Democratic Republic of the Congo: Caught between COVID-19 and water shortages in Kinshasa
Arlette, 27, is a widow and mother of three. She leaves the house every day at the crack of dawn to fetch water. The water point is some distance away and she wants to beat the crowds. As she makes her way along the sandy roads at the outskirts of the city, she is thankful for company: attacks are a frequent occurrence here. "We always go in groups of three of four," she says. "It's safer that way."
The journey is long and dangerous, but – with no running water at home – she and her neighbours have no choice. They live just beyond Kinshasa international airport, around 20 kilometres to the east of the city centre. This is an area where many victims of the devastating floods of the 1990s were rehoused, but there's no public water-supply network.
Development is haphazard and poverty rife
What's striking in this part of the city is just how haphazard the development is. There are an impressive number of unfinished houses. Many inhabitants draw water from nearby rivers – such as the Congo River – or from uncovered wells, susceptible to contamination. Some buy water from private borehole owners.
"I get through six 25-litre containers of water every day, what with cooking, cleaning and washing," says Arlette. "That costs me 600 Congolese francs [40 euro cents], which isn't cheap, given how little I earn."
Demand for water has increased as a result of the pandemic, and water sales points are far busier than before. There is no choice but to queue up and wait your turn, sometimes for several hours at a time. But the journey back in the hardest part of all.
"The sandy roads make it difficult to walk with water containers balanced on your head," says Arlette. "I've never had to work so hard just to get enough water for the day."
When her husband died in October 2019, she began selling second-hand clothes at a market to make ends meet. But then the pandemic hit and she had to sell her wares from door to door.
With money so tight, she makes the most of every drop of water she buys. This includes recycling it repeatedly: "I've just bathed my eight-year-old son and now I'll use the bathwater to clean my porch," she explains. When the water becomes really filthy, she uses it to flush the toilet.
Disease spreads easily
During this time of pandemic, water shortages are putting people at even greater risk. Official guidelines tell you to wash your hands frequently, but that's often impossible. And because water used for handwashing can't be safely reused, it exacerbates the problem. "There are lots of traders and travellers in this area," says Hugues, 40, who works as a carpenter in the fishing quarter, on the banks of the Congo River. "Cholera is really common because people just drink whatever they can find."
To limit the spread of waterborne diseases and COVID-19, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been funding and overseeing the construction of a water-supply system in this part of the city. The manual borehole pumps installed by the authorities had mostly fallen into disrepair, so we have been replacing them with generator-powered electric pumps. As a result of our efforts, Arlette and over 20,000 inhabitants in eastern Kinshasa now have access to safe drinking water.