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Democratic Republic of the Congo: Rachel, or the weight of water

12-06-2009 Feature

The population of Goma, the capital of North Kivu, has nearly tripled since 1994 owing to the many waves of people driven from their homes in the countryside. The city's infrastructure was not prepared for such an increase, and over half of residents don't have regular access to drinking water. This has led to poor hygiene and a growing incidence of disease, particularly among the displaced people who have found refuge in the city. Here are portraits of three of them and their daily struggle to find clean water.

6 a.m. in Kasika, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Goma  

Standing barefoot on the volcanic rock and barely awake, Rachel hauls the container onto her back. In front of her, in the mist, looms a maze of narrow, muddy streets. She will have to walk for two hours to reach the shore of Lake Kivu in order to fill her water container.

Rachel is 12 years old, a little shy, and a bit of a daydreamer. She is haunted by the distant memory of her green village in the Masisi hills, which she had to leave to flee the conflict that has devastated her country for so many years. For the past five months, Rachel, her family and more than 500 other displaced people from the same area have found refuge in Goma, under the hole-riddled roof of a large building damaged by a volcanic eruption in 2002.

At night the building's residents sleep packed together on the ground. During the day, most adults go off in search of paid work, while the children, big and small alike, embark on the long road to the water.

" We preferred to come to the city rather than stay in the camps for displaced people, because here my parents can find work more easily, " Rachel explains. " But it's difficult to survive, very difficult. "

One of the big problems that these displaced people share with thousands of other residents of their neighbourhood is lack of access to drinking water. Since Kasika has no water supply of its own, its residents'options are limited: they can either buy from water sellers at exorbitant prices or go draw their own from Lake Kivu.

The lake water has the advantage of being free, but it can be contaminated by city waste. Near Rachel's building, people lies on the dusty ground, prostrated by stomach pains and diarrhoea.

To make matters worse, since the road to the lake is long, the amount of water people can bring back on each trip is limited and, unfortunately, never enough to wash themselves and the dishes and keep their living area clean. With sadness on her face, Rachel's 5-year-old cousin Faleke shows her sore-covered hands. Because of poor hygiene, her body is slowly being consumed by scabies.

 8 a.m. in the N'dosho  neighbourhood  

As every morning, Elisabeth, 58 years old and another survivor of fighting in the Masisi region, begins the daily preparations for musururu, a local sorghum-based beer that she makes to earn a living in the big city.

" I've been very lucky, " she says. " When I arrived here two years ago, I had lost everything. I was so sick that I could barely walk. I would not have been able to fetch water down the lake road. Now, thanks to the water reservoirs built by the ICRC, I can get enough to drink and wash myself and even to run my little musururu business. "

In this part of Goma, more than 250,000 people –a third of the city's population – have regular access to drinking water thanks to the supply system set up by the ICRC. However, this is very far from the neighbourhood of Kasika and Rachel's route.

 10 a.m. on the shore of Lake Kivu  

Rachel reaches the public beach out of breath, carrying her 10-litre container. This is one of the few places in the city with direct access to the lake, because Goma's shoreline is almost entirely built up with private residences.

Walking in the water, the little girl cuts a path among a hundred women and children, displaced people and residents, all there for the same purpose. The waves knock over a boy desperately trying to fill a container that is nearly as big as he is.

" The day before yesterday, Joëlle, a little girl living in our building, drowned here, " Rachel reveals. " That happens a lot because the lake water is so dirty. This water can swallow children and make people sick. If I had the choice, I would never come fetch water here. But ... that's the way it is. "

She shrugs her shoulders and then sets off on the road home, bent under the weight of the water.




Photos

Rachel preparing for her journey to the lake. Every day, jerrycan on her back, she walks four km from her home to the shore of Lake Kivu and four km back.  

Rachel preparing for her journey to the lake. Every day, jerrycan on her back, she walks four km from her home to the shore of Lake Kivu and four km back.
© ICRC / O. Miltcheva

Five-year-old Faleke shows her scabies-afflicted hands. The lack of water is an obstacle to proper hygiene for her and the several hundred other displaced people from North Kivu living in her building.  

Five-year-old Faleke shows her scabies-afflicted hands. The lack of water is an obstacle to proper hygiene for her and the several hundred other displaced people from North Kivu living in her building.
© ICRC / O. Miltcheva

Standing near one of the tanks installed by the ICRC, Elisabeth prepares musururu. With regular access to drinking water, she can now get the water she needs. She has even been able to start a small business.  

Standing near one of the tanks installed by the ICRC, Elisabeth prepares musururu. With regular access to drinking water, she can now get the water she needs. She has even been able to start a small business.
© ICRC / O. Miltcheva