DRC: cleaning up the water, saving lives

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

By Kawaya Ngenda of the Lutheran World Federation and Pascal Kamate of Evangelical Lutheran Church of Congo (Eelco)

At its height, filthy water from Lake Kivu killed a person a day in Nzulo, 12km west of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. After malaria and acute respiratory infection, water-borne diseases took third place in cause of illness and death among residents of the fishing village.

Nzulo sits beside a small bay, fenced on one side by lush steep hills and on the other by cliffs.  Along the shore, long wooden boats used for transport and fishing are lined up facing the lake.

Between 1998 and 2008, Nzulo swelled to several times its size as it hosted scores of people fleeing fighting between rebel and government forces. Waves of migrants took refuge in the small village. By December 2008, the population reached 3600, over three times its original size. The extended stay of people displaced by fighting and camped on a terrace of lava caused sanitary and hygiene conditions to plummet. Water supplies in the village fell into disrepair during the long period of instability.

The lake became the primary source of water but quickly became contaminated with faeces and rubbish. Residents had to use shore water for cleaning clothes and watering cattle. From there, they were also forced to draw water for drinking and bathing. Multiple cases of diarrhoea were reported, causing death, particularly among children under five. According to the World Health Organisation, one in five children in the DRC will not survive to their fifth birthday.

Relief came when ACT Alliance member Norwegian Church Aid installed a simple pump at the lakeside which draws water from the lake to a 45 m3 tank above the town where the water is chlorinated. When full, the tank supplies the village with water for three days. Nzulo’s 300 households – a population of more than 1300 people - are now regularly served with clean drinking water. Deaths and illness from dirty water have virtually been eliminated.

Now the task of running the project has been put into the hands of the villagers. After the displaced population returned home at the end of last year, the local population appropriated the work by forming a committee of six women and four men to maintain the system.

The tank management committee, in consultation with the beneficiary households, purchases gasoline, lubricants and chlorine. Each household pays the equivalent of 30 cents per month for the service. Vulnerable people, including the elderly and other people with physical disabilities, pay nothing.

Zaina Kakas, a mother of four, said that before the tanks people sometimes drank directly from the lake.  “We recorded a great change in our lives when this tank was built and water stations installed in the surroundings of our village. The problems related to health were significantly reduced.”  In addition, women and children saved time by drawing water closer to home.

Simurayi Mynyopohe, president of the fishers’ association and a member of the committee, said the system provided the village with plenty of water and negated the need for women to come down to the lake to collect water.