can only improve the conditions in Zimbabwe and many other countries by working together with the United Nations under that umbrella so that the different actors can coordinate and support each other in trying to meet Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and improving conditions for many people," notes Fraser.

He says that Red Cross workers in Zimbabwe are working closely with their volunteers and humanitarian partners in emergency response teams to respond more effectively to sudden cholera outbreaks around the country.

"In Zimbabwe at present, we have seven emergency response units . Four of those response units are dealing with water sanitation and hygiene promotion and three of those units are providing clinical support, working closely with the Ministry of Health and other organizations working there. And we have a variety of those emergency response units on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And we deploy to major disasters around the world fairly regularly. These are teams of trained technicians and engineers. Doctors, who also arrive with equipment, and so on, ready to deal with almost any natural, and manmade disaster worldwide," he observed.

Earlier this week, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned that the incidence of cholera and other diarrheal diseases is rising sharply throughout the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. A combination of rapid, unplanned urbanization, poor hygiene practices, and a shortage of safe water were cited as major factors behind the steep climb in reported cases over the past two years. However, the effects of climate change that have promoted the frequency and intensity of floods and droughts is also believed to escalated the risks posed by cholera and other water-borne diseases. In economically strained Zimbabwe, Fraser points out the problem has been exacerbated by the departure of highly qualified health professionals.

"Zimbabwe always had a very high reputation for the quality and the standards of its health service providers, particularly the Ministry of Health, and unfortunately, many of them have moved to work in neighboring countries or even as far afield as Europe, so that some of those capacities, unfortunately, have been lost," he laments.

Addressing the natural and manmade factors of climate change, flooding, and the erosion of a safe water supply, Zimbabwe's water professionals are hopeful that the new unity government will be able to attract international support and accelerate efforts to reverse the spread of the menacing cholera epidemic.