By Stephanie Nebehay and Goran Tomasevic
About 3,000 refugees fleeing political turmoil in Burundi have been infected in a cholera epidemic in neighbouring Tanzania, the United Nations said on Friday, stoking fears of a growing humanitarian crisis in Africa’s Great Lakes.
Up to 400 new cases of the deadly disease were emerging every day, the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR said, mainly in Tanzania’s Kagunga peninsula where tens of thousands of Burundians have taken refuge, often in squalid conditions.
Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision last month to stand for a third term has triggered protests, a failed coup and sent refugees, many from Burundi’s Tutsi minority, into Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Opponents have accused Nkurunziza of breaking a two-term limit in the constitution and a deal that ended an ethnically-fuelled civil war in 2005. Regional leaders, fearing the unrest could reopen ethnic divides, have scrambled to end the standoff.
A Tanzanian health official told Reuters on Wednesday that at least 33 people had died from cholera in Tanzania near Lake Tanganyika.
“The epidemic is still worsening. To date some 3,000 cases have been reported, and numbers are increasing at 300-400 new cases per day, particularly in Kagunga and nearby areas,” U.N. refugee agency spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists.
Some cases had also been reported in Burundi, he said, without elaborating.
An estimated 100,000 Burundian refugees had already fled and the UNHCR said the exodus could double in coming months as the political tensions continue.
Police fired teargas at protesters who hurled stones and burned tyres in neighbourhoods of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura on Friday, the latest sign of more than thee weeks of unrest.
“Given the huge influx of refugees on a very small piece land with … insufficient water, it is ripe for a large cholera epidemic,” UNHCR’s chief medical expert Paul Spiegel said, referring to Kagunga.
The UNHCR appealed to donors on Friday for $207 million to help it deal with the crisis.
Nkurunziza points to a constitutional court ruling allowing him to stand again, on the grounds that said his first term did not count because he was picked by parliament and not elected in a popular vote. Opponents say the court is biased.
Burundi’s civil war largely pitted majority Hutus against minority Tutsis. The renewed unrest has caused particular concerns in neighbouring Rwanda, which has a similar ethnic mix and suffered a genocide in 1994 that killed 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Cholera, endemic in Tanzania and Burundi, is an intestinal infection often linked to contaminated drinking water. It causes severe diarrhoea and vomiting, leaving small children especially vulnerable to death from dehydration.
“The risk is that everybody uses the same water source and it spreads like wildfire,” World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman Christian Lindmeier told Reuters.