DR Congo

Congo: Better quality water thanks to the Red Cross

by Paul MPOYI BULONGO in Kinshasa

The activities of the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the area of water and sanitation have achieved significant progress. One such example is the Congo Initiative Programme (PIC), which seeks to involve the community in solving its problems and multiply its successes by duplicating the programme in other places.

Although there are a number of waterways around Mbandaka (Equateur province), the city has always had serious problems with drinking water. There are two water sources two hours from the city centre, and there are unprotected wells, although these are more often used for domestic chores.

Many people living in the city drink water from the river. "It is a cultural tradition; the river water has a special flavour and the preference is clear," explains Marie Jeanne Bofosa, a housewife from Mbandaka.

As people in Mbandaka are in the habit of drinking untreated water from the river, they are exposed to all kinds of waterborne diseases. A survey conducted by UNICEF before the programme was implemented revealed that 76% of the people living in Equateur did not have access to safe drinking water, 61% did not have access to sanitation facilities and infant mortality from diseases caused by dirty water was 146 per 1,000 live births.

It is difficult to dig wells down to the water table because the soil is very loose and tends to cave in. Therefore, the traditional latrines covered by tree trunks instead of stone slabs usually collapse before they are replaced. The main marketplaces in the city were a focus of infection, because there were no latrines and no water supply nearby. Indiscriminate defecation occurred in the areas around the marketplaces, and fecal material was collected into bags and dumped in the river.

Thanks to the achievements of the Congo Initiative Programme in Mbandaka and Bumba, a total of 7,000 people (5,000 in Mbandaka and 2,000 in Bumba) now have access to safe drinking water. Awareness campaigns promoting good health and hygiene practices have reached a hundred thousand people in these two cities. In Mbandaka, 21,700 people now have access to hygienic latrines, 20,000 of them to household latrines and 1,700 to public latrines.

"We applaud this successful initiative, which gives people their own identity and ensures more respect for their dignity from the authorities," remarks Prince Elikandani, a communications officer with the Equateur Red Cross branch and a facilitation team member of the programme to disseminate the Fundamental Principles and humanitarian values in the city of Mbandaka for the past two years.

Thanks to a partnership with the Swedish Red Cross, various works have been completed by the community in Mbandaka and the surrounding areas with the help of Red Cross volunteers. In the month of April, the community constructed 78 household latrines, a school latrine, three wells and 200 slabs in the districts of Air Congo and Ipeko.

Thanks to all these achievements, the Equateur branch of the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been elected the provincial focal point for water and sanitation. The partners of the Water and Sanitation Cluster, which it has led for over two years, meet at its headquarters each month. All the water and sanitation projects are submitted to the Red Cross for technical assistance. The provincial authorities have included it in the Water and Sanitation Commission to formulate a provincial development plan.

In order to play a more effective supportive role, the Equateur Red Cross branch has mobilized volunteers to carry out door-to-door campaigns to raise awareness about healthy practices and promote the construction of household latrines. It intends to reach at least 250,000 people in Mbandaka in 2007.

"We are up against the resistance of those who live along the river, who are reluctant to use public latrines, but we are determined to overcome this challenge by increasing awareness," said Matthieu Sekalo, coordinator of the Congo Initiative Programme in Equateur.

The philosophy of the Congo Initiative Programme is to encourage people to help themselves. On the basis of this approach, the community of Equateur has decided to pay a contribution of CDF 3,000 (approximately USD 6) per household to ensure the maintenance of the wells and the production of slabs for the household latrines.

"I am impressed by the degree of involvement of the communities in the maintenance of the wells and latrines," observes Andrei Neascu, head of the Swedish Red Cross programme for Central Africa. "We are eager to continue supporting the work of the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo through the International Federation and we hope to see other Participating National Societies invest in similar projects," he concluded.

The water and sanitation project supported by the International Federation in this part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is therefore a pilot project that should be extended to other places. There is still a long way to go in the area of water and sanitation in this vast country.