Emergency response units dispatched by the International Red Cross reached Zimbabwe on Friday in a significant scaling up of international assistance to the country in ending a cholera epidemic which the World Health Organization said has claimed 1,123 lives.

WHO officials said the number of reported cases rose to 20,896.

Red Cross officials said the first priority is to expand access to clean water ? contamination of water supplies has been a key factor in the rapid spread of the disease in Zimbabwe over the past month in particular, hitting Harare, Beitbridge on the country's southern border with South Africa, Chegutu in Mashonaland West province and other towns.

But Harare Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Chiroto said efforts to wrest controlof thecapital's watersupply from the Zimbabwe National Water Authorityor ZINWA, which took over the country's water systems from municipalities in recent years, have failed as the government seems more concerned with its international image than quelling cholera.

Beitbridge resident Shadreck Sithole said the situation there has significantly improved with the deployment of international relief. But Norbert Feruka in Zvishavane said his area is still being hit hard, voicing disappointment with the government's response to the crisis.

The United Nations Population Fund, meanwhile, has provided funding to reopen maternity wings at hospitals around the country through the payment of hard currency incentives to staff who walked out two months ago over low pay and poor working conditions.

The U.N. agency donated medical supplies to maternity wards earlier this week as it prepared to reopen the units, as correspondent Sylvia Manika reported from Harare.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...