Archived page: may contain outdated information!
  • Send page
  • Print page

ICRC water projects help fight deadly disease in Burundi

31-01-2007 Feature

Stability appears to be within reach in Burundi after 13 years of conflict. Now the fight is on to restore vital facilities, such as water and sanitation. ICRC projects have so far provided safe water to some 100,000 people around the country.


© ICRC / Marco Succi / bi-e-00003 
The ICRC drills boreholes, builds pumping stations and storage tanks. 
    The only tap at the primary school at Gatumba, 10 km north of Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, has been out of service for years, due to the conflict. Pupils have to bring water from home for cleaning and washing.

For most children and their mothers, fetching water means walking long distances and standing in line at one of the few public taps available. The entire town of Gatumba – with an estimated population of 40,000 - has only one tap that functions around the clock. A few others work in the late evening. The authorities blame the problem on the rapid growth of the population since the outbreak of the conflict in 1993.

" The town has been suffering from this calamity of a lack of water for a long time " , explains District Commissioner Prosper Banzamba. " Before'93 only about 12,000 people live d here. But people fled the conflict from all provinces in Burundi and came here because it was peaceful. That is why we have such a dense population today. "

Most urban centres in Burundi like Gatumba attracted a large number of displaced people as well as refugees fleeing neighbouring Congo’s civil war. The whole country’s infrastructure, including drinking water and sanitation facilities, virtually collapsed; in 2006, fewer than half the population had direct access to drinking water.

For many families, the only solution is the nearby Ruzizi River, which originates in Rwanda and runs through Burundi to Lake Tanganyika - Africa's longest and the world's second deepest lake, shared with neighbouring Congo RDC, Tanzania and Zambia. However, the water from the lake is as unfit for consumption as the water in the Ruzizi.

But despite the obvious health risks, women use the water for cooking and drinking, even though boiling it does not make it safe. ICRC water engineer Corrado Generelli points out: " The colour tells you it is absolutely unfit for consumption. There is certainly mud in it but also germs and other agents that are not at all good for human health. "

Alleluia, the water’s on… 
Such is the vital importance of water in the reconstruction of war-torn countries like Burundi, and its impact on public health, the country’s president, Mr Pierre Nkurunziza, travelled down to Rumonge, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, for the inauguration of the new water distribution system renovated by the ICRC.
  And to make the occasion just a little more special, he brought with him not only several ministers and members of parliament, but also his football team, Alleluia Sport.
  After a tour of the installations, not forgetting to sample the water himself, the president and his “équipe” faced up to the local ICRC team. A potentially delicate situation was resolved with a score satisfying presidential honour, Red Cross neutrality and diplomatic niceties: one-all.

Not to mention, according to the local chief, human and animal remains…

Gatumba’s only public health centre warns people about the risks of drinking the water from rivers and lakes. Diseases like typhoid, cholera and dysentery are the most common deadly threats – in Burundi, one out of five deaths is caused by water-borne diseases or poor sanitation.

Avoiding epidemics is a major challenge, as even the centre itself does not have running water. Taps don’t work and patients have to bring their own water when admitted to the centre, says nurse Gloriose Bizimana.

The people of Gatumba may soon expect some relief from their desperate plight – the ICRC is rehabilitating the town’s water supply system. This includes drilling two boreholes and building a pumping station and storage tank. Over 20 tap stands will be repaired and a pipeline laid, connecting the town to a large water tank. Soon, it is hoped that everyone in Gatumba will have access to drinkable water.

A similar project in Rumonge, a town of 50,000 people in the southern Bururi province, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, is already bearing fruit. Here, hardly anybody drinks the lake water any more, and only rarely do women living close by wash their laundry in it. The ICRC renovated the water supply system, providing enough drinking water for the entire population. Since the facilities were inaugurated in October 2006 (see box), after two years’ work, the available drinking water increased tenfold, with 15 taps operating around town.

Burundi’s REGIDESO (the national water board) is responsible for running the sy stem; ICRC will organize training for the staff involved.

Fetching water for the family is no longer a tiresome task, says a resident: " Before this project, everybody went to the lake to bathe and to fetch drinking water. Rumonge has had constant cholera epidemics since 1978; the population suffered for a long time from a lack of drinking water. For the population of this town it is really a big present, I would say an unforgettable present. "

The ICRC is carrying out similar projects in other parts of Burundi. In 2006 alone, it ensured access to safe water for over 100,000 people in both towns and villages.


  See video on ICRC's water projects in Burundi.