26 November 2008A senior United Nations relief official has urged donors to generously support the $550 million appeal launched earlier this week to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, which she warned will get much worse without “massive” international assistance. The Southern African nation is mired in a crisis brought about by a confluence of factors, including three years of failed harvests, bad governance and hyperinflation, among others.All of this has led to a situation in which nearly half of the total population of 12 million could require food aid, basic services such as education and health care are breaking down, and a cholera outbreak has claimed over 300 lives and is spreading.“The situation is acute and is expected to worsen towards the end of the year, and probably get even worse in the beginning of [next] year,” Catherine Bragg, Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a news conference in New York.She added that “without massive international assistance, this situation is going to get much, much worse.” The number of victims of cholera – an acute intestinal infection caused by contaminated food or water – has now reached almost 9,000 and the number of persons who have died from it has now reached 366 as of yesterday, Ms. Bragg reported.The high number of cases, she said, is directly related to the lack of clean water in many communities, and the collapse of the health system. Solid waste and refuse removal is also a major cause of the continued increase of infections.According to OCHA, UN and non-governmental organization (NGO) agencies are supporting treatment centres in 26 districts where cholera was reported. In addition, a comprehensive cholera response plan has been drawn up by the UN World Health Organization (WHO), which is in the process of procuring emergency stocks to run treatment centres for one month. Around the country, humanitarian agencies have constructed emergency latrines, and clean drinking water is being trucked in to affected areas. Hygiene promotion activities are being conducted, and mobile clinics and support units are being set up. Among the challenges are uncontrolled sewage, lack of sanitation in congested areas, and general lack of hygiene practiced by vendors, food outlets and transient populations. Accessing sufficient water in the capital, Harare, has also been difficult. Ms. Bragg noted that in addition to the cholera outbreak, there has also been a breakdown in both the health and education sectors. She was particularly concerned about the very low level of school attendance.“For a country that used to have over 90 per cent school attendance, now we’re seeing less than 20 per cent,” she said. This is largely because teachers are not being paid or being paid insufficiently to cover even one day of transport to the schools. Students are also not able to attend because some institutions are requiring payments in kind, including food, which they do not have. There have also been closures of major hospitals and clinics in the last few weeks because of the lack of medical personnel and supplies. It is to address these and other needs that the UN last week launched the Consolidated Appeal for Zimbabwe for 2009, amounting to $550 million – about 60 per cent of which is for food. Ms. Bragg noted that the appeal for 2008, just under $400 million, is about 75 per cent funded at this point. Zimbabwe has endured months of political tensions after disputed presidential elections in March involving the incumbent Robert Mugabe and the opposition figure Morgan Tsvangirai. A power-sharing deal on the formation of a new government was reached on 15 September with the help of regional leaders, but outstanding issues remain, jeopardizing the deal’s implementation.In a statement issued yesterday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced his alarm at the deteriorating conditions inside the country, and urged all parties in the political crisis to support and provide humanitarian assistance and leave aside any political considerations.