Fighting the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe - 20 litres of water at a time

Note: The following appeal is now closed.  You can support our ongoing work by donating to the Canadian Red Cross


Written by Ron Yaworsky, Canadian Red Cross delegate

When the call came from Ottawa five days before Christmas asking me if I could fly out the next evening for an ERU (Emergency Response Unit) deployment to Zimbabwe to battle cholera, I quickly agreed.

I was excited to help in such a dire situation and provide my expertise. My experience, specifically in water and sanitation engineering, includes working with First Nation communities across Canada’s north, a six-month stint in Darfur, Sudan and the completion of three specialized Red Cross training courses over the past 18 months; two of them focused on ERU deployments.

I arrived in Harrare on December 25, joining my German and Austrian Red Cross colleagues, who, like me, had taken leave from their employment to join the mission. Two of us were then dispatched to the city of Mutare, the capital of the eastern province of “Manicaland”, which borders Mozambique.

In Mutare, we quickly formed a strong bond with the local Zimbabwe Red Cross (“Zim Red Cross”). Together, we began to identify the villages and surrounding districts hardest-hit by the outbreak. Next, we designed and implemented a targeted cholera awareness and hygiene campaign to break the cycle of cholera spread.

We designed and delivered a training program to volunteers showing them how to deliver messages about cholera to rural households. This included recognizing signs and symptoms of cholera and, in the event cholera was contracted, how to safely rehydrate using a sugar and salt oral re-hydration solution. Most importantly, we emphasized that cholera is spread by poor sanitation and how it can be stopped by practices such as hand-washing with soap, the use of safe water sources for washing and drinking and the safe storage of water.

One of my roles in the training sessions was to “train the trainers” on the use of water purification sachets. We would start with a 20-litre bucket of muddy water, gathered from a nearby river or shallow well, which were often the only water sources available. I demonstrated how to transform this water into clear and safe drinking water and volunteers demonstrated – through song and dance – how they were going to show to rural villagers how to fight the cholera outbreak--20-litres at a time!

One of the most satisfying aspects of my mission was working with the Zim Red Cross. I was inspired by their commitment under very difficult circumstances. Volunteers were visiting homes spread over great distances often carrying 20 kg of soap and water treatment sachets on their heads! While our goal was to stop the spread of cholera, we supported, strengthened and built the capacity of the local Zim Red Cross so that our actions were sustainable once our emergency deployment had ended.

While I was able to see progress as outbreaks in the villages and areas where our volunteers were active were being brought under control – it is clear there remain many needs, both in the short and long term. There is an urgent need for funding in order to continue both short-term emergency response and medium-to-long term programming addressing water and sanitation needs, so that cholera will not re-emerge in areas where the Red Cross has been successful.