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Central African Republic: despite abundant rainfall, villagers walk miles for drinking water

28-11-2007 Feature

Central African Republic has witnessed heavy rainfalls and flooding during this past summer. However, water that is safe for consumption is a precious resource for most people in a country where bottled water in supermarkets costs one US dollar per litre. Many people suffer from water-borne diseases, and it is commonplace to see children with distended bellies due to parasites. Marçal Izard reports.

  ©ICRC/M. Izard/cf-e-00193    
  Nwouna village. Albertine and her family.    
  ©ICRC/M. Izard/cf-e-00190    
  Woman fetching safe drinking water in Outman quarter, Bangassou, at an ICRC-protected water source.    
  ©ICRC/M. Izard/cf-e-00192    
  Nabarka village. Central African Red Cross coordinator Jeannette Kanda explaining ways to fetch drinking water without contaminating it.    

Albertine is 29 and lives in the village of Nwouna in the Prefecture of Mbomou, in the south of Central African Republic. She gave birth to six children, but only three are alive, the other three died as babies. “Maybe it was malaria, or diarrhoea,” says Albertine, who had been unable to take her sick children to a hospital. The nearest one is located in the town of Bangassou, 25 kilometres away on a dirt path. In this impoverished area, very few can afford a bicycle, let alone a car, so most traveling is done on foot.

 Guilty fountain  

Albertine's husband Robert believes that the main source of illness in this village of 106 souls is the unprotected fountain, from which the villagers fetch their drinking water. Other families suspect it too. Alex, for example, is a six-year-old with an inflated belly, probably due to parasites. He complains about chronic stomach pains and diarrhoea, and his mother Hortence explains that Alex vomits often after having taken a cup of water. Traditional herbs have done little to ease the suffering, and expensive tablets bought at a pharmacy in town bring only temporary relief, since the problem of polluted water remains unresolved.

In Bo, a village in the western part of Central African Republic, the worries of inhabitants are similar. A 20-year-old hand pump close to Bo lies idle since it broke over a year ago. In the dry season, women and their children as young as six years have to walk two hours a day to fetch unsafe water in 10- and 20-litre bowls, which they balance skillfully on their heads while walking home. “Following armed clashes a couple of years ago, many traders have fled the area, as has the shopkeeper that used to supply spare parts for the hand pump,” explains the Pastor Thomas, who is President of the Red Cross chapter in the Ouham Prefecture.

 Water teams to the rescue  

Since 2005, water engineering teams from the ICRC have been fixing broken hand pumps, cleaning polluted open wells and constructing latrines in dozens of villages in the southern prefectures of Basse Kotto and Mbomou. “It often requires only small interventions to help people get clean water,” says ICRC water engineer Marcel Pelletier. His team recently completed work to protect a natural water source from being polluted in the area of Outman in Bangassou town, to the benefit of 1,100 inhabitants. The fountain’s three iron pipes, and a cement block placed right over the water catchment, ensure that the water that filters out of the soil remains clean. Further down, a washing area has been set up at a safe distance from the spring.

" However, people have to also ensure that their water bowls are clean and that chicken and goats are kept away from them, otherwise the pollution problem surfaces again, " stresses Pelletier. This commonplace lack of awareness is the reason why, in the village of Nabarka, Jeannette Kanda from the Central African Red Cross is conducting a hygiene awareness session for over 60 women and elders under the shade of a huge mango tree.

 Keeping clean  

Jeannette coordinates a team of trained volunteers, that is reaching out to 45 villages to explain to people how to keep water clean from collection to consumption, how to safely dispose of waste, as well as outlining the routines of daily personal hygiene.

“At first, people are skeptical, that’s why we repeat our visits – we go t o a village twice a week. Eventually, people show up in large crowds and are participating eagerly in our interactive sessions,” says Jeannette.

Following the successful water and hygiene programmes in the south of the country, the ICRC is planning to implement similar projects in other prefectures, notably in the north, where recent armed clashes between insurgent and governmental troops have driven tens of thousands of people from their homes, making access to vital drinking water even more challenging.