- Most residents in Angola's capital, Luanda, consume water of suspect quality, according to recent surveys by UN agencies, the government and non-governmental organisations.
Initial results from research into the levels of residual chlorine in the homes of the most vulnerable communities in Luanda, by the UN Children's agency (UNICEF), the UK-based development agency, Oxfam, the international medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and the International federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, showed that up to 82 percent of households were using water that was not properly treated.
A large part of Luanda's population uses water dispensed from storage tanks of dubious cleanliness, according to a recent joint survey - Preliminary Report on the Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices of the Population in relation to Cholera in the Province of Luanda - by the Ministry of Health and UNICEF.
In certain suburbs all the residents depend on water from such tanks. The findings are a cause for concern: Angola is recovering from a cholera outbreak that began last year, when it notched up the world's highest fatality rate from the disease: 2,722 deaths, most of them in Luanda. This year, 16,320 cases have been reported in 16 of the country's 18 provinces, with most fatalities (77) occurring in the capital.
More than half the people living in informal settlements, called musseques, depend on private tankers for their daily water. Most of the estimated 4.5 million people in Luanda live in informal settlements, perched on hardened mounds of waste, making the installation of standpipes impossible, according to Guy Clarysse, the head of UNICEF's health and nutrition section in Angola.
The joint UNICEF/government study sampled 456 households in the suburbs of Luanda most affected by the present cholera epidemic: Cacuaco, Sambizanga and Cazenga.
In the São Pedro de Barra township, water is supplied by a fountain, which had "untreated water" written on the side, but the residents did not make an effort to treat the water. In the same neighbourhood, researchers found an entire zone with almost no latrines - the residents defecated into plastic bags and threw them into the sea; one resident interviewed had contracted cholera twice.
Almost three decades of conflict, which only ended in 2002, have impeded the development of a water and sanitation system in Luanda. "The human waste just flows through open drains out into the sea or river systems," said Pierre-Marie Achy, UNICEF's cholera coordinator in Angola.
Cholera, an acute intestinal infection, is usually transmitted through faecally contaminated water or food. "In Luanda, sanitation is deficient," said the UNICEF/government survey. "The greater part of the neighbourhoods are covered by pools of water; there is a lack of drains to let the residual waters run off. Some of the neighbourhoods around Luanda have been transformed into rubbish dumps ... they are also the poorest areas."
Almost half the developing world, all of it poor, lacks access to sanitation. The poverty-stricken residents of Luanda, most of whom barely manage to earn US$50 a month, cannot afford gas or wood to boil water. The cheapest alternative is using bleach powder, but the joint survey found that while most people were aware of cholera, they were largely ignorant of accessible water purification methods.
MSF found that the lack of water prevented many children and adults from using the available latrines, and many people defecated at night in open areas, in the streets and on the rubbish dumps.
"The only solution is change of behaviour. Luanda has been built to accommodate only 400,000 people - you cannot expect the government to catch up overnight [with services such as access to drinking water and sewage disposal]," said Claire-Lise Chaignat, the World Health Organisation (WHO) coordinator for the global task force on cholera control.
"They must become aware of chlorination, storing water in clean containers and observing basic hygiene - it is the best they can do in these conditions."
The government's national Directorate of Water has plans to provide running water to at least half the city's population by the end of 2008.
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