Drought and cholera threaten farmers in Zambia

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Choongo Wycliff, 47, a community-based volunteer for Keepers Zambia Foundation, speaks to recipients of hygiene kits and water storage containers near Lusaka. Keepers Zambia Foundation is raising awareness of the essential role good hygiene plays in reducing the risk of cholera. Louise Phiri / Oxfam

Oxfam and the Keepers Zambia Foundation are helping people survive this deadly mix.

Mainza Muchindu stands at his maize field near Lusaka, Zambia, and watches his crop dry out in front of his eyes.

“I invested all my money into this two-hectare maize crop, and as you can see there is nothing that will come from here,” he says. Muchindu is not sure what he will do to feed his family of 10 and support his children’s education. “With this crop failure, I am really in trouble.”

In suburban communities nearby, people have also been coping with cholera. There have been 188,000 cholera cases in six southern African countries in the last year, resulting in 3,400 deaths, according to the U.N. Twenty-one thousand of these cases were in Zambia, which saw a severe upsurge in cholera in late 2023 that led to more than 700 deaths. Schools from primary to university level were delayed opening, affecting 4.3 million students.

The combination of drought and cholera is a potentially deadly mix. “The scarcity of water sources in the drought-affected area are compelling people to turn to unsafe alternatives like shallow wells, heightening the risks of water-borne disease like cholera,” report Oxfam staff in Zambia.

Stomach ailments afflicting people already struggling to find enough food limits their ability to absorb nutrients, driving malnutrition. The risk of disease also increases when water shortages can cause poor hygiene practices. When people reduce handwashing, the risk of cholera increases.

Cholera threat in communities

In the community of Chilanga, 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Lusaka, Alice Tembo works as a volunteer health promoter for Keepers Zambia Foundation (KZF), a partner of Oxfam. As one of the 50 volunteers trained by KZF, Tembo helps people who become sick with cholera get oral rehydration therapy, no matter what time of the day or night, and refers patients to the hospital.

Alice Tembo, 44, a community-based volunteer in Chilanga, Zambia, stands next to her Oral Rehydration Treatment Point, where anyone suffering from cholera can get this crucial care. Louise Phiri / Oxfam

She also encourages people to practice good hygiene. “People just come from the toilet, and they don't wash their hands,” she says, adding that handwashing is particularly important before meals or handling food. “We need to tell them the method of washing their hands, and that they need to use soap.”

Tembo says Chilanga suffers from poor solid waste management. “Water comes from the rubbish dumping sites and goes straight into the boreholes [wells]; that is the same water people use. That is why you find that cholera is everywhere here in Chilanga.”

Choongo Wycliffe, KZF’s volunteer coordinator, says Chilanga and other similar towns where the most impoverished people live also lack decent sanitation. “They are not planned settlements,” he says. “No drainage systems, no clean running water, no proper toilets. The water from shallow wells and the toilets -- they are mixed up as a result.”

To help people survive cholera, Oxfam is working with KZF to provide oral rehydration salts, chlorine to treat unsafe water, clean buckets to store treated water, and hygiene items such as soap to help people stay clean and avoid transmitting cholera.

Iris Mizinga, a community-based volunteer with Keepers Zambia Foundation, demonstrates proper handwashing technique using clean water and soap. Louise Phiri / Oxfam

Drought emergency

Following the cholera outbreak in 2023 and early 2024, Zambia endured a five-week period of little to no rain. The Zambian government declared a national disaster and emergency in the end of February. The drought has hit 84 of the country’s 116 districts, affecting more than a million farming households.

Since the outbreak began in 2023, Oxfam and partners have provided more than 1.5 million people in four southern African countries with hygiene kits and access to clean water, including by drilling and rehabilitating borehole wells, and installing solar-powered water systems in public health facilities and markets.

“Urgent support in the form of food and clean water is what people need the most now,” says KZF Director Ezra Banda. “Many have no food left because they did not harvest enough last year, and the El Nino-induced weather phenomenon has killed the slightest hope they had to feed themselves.”

Oxfam and partners in Zambia are doing further assessments to inform our humanitarian response. We intend to raise $6.5 million to provide 600,000 people with cash and clean water, help with growing winter crops, and improve local sanitation and hygiene services to prevent cholera.

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