DRC: A shot of good health
Friday, June 11, 2010
Collecting water at dusk in Goma is a race against time. At a small beach on the shore of Lake Kivu, women and girls – some with babies on their backs - stand knee-deep in water, dunking and filling jerrycans. It’s a chaotic and urgent time. In the fast fading light of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, they have only minutes left to collect enough water for their families for the next 24 hours.
Security at the beach is tight. Both naval police and Congolese soldiers monitor the water collection. Soon - at 6pm - they will close the gates to the beach and send the women and girls home. The rationale is simple: the women and girls risk rape on the way home if they stay at the beach any longer. For that reason alone, the beach will be shut.
Demand for lake water on this day is high. Power in Goma is – again – off, disabling water pumping systems and forcing Goma’s poorest residents to come to the lake. Until a reticulated scheme is completed, people have to collect water like this every time the power cuts.
The job is not over once the jerrycan is full. The women and girls then join a queue where workers, from a distance, look bizarrely to be inoculating jerrycans. In fact, members of Uzima, a Goma cooperative funded by ACT, are using medical syringes to squeeze measured quantities of chlorine into each jerrycan to clean the water of cholera, a bacteria which causes vomiting, acute diarrhea and sometimes death. Once the dose is administered, the women and girls heave the jerrycans onto their heads or carry them on their backs supported by slings across their foreheads. The bodies of the smallest girls are forced into painful angles in order to carry the load. Then the women and girls head home, a journey of up to 3km.
Access to water – more especially safe drinking water - is an ongoing concern for nearly everyone in the eastern DRC and is high on the list of ACT Alliance priorities. Complex emergencies, like those of the eastern DRC, promote the spread of cholera. Goma itself has one of the highest risks of cholera epidemic in Africa, the lake being described as an incubator for the disease. Elsewhere, water supplies are often located far from villages or camps and girls and women risk rape if they venture too far from home. Contaminated water, polluted by effluent run-off and industrial waste, is all too prevalent. Once water is collected, it usually needs to be boiled, which takes firewood and charcoal.
However, thousands of people are at greatly reduced risk of diseases thanks to ACT water supply schemes, purification schemes, latrines, and washing and laundry facilities. At the beach in Goma, 2000 shots of life-saving chlorine are administered at this site alone on days when the town water supply is down. Zawadi Sylvie, leader of Uzima and mother of two, thumbs through an exercise book marked page after page with thousands of little dashes, each indicating a dose. A string of 20 centres line the shore west of Goma, cleaning 150,000 litres of water a day from contaminants. Mama Sylvie is enthusiastic about the project for personal reasons, saying she herself uses the treated water for her family, and wouldn’t want to be without it.
In Goma, lake-front properties are the domain of the town’s wealthy. Fighting in the eastern DRC created 990,000 newly displaced people in North Kivu last year according to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre. But it is clear some people are making money out of the chaos and upheaval. Section after section along the lakefront is occupied by plush houses, until finally, the houses break and the small beach that authorities have designated for water collecting, comes into sight. Those profiting from the war are ruining the lives of the women collecting water just down the road.
The US $10,000 that Norwegian Church Aid spends on the chlorination programme a month is a small price to protect the health of thousands of people, says NCA’s Einar Sorevik. “It doesn’t matter to us who gets the treated water, it’s just to prevent cholera,” he says. Not long ago, Goma experienced a big cholera outbreak, a recurring event in the city. Without the chlorination project, even more people would suffer, he says.
Further around the lake, ACT water and hygiene facilities are proving invaluable at a hospital specializing in caesarians and treating women suffering fisulas, a severe tear between the rectum and the vagina caused during child birth or violent rape. Without treatment, women face a life of incontinence, infections and – perhaps most painful – ostracism by family because they are unable to have children and carry the strong smell of faeces and urine.
On a foundation of lava rock, ACT has built incinerators for hospital debris, latrines and laundry facilities, and installed a water bladder. Dr Sean Badel says that on some days, the area is without water. The water storage system supplies the 70 patients 20 litres of water a day. When full, it provides five days’ supply. The laundry facilities help make life bearable for the women.
More evidence of ACT’s efforts to provide water is found further inland at Shasa camp. For the residents - people forced from their villages by fighting - two 5000 litre water bladders provide certainty of water supply for both themselves and for neighbouring villagers who are often excluded from benefits NGOs bring to camps.
Water bladders like these look more or less like bladders for waterbeds, although much larger. They sit on the ground with hoses to and from, beneath scaffolding covered in tarpaulins. Day and night, each bladder in the Shasa camp is guarded, as people fear rival tribes or other communities will poison the water. At the water station, the taps have been locked, but for a less serious reason: they have to be locked to keep little children from playing with the running water. With few distractions in the camp, the temptation to splash around in water is too much for kids.
Many displaced people in eastern DRC are unwilling to return home because of the lack of water supplies, schools and health services, in addition to the lack of security. The presence of lakes, springs, and abundant rain challenges the assumption that clean water is plentiful. Until lasting peace reaches the DRC, ACT water systems will be needed to ensure this most basic of human rights gets to people most in need.