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Democratic Republic of the Congo: water to wash away the trauma of the past

18-03-2010 Feature

The women of Kibirizi are used to fetching water in jerrycans. But a two-hour walk for dirty river water is extreme. Especially if you risk death or rape on the way. Having safe water nearby is a life-saver in more ways than one, which is why the ICRC has just rebuilt the Kibirizi water system, putting clean drinking water within easy walking distance of 30,000 people.

  One of the three water tanks the ICRC has installed in Kibirizi.    
  Now that Kibirizi residents have water nearby, they have started vegetable gardens near their houses.    
  A girl fills her jerrycan at one of Kibirizi's 44 water points.    
  Women and children no longer have to spend hours walking to the river to collect water; clean, fresh water is available just a short walk from their homes.    
  "The happiness of the people is contributing to the development of our town!"    

As the first rays of sunshine appear, women and children arrive at the water points to draw water for the day's needs: washing children, cooking, doing the laundry and watering the family vegetable garden. Here, far from the big cities, a water point near one's home is a luxury.

Kibirizi is a small town with a population of 30,000 and lies in the hills of Rutshuru territory, 120 km from the regional capital Goma. The town has suffered continuous instability since the 1990s; military operations in 1997 and 1998 caused large numbers of people to flee and in 2007 clashes between armed groups once again disturbed the calm of the town, with the region facing a huge influx of people fleeing the fighting.

 Direct consequences of the armed conflict  

People became afraid to work their fields because of the armed groups that were killing and raping. This, together with the arrival of so many displaced people and refugees, plunged the region into poverty and famine. The infrastructure of the town was destroyed or looted during the fighting. Health centres lacked medicines and qualified personnel, leaving them unable to meet the needs of a population exhausted and weakened by years of conflict and displacement.

The water network, originally designed for 15,000 people, suddenly had to supply three times that number. The displaced persons who had settled in the area were unable to go home because their villages had been destroyed. To make matters worse, the water system that been supplying the town of Kibirizi for 20 years had never been repaired.

Kabuo (30) has three sons. " We had to walk for up to two hours through a hostile environment to collect water from the river, " she explains. " During the conflict, young women were raped on the way. We couldn't carry enough water, and it wasn't fit to drink anyway because we were taking it straight from the river, so the children were always ill. Some of them died because there was no medical care. "

 Safe water for all  

Timothy Pitt coordinates the ICRC's " water and habitat " activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Currently, he is supervising the final installation of water tanks and water distribution points. " Our water programme in Kibirizi has four essential objectives: combat water-related illnesses caused by lack of water, improve living conditions by promoting hygiene and community health, make fetching water less of a chore for the women and children, and reduce the number of rapes and other attacks.

We've repaired and improved seven catchments upstream and built three storage tanks with a total capacity of 240 cubic metres. In June 2009, we laid the final sections of a seven-kilometre network of pipes. The 44 water points are now operating, and they can supply water for 45,000 people. "

Kabuo fills her two yellow 20-litre jerrycans, has a chat with the other women, hoists one container onto her back, picks up the other one and crosses the main road towards her home. On the way, she drops one jerrycan off with her son, who is busy digging over the family vegetable garden. " Now we can grow a few vegetables in front of our houses and the children can wash before they go to school. We're country people and we've never had taps in our houses. We're used to fetching water, but there's quite a difference between a few minutes and two hours! Look around. The children are clean and healthy, the girls are no longer frightened when they go to fetch water and the happiness of the people is contributing to the development of our town! "

The town has proudly created a water committee to look after the operation and maintenance of the water network. If ever you go to Kibirizi, the chairman of the water committee, Henri Suaibu, will be delighted to show you the town's three tanks and 44 water points. If you have time, walk up to the spring. From there, you can admire a small town that is trying to wash away the trauma of war.