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Burundi: working to supply enough clean water

07-06-2010 Feature

Successive conflicts and crises in Burundi have seriously affected the provision of safe drinking water. For many years now, the ICRC has been helping to rebuild water distribution networks and giving communities advice on how best to manage their resources. Valery Mbaoh Nana reports on one success story in Bujumbura Rural province.

Henri Nininahazwe at home in Kabezi, Bujumbura Rural province. 

A tap stand in the village of Buyiga. In 2005 and 2006, the ICRC repaired and upgraded the water supply system for the whole region. 

Between 1993 and 2007, Burundi's water production capacity fell by almost half, according to a government survey. 

Henri Nininahazwe is a member of the Colline Migera community in Kabezi, Bujumbura Rural province. In 1993, the war in Burundi forced him to seek refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When he finally decided to return home in 2004, he discovered to his dismay that his village no longer had a drinking water supply. During the conflict, the authorities had not been able to continue maintaining the infrastructure. " Everything had been damaged during the war, " he explains.

It was virtually impossible for people to obtain clean water, especially as there were no sources. " To meet our daily needs, we had to use water from Lake Tanganyika, which is not fit for consumption, " says Mr Nininahazwe. “We had no way of filtering it. We couldn’t even boil it, because we would have needed firewood for that. We used to walk for miles to find any and the little we had was used first and foremost for cooking. "

The inhabitants of the region regularly suffered from diarrhoeal diseases. " During each rainy season, thousands of people would get cholera or dysentery, and some would die as a result. But most people here are illiterate, and they believed that witchcraft was to blame for these deaths. "

 Repairing infrastructure and ensuring it is maintained  

In these circumstances, the ICRC decided in 2005 to repair and upgrade the whole region’s water supply system. Work was completed in 2006, and residents once again have access to drinking water in sufficient quantities.

In addition to carrying out the work, the ICRC mobilized residents to ensure that the system would be maintained and would continue to provide water in the long term. Residents received training in repair and maintenance techniques.

As a teacher, Mr Nininahazwe played a major role in these efforts. “The ICRC helped us set up a water management committee, and trained the members. We were also given maintenance equipment.” The committee members were chosen by residents at meetings organized by the community leader, in cooperation with the ICRC.

Four years on, the network is still working well. “The diseases and other problems associated with unsafe water have all disappeared. And, we don’t have to walk long distances any more to collect water. Women have time for other activities that are just as important to the survival of their families, and children can spend more time at school. "

Henri Nininahazwe is proud of what has been achieved. However, he is afraid that at the current rate of population growth, the network will not be able to serve all the residents for much longer.


  Water is a finite resource in Burundi

Burundi is famous for its numerous rivers and water sources. It is therefore often wrongly assumed that the country enjoys a limitless supply of water. However, according to a government survey carried out in 2007, Burundi's water production capacity has almost halved since 1993, owing to the war and other crises that have plagued the country.  
  Public statistics indicate that the demand for drinking water in towns and cities has tripled in the last 20 years. In rural areas, meanwhile, the demand has jumped from 170 million m3 in 1990 to over 400 million in 2010.  
  Despite the efforts of parastatal agencies to produce and distribute water – REGIDESO in towns and DGHER in the countryside – the quantities produced remain inadequate. In order to find water, residents of certain towns, usually women and children, must walk long distances, sometimes several times a day, sacrificing time which should be dedicated to income-generating activities or to education. Those without access to drinking water have no option but to take water from rivers and marshes, which is often not fit for consumption.  
  The ICRC has been supporting REGIDESO and DGHER since 1993 and helping them to run projects to facilitate and improve residents' supply of drinking water. Around one million people are estimated to have benefited from these projects in Burundi since 1999.