From Trickle to Torrent

Providing displaced communities with access to clean water in eastern DR Congo

Nick Radin, our Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene Advisor, recently returned from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where Action Against Hunger is bringing clean water to communities affected by ongoing conflict in the region. He reports from the village of Hombo, on the border between North and South Kivu, provinces that have borne the brunt of much of the fighting between rebel militias and government soldiers. This violence has terrorized communities and forced thousands of families from their homes.

Hombo, D.R. Congo

The road to Hombo is a muddy mess.

When it rains in D.R. Congo, driving a few miles, even in a four-by-four vehicle, can take hours. I’m traveling to see our water installations in Hombo with Mamady Camara, who began working with Action Against Hunger seven years ago in his native Guinea, and now manages our water, sanitation, and hygiene programs in the zone. We’re also accompanied by two national staff, Congolese water technicians named André and Bonaventure, who grew up in the area and know it inside and out.

Over the last six months, the people of Hombo have taken in a wave of new arrivals coming to escape violence and seeking refuge with local families. Compared to surrounding villages, Hombo is perceived as relatively safe because of its close proximity to a base of U.N. Peacekeepers. This recent influx of displaced people has increased the village’s population by nearly 40 percent and put enormous pressure on local resources.

Two months after Action Against Hunger came to Hombo ... there’s been a dramatic 95 percent drop in reported cholera cases.

Before Action Against Hunger arrived, the only clean water source for all of Hombo was an unprotected spring—barely more than a trickle, really. You had to stand there for more than two minutes just to fill one 20-liter jerry can with water. This may not seem like a long time, but because there were 5,000 people that needed water every single day, they would sometimes have to wait in line for hours to get it.

Since each family was only permitted to fill one jerry can of water per day, not nearly enough for all their daily needs and far below minimum humanitarian standards, they were forced to draw much of their water from a nearby river.

This is the same river where people bathe, mothers wash their families’ laundry, and animals drink and defecate. You can get a whole host of illnesses from drinking dirty water like this, including cholera, diarrhea and dysentery, which kill thousands of children in D.R. Congo every year.

We get out of our vehicle by the river in Hombo and are greeted by a group of women ecstatically whooping and hollering. They are gathering clean water from the tanks Action Against Hunger has installed by the river, and the joy on their faces is contagious.

In June, our teams set up a series of tanks to treat and fully decontaminate water that’s drawn from the river. The clean water from these tanks is then fed directly into a row of taps, where the women and children of Hombo now come to collect water each day. These spigots provide more than enough water for the whole village, including the 2,000 newcomers that have arrived over the last few months, which means that all families now have access to as much safe water as they need.

Mamaday shows me the place near the river where our hygiene promoters are conducting sessions on practices like hand-washing, safe water handling, and latrine usage. These are crucial steps in stopping the spread of water-borne illnesses that have ravaged communities across Congo, and they’re part of our integrated approach to fighting hunger and disease.

I’m introduced to Bashige Dorcase, who, in addition to caring for her own children, has taken in her three young nephews. Full of relief, she tells me how she no longer worries about having enough clean drinking water for all her children. She also says that the residents of Hombo are getting along much better since they don’t argue any more over access to the limited water supply.

Bashige and her family aren’t the only ones whose lives have been changed. Two months after Action Against Hunger came to Hombo, the number of people seeking treatment for diarrhea at the local health center was cut by more than half. There’s been a dramatic 95 percent drop in reported cholera cases, too.

My job takes me to villages across East and Central Africa just like Hombo. But seeing hope and gratitude on the faces of women like Bashige never gets old for me. At home in New York, it’s sometimes easy to forget how something as simple as a glass of clean water can make a world of difference. But today, it’s obvious. I hear it in the joyous shouts of the people of Hombo.