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Zimbabwe: increased vulnerability of the poorest calls for immediate action

09-06-2009 Interview

The ICRC has been working in Zimbabwe for almost 30 years, but since the beginning of 2009 there has been a clear shift towards emergency operations. Thomas Merkelbach is the head of the ICRC regional delegation in Harare. He explains the organization’s priorities.


  Thomas Merkelbach, head of the ICRC regional delegation in Harare    
     The ICRC has shifted its priorities in Zimbabwe, helping the authorities to cope with the cholera outbreak and alleviating food shortages in prisons. Why?  

Years of economic hardship have affected many Zimbabweans’ access to health care, food and water. Recent months have seen a certain increase in regional and international support, but long-term investment will be needed to rebuild the country’s public services. The needs are huge, many people live in great poverty, and food production is unlikely to rise in the near future.

At the end of 2008, the ICRC and its partners in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement started to help the authorities deal with the cholera outbreak in the country, the worst epidemic to hit the country in 14 years.

The ICRC has been supporting eight clinics in Harare's densely populated suburbs since mid-2008 and 13 other health facilities in rural areas for number of years.

Since April 2009, the ICRC has also been providing food for 6,300 detainees. Working with the prison authorities, the ICRC has set up therapeutic feeding programmes and has begun improving cooking facilities and water systems in prisons. Once the food situation has stabilized, the ICRC will continue to assess conditions of detention, refurbish kitchen and sanitation facilities and upgrade water supply systems. In addition, we will work to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases and will ensure that detainees receive the treatment they require in the event of any outbreak of disease such as cholera. The ICRC has given blankets and soap to 5,000 detainees and will continue to distribute these items, along with clothing and cooking utensils. We will work with the authorities to ensure that improvements achieved in the prison food situation are maintained.

 What are ICRC prison visits?  

All over the world, the ICRC visits people deprived of their freedom to assess whether they are being treated according to the international standards of hu manitarian law and human rights law. Regular visits by its delegates enable the ICRC to track prisoners'whereabouts and make recommendations to the authorities about any improvements to conditions that may be necessary.

In Zimbabwe, the ICRC is helping the authorities to meet the basic needs of the detainees by providing additional food and by improving the water supply and health services.

 What else are you doing in the countries you cover?  

The ICRC is supporting other vulnerable communities in Zimbabwe, including those affected by violence in 2008. In the provinces of Mashonaland Central and Mashonaland East, 63,500 people living in extreme poverty, including those returning home, will receive agricultural items and training to help them rebuild their livelihoods.

More resources are needed for health facilities, in particular to provide transport allowances for medical staff and to begin supporting four additional polyclinics in Harare. The ICRC is improving access to water and sanitation for rural communities and is exploring the possibility of helping the Harare water board renovate Morton Jaffray Water Treatment Plant. Our support would consist of providing technical expertise and donating equipment to improve the quality and quantity of the water the plant supplies to Harare and its outskirts, in coordination with other humanitarian organizations.

The regional delegation in Harare also oversees the ICRC's activities in Botswana, Namibia, Malawi and Zambia. In each of those countries, and in Zimbabwe, the ICRC is supporting the national Red Cross Societies and promoting international humanitarian law and human rights law among government authorities, the armed forces (especially the growing regional peacekeeping brigade of the Southern African Development Community), police, universities, civ il society, young people and children.

All our activities are coordinated with partners within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and other humanitarian organizations.