This week, authorities turned off the taps in Zimbabwe’s capital after the National Water Authority said it ran out of purifying chemicals and feared contaminated water would spread a cholera epidemic that has claimed hundreds of lives since August.
The crisis is the latest chapter in the collapse of this once-vibrant nation under President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled for 28 years and refuses to leave office even though he and his party lost elections in March.
An agreement to form a unity government with the opposition has been deadlocked for weeks over how to share Cabinet posts.
In Mabvuku, a suburb where residents have dug shallow wells in open ground, people say they know unboiled water can make them ill, but that they have no choice.
“We are afraid but there is no solution, most of the time the electricity is not available so we just use the water,” resident Naison Chakwicha told AP Television News.
Harare is the epicenter of the cholera epidemic, which has spread across the country and spilled over its borders.
The government has reported 473 deaths since August and a total of 11,700 people infected by Monday, according to Paul Garwood, spokesman for Health Action and Crises, the humanitarian arm of the U.N. World Health Organization.
Doctors say the toll is nearer 1,000 dead, or 10% of victims, but nobody can count those dying at home and in the countryside without medical care. All the country’s main hospitals have closed.
Those continuing to operate can offer little care with no medicines and a shortage of staff whose monthly salary does not cover one day’s bus fare to get to work.
The collapse of all services, including refuse collection, has turned the city into a playground for rats that threaten to spread other, more deadly, diseases.
Those without foreign currency must turn to “water Samaritans”—suburban residents who have wells or boreholes and are allowing people to fill buckets and jerry cans for free. Some residents are charging for the privilege.