MBUJI MAYI, DR Congo, Sep 5 2012 (IPS) - Despite the desperate lack of access to water for domestic use in Mwene Ditu, in the central Democratic Republic of Congo, Dieudonné Ilunga spent a good part of July blocking up residents’ wells.
“They’ve dug them in old cemeteries, in newly-demarcated lots, next to toilets,” said Ilunga, head of the Water Resources Research Department in the city, the second largest in DRC’s Kasaï-Orientale province.
Just ten percent of Mwene Ditu’s 600,000 residents are connected to the water supply network – and even for these lucky few, water flows through the taps only on Monday and Friday.
Vianney Muadi, a mother of two in the city’s Musadi neighbourhood, said she stores as much water as possible when it runs. “Sometimes, we go whole weeks without access,” she told IPS.
“But drinking water must not be left open to the air,” said Ilunga. He wants to see the network rehabilitated and extended into outlying neighbourhoods, but the public water utility, REGIDESO, is facing severe challenges across the province.
Few of the 3.3 million residents of the provincial capital, Mbuji Mayi, are served by the city’s aging pipe network.
“Our network only reaches 3,000 clients, and basically all of them are in Mbuji Mayi,” admitted Jean-Pierre Mbambu, head of the REGIDESO’s water works in the city.
Pipes are frequently damaged by uncontrolled runoff from rainwater. And even when these breaches are repaired, the utility is often unable to pump water, due to power outages. The provincial administration has tried to help with diesel to power generators, but this is a costly option – especially with REGIDESO struggling with funding problems linked to bankrupt customers.
The many people who are not connected to the grid have to fend for themselves. Dozens of boreholes have been drilled, particularly in Mwene Ditu, and in other parts of Kasaï-Orientale province in the east of the country.
People have also turned to rivers and springs near various towns for water.
“But these supply points are badly looked after and even less well protected,” said Placide Mukena Kabongo, head of the National Rural Water Department (SNHR) in Ngandanjika, some 90 kilometres southeast of Mbuji Mayi. He said his staff members were doing their best to explain to people how to prevent contamination of their water sources.
“SNHR dug 578 wells and constructed 480 water points in eight of the 16 territories that make up the province,” Mukena told IPS, adding that these waterworks dated back to colonial times though they were rehabilitated by the SNHR after independence.
Many other shallow wells have been dug by unemployed youth trying to earn a living. “But they’re doing this without respecting standards, making the quality of the water doubtful,” said Kankonde. He also complained about the use of unclean buckets to draw water and the absence of drainage to keep dirty water from pooling around the wells.
“We took a dead toad out of our well one day last year,” Adjany Tshimbombo told IPS. Since then, Tshimbombo, a student at the University of Mbuji Mayi, won’t drink the water without boiling it first.
The unsurprising consequence has been increasing rates of waterborne disease, according to provincial medical authorities.
Dr. Musole Kankonde, head of hygiene at the provincial health department, told IPS that diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery, bilharzia, and typhoid fever are affecting increasing numbers of people, striking children and adults alike, in both rural and urban areas.
“In just the first half of 2012, we recorded more than 79,000 cases of diarrhoea and dysentery, with 29 deaths,” said Jean-Pierre Katende Nsumba, the doctor in charge of disease control in the province.
Kankonde told IPS that his hands were tied when it comes to addressing the problem. “I can’t forbid people to drink water from wells or springs. All I can ask is that they maintain wells carefully and treat their drinking water to avoid falling ill,” he said.
His colleague Nsumba said people in the province are generally unable to afford water purification tablets. “I advise that all drinking water – whether it comes from REGIDESO, rivers, springs or wells – be boiled before use to prevent disease,” he said.
After service in the British SAS Regiment the author became a physician and then an orthopaedic surgeon.
He has held professorial positions in Canada, Vietnam and the United States, practiced and taught orthopaedic surgery in three continents and in several wars.
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