Ivory Coast’s Abidjan risks health disaster: MSF

By Mark John

ABIDJAN (Reuters) – The battle for Ivory Coast’s main city Abidjan is pushing its four million residents ever closer to a health disaster, relief agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said on Sunday.

Widespread cuts in water supply come as medicines are running out, while violent militias are dissuading many from venturing out into the streets to seek food already retailing at multiples of its peace-time price.

“It is a city of four million, most of whom don’t have access to health facilities,” MSF Abidjan Field Coordinator Henry Gray told Reuters in a telephone interview from his downtown office, as fire from automatic weapons rang out in the background.

“It is all potentially disastrous for a city of this size,” he warned of the outcome of a disputed presidential election that has degenerated into an open conflict, claiming over a thousand lives and uprooted over half a million.

After a rapid advance from their northern strongholds, forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, winner of the November 28 poll according to U.N.-certified results, have faced dogged resistance by a heavily-armed core of troops backing Laurent Gbagbo, who says those results were rigged.

The port city, which is the hub of the world’s cocoa market, has descended into anarchy in recent days, with street militias executing residents according to their ethnic or political allegiance and criminal bands going on violent pillaging sprees.

SNIPER POTSHOTS

Snipers are taking potshots at those walking in the streets, residents said.

Gray said security had improved from “really bad to just bad” in recent days, allowing the agency more scope for deliveries to local hospitals and other activity.

But full access was impossible because the city’s Plateau business and political center — once the envy of the region — has become a battleground.

“Plateau is the real killer for us, we can’t get past that,” he said, adding that the violence had prevented MSF from getting to one maternity hospital nearby.

Chronic water shortages already contributed to an outbreak of cholera between December and February, and while Gray said there was no evidence so far of a second outbreak, the outlook remained worrying for a city, which had grown accustomed to regular supplies of drinking water.

“There is no secondary coping mechanism — people don’t have wells in their garden … It (the risk of cholera) is extremely worrying.”

The lack of security on the streets has so far prevented an accurate toll of victims from a battle, which began when pro-Ouattara forces launched a major assault on Abidjan last Monday.

Although bodies have been cleared off the streets in some areas, Reuters eyewitnesses have seen many rotting corpses in the streets and the stench is a common complaint among residents.

Gray said the sheer scale of the health impact of the conflict was still largely unknown. “We can’t get into the community to do the evaluations,” he said. “We really need to get in there to find out what is going on.”

Ivory Coast’s Abidjan risks health disaster: MSF