Lessons from the DRC: The Importance of Water Infrastructure

Hello all! This blog will be focusing on WASH issues, or Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene. Each week Global Water Alliance (GWA) will highlight a WASH issue that we find to be especially interesting; either because of its unique and extreme circumstances or because of the potential lesson it can provide for all water issues of its kind. We hope to raise awareness of particular challenges within the global water crisis so as to increase involvement in working towards sustainable solutions.

This week we would like to focus on the importance of water management and infrastructure. Without these, there are obvious implications, such as low access to potable water and higher incidences of water-related diseases. This is the case even if a country naturally has vast freshwater resources, suggesting that water management and infrastructure is key to securing safe water for a population. An extreme case of a country with many water issues despite its abundance of freshwater resources is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which presents an example that abundance of water is not a sole factor in addressing potable water supply—what also matters is how that water is distributed, and how the supply is treated and protected.

The DRC is far from the Millennium Development Goals of doubling access to clean water and basic sanitation by 2015. While data for 2015 does not yet exist, this is still clear even from a 2011 UN Environment Program report and World Bank report. For instance, only 31% of the DRC had access to improved sanitation (flushing toilets, etc.) facilities in 2012,[1] and only 46.5% of the DRC had access to an improved water source (a protected pump, piping, etc.). To put this in perspective, only two other countries still have a rate below 50%: Mozambique at 49%, and Papua New Guinea at 40%.[2]

[3]*

Access to an improved water source does not necessarily mean access to clean water. Pipes can be rusted and contaminated, for instance. Yet, we can be fairly sure that not having access to an improved water source means likely contamination, as the alternative is to drink from unprotected wells or surface water. Thus, we know that, at best, 46.5% of the DRC had access to safe drinking water in 2012. In fact, the UNEP report mentioned earlier claims that almost 75% of the DRC, or 51 million people, lacked access to safe drinking water in 2011.[4]

One would think that a country with such little access to clean water must not have much freshwater at all. Otherwise, surely people would prefer to drink the freshwater available.

Yet, according to the World Bank, the DRC is by far the most water-rich country of Sub-Saharan Africa, with 900 billion cubic meters in 2013.[5]

SSA Pie Chart[6]

SSA Bar Chart[7]

How can a country with so much freshwater have such little access to safe water?

The answer lies largely in the fact that the DRC has been the center of an immense political and military conflict beginning in 1997 that claimed an estimated 5.4 million lives as of 2008. As a result, infrastructure deteriorated and was destroyed—including water infrastructure. Because there is no adequate water treatment and distribution in place, many people have been forced to drink contaminated surface water.

This is even more the case for rural areas. The 46.5% of people mentioned earlier who don’t have access to safe water is even starker when we examine the urban-rural split in water access.

SSA Bar Chart2[8]

The result has been almost perpetual water-related diseases for many people, and especially children—including diarrhea, typhoid, and cholera. As of 2011, one in five Congolese children under the age of five were “regularly sick with diarrhea.” One Congolese woman from Binza Météo reports that, “We have health problems—we get infections because we are not drinking clean water.”

One solution is to tap groundwater, which requires less treatment and is generally safer. The state water company REGIDESO has been focusing on doing just this. Yet, access is limited largely to urban areas. In 2011, an estimated 90% of rural areas still relied on forest springs for drinking water.[9]

An initiative led by UNICEF and the government to construct small groundwater pumps in remote areas has been having great success in closing this gap and meeting WASH goals. The strategy is to dig wells by hand rather than with a machine drill. Not only is this method four times cheaper, but it can also reach remote villages and rural areas. Since 2009, this program has brought safe drinking water to over 200,000 Congolese.

Despite the DRC’s shortcomings in the water sector, it is hopeful that the DRC’s clean water access is on an upward trend. But the reason why GWA highlights the DRC’s case is to show that, even if a country has immense freshwater resources, many people may still be forced to drink contaminated water. What is required in these cases is to have an initiative to build water infrastructure—whether from the government, NGOs, or both—that bridges the urban-rural gap in lack of safe water access.

Please feel free to leave any questions, comments, or criticisms. The sources used are below:

[1] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Improved sanitation facilities (% of population with access). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

[2] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Improved water source (% of population with access). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

[3] WHO/UNICEF. “Proportion of Global Population With Access to Improved Water, Total 2012.” wssinfo.org. WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation, n.d. Web. 6 June 2015. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.wssinfo.org%2Fdata-estimates%2Fmaps%2F>., World Bank. World Development Indicators: Improved water source (% of population with access). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

*This image was adapted from images found on the WHO/UNICEF website in the citation.

[4] Partow, Hassan. “Water Issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Challenges and Opportunities.” Ed. Matija Potocnik. United Nations Environment Programme (2011): n. pag. Jan. 2011. Web. 6 June 2015. <http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/UNEP_DRC_water.pdf&gt;.

[5] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Renewable internal freshwater resources, total (billion cubic meters). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

[6] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Renewable internal freshwater resources, total (billion cubic meters). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

[7] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Freshwater. 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 6 Jun. 2015. http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/3.5.

[8] World Bank. World Development Indicators: Improved water source, urban (% of population with access). Web. 6 Jun. 2015., World Bank. World Development Indicators: Improved water source, rural (% of population with access). Web. 6 Jun. 2015.

[9] Partow, Hassan. “Water Issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Challenges and Opportunities.” Ed. Matija Potocnik. United Nations Environment Programme (2011): n. pag. Jan. 2011. Web. 6 June 2015. <http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/UNEP_DRC_water.pdf&gt;.

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