Water Scarcity in the Era of the Pandemic

#WaterForGoma

Image: A queue of people wait for Water in Goma, from Remy Zahiga, used with permission.

The inhabitants of the city of Goma face daily hardship in accessing drinking water. This struggle has become a terrifying reality when the region was hit by not one, but two, deadly viral outbreaks.

In 1998, the year I was born, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) became a theatre for what is often referred to as “Africa’s First World War”, a conflict fought over minerals, water, and food. By 2010, 5.4 million people had died, making it the most deadly conflict the planet had seen since the Second World War. However, most deaths were the result of malaria, malnutrition, or diarrhoea, and not directly as a result of violence. This is because the DRC saw a collapse of its infrastructure as a result of the conflict.

The DRC is an area that is incredibly resource-rich, and the conflict itself was funded by the exploitation of natural resources, including, but not limited to, water, coltan, and timber. This, in turn, has opened a huge window of opportunity for multinational companies to take advantage of these natural resources by catching them in a complex, elite web of key political, military, and business personnel – all at the cost of Congolese citizens, especially children. Some examples of the results of this have been: mining operations to extract coltan used in mobile phones, often utilising child labour; and the deforestation of the Congo Rainforest – which has lost an area larger than Bangladesh in the last 14 years. The complex and sensitive political situation in the DRC (and arguably the lucrative conditions for foreign, developed countries who benefit from these conditions) has made it challenging to allocate international aid funding to ameliorate these circumstances.

The State Water Utility is unable to improve its water pumping facilities due to a lack of funds, meaning that the only way for water to be distributed is through rusty, decaying pipes. In urban areas, only 69% people receive water from a state utility. In rural areas, this figure is much, much lower. The IRC state that the illnesses that have claimed the majority of Congolese lives as a result of the conflict are diseases and conditions caused by and exacerbated by a lack of clean water. This is a cruel irony, as the DRC was once one of the wettest regions in Africa, and yet today, people often must resort to collecting water from ponds or streams due to the dearth of state water pipes. This water is frequently tainted by chemicals, waste, and bacteria – but humans cannot survive without water, and so many have no choice but to drink it. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 88 out of every 1000 children in the DRC die before the age of 5.

Nadine is a 20-year-old Congolese woman from Goma, the capital of the North Kivu region, near the border with Rwanda, in the Albertine Rift. The young mother must walk 10km every day to access drinking water. She told UNICEF that she spends virtually all day travelling to and from this water source, in order to transport the 20 litres of water that her household requires. The journey is a daily toil that many of her female neighbours are also familiar with. Bottled water in the DRC costs around $1 a unit; as many Congolese rely on less than $2 a day, this is an impossible luxury.

However; drinking is not the only necessity that requires safe water. As the world is rocked by COVID-19, the situation in Africa is one that is often overlooked. Distressingly, COVID-19 is actually the second virus to threaten Congolese families, because in 2018, Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) returned. Nadine says she has become increasingly afraid for her family as the disease spread through the DRC. As of the 26th March 2020, the WHO reported that the total number of confirmed cases of EVD in North Kivu was 3453. Between the 4th-26th March, there had been 2273 deaths, with 2130 being confirmed cases at the time of death. Thankfully, the WHO reported no new cases since 17th February 2020, but have also stated that, due to funding for their EVD response ceasing in December 2019, they are in danger of running out of funds by May 2020. In fact, they report needing $20 million to ensure that their response teams have the capacity to fight the outbreak until its end.

Of course, EVD is not the only virus that Congolese families face. As Coronavirus sees all but the essential workers in Western countries go into lockdown, the same is an unrealistic prospect for women like Nadine. Staying at home is impossible when you must carry 20 litres of water every day. On top of this, extra water must be utilised to wash the hands more frequently. Goma is now experiencing a very alarming water shortage, despite being located in close proximity to lake Kivu. The water shortage in Goma means that social distancing is simply not possible, as people must congregate to access what little water there is. Thirst does not stop in a pandemic. A virus has no capacity for compassion for those in the most dire of situations.

Image, showing citizens of Goma during the water shortage, from Remy Zahiga, used with permission (https://twitter.com/Remy_Zahiga/status/1250475706997444612?s=20)

This should be an international scandal. Nations who have previously benefitted from the unstable situation in the DRC must realise that further complacency is no longer acceptable. Goma needs water, and it needs it now. Inaction is dangerous for everyone; if the virus is able to survive anywhere on earth, then we all risk further, devastating, outbreaks. Our lack of compassion will be our own undoing, and so we must start treating this crisis as seriously as we would treat any crisis. Women like Nadine and their families are not a virus to be eradicated, but it is people just like them all over the world who will suffer the most due to this pandemic, just as they suffer already under an international system that has failed them for as long as I have been alive.

Once this virus has passed, there can be no return to “normal” for people like Nadine. Congolese women, men and children deserve justice and dignity.

And Goma needs water, right now.

Further reading:

https://www.globalissues.org/article/87/the-democratic-republic-of-congo

https://thewaterproject.org/water-crisis/water-in-crisis-congo

https://www.who.int/csr/don/26-March-2020-ebola-drc/en/

https://www.who.int/countries/cod/en/

(Interview with Nadine, in French) https://www.unicef.org/drcongo/recits/eau-vivre-survivre

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