A real problem in Kinshasa: scarce and dirty water

To fetch water, Ariette Oto, a mother of five in a suburb of Kinshasa, walks a winding and steep path to the top of a ravine.

There, she fills her 25-litre jerrycan at the tap, pays 150 Congolese francs ($0.06) and brings the valuables home.

The search for water is a daily burden for residents of Selembao, one of the 24 communes of the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Congo, Africa’s second largest river, flows nearby, and Kinshasa receives torrential rains for eight months of the year. But for many residents of this booming metropolis of nearly fifteen million people, drinking running water is a rarity.

The problem is particularly acute in the outskirts, vast urban areas almost completely cut off from public services and resembling densely populated villages.

“There are wells”, but “it is very difficult to drink”, explains Pierre Mafula, 56, who moved to Selembao more than ten years ago and lives at the bottom of a ravine. “It’s dirty water. There are amoebas in it,” he said.

A woman fills bins in Selembao, on the outskirts of Kinshasa, on July 14, 2023. The search for water is a daily burden for residents there (AFP – Emmett Livingstone)

Experts say that water scarcity is due to rapid population growth and governments’ inability to keep up with the pace. And the situation seems to be getting worse.

According to the World Bank, over 90% of households in Kinshasa had access to running water in 2014, a proportion that dropped to 72% in 2018.

“Before 2010, water production was enough to meet the needs of an entire city,” says Patrick Goye Ndole, a water and sanitation specialist at the World Bank office in Kinshasa.

And where it flows from the tap, the water can pose a health hazard, with more than half of the running water in Kinshasa infected with E.coli bacteria, according to UN figures.

– “Water Wars” –

“It’s very serious…” says 63-year-old Alphonse Mbela Peko, a resident of Selembao. The private well near his house draws water only one meter deep. According to them it is not fit to drink.

Alphons travels up to five kilometers to fetch water from a spring, but he says there is still a risk of typhoid.

In an effort to solve the problem, the government opened two new water plants in Kinshasa over two years. With the final opening in February, the office of President Felix Tshisekedi also believes it has won the “water war”.

A woman washes clothes with water drawn from a well in Selembao, on the outskirts of Kinshasa, where access to water is difficult, on July 14, 2023.  (AFP - Emmett Livingstone)
A woman washes clothes with water drawn from a well in Selembao, on the outskirts of Kinshasa, where access to water is difficult, on July 14, 2023. (AFP – Emmett Livingstone)

“Today, the capacity has doubled compared to five years ago,” Giscard Cousema, deputy director of communications in the president’s cabinet, told AFP.

But despite these efforts, the whole of Kinshasa is still not served.

Selembao, a district of ruined ravines and garbage-filled streets, reflects the problems caused by the demographic explosion.

Of the 777,000 people living in the neighbourhood, about 757,000 are from outside Kinshasa, according to a report released this year by city officials. And only 0.6% of residents are connected to Resideso, the national water distribution company.

Private wells, often built cheaply, are therefore an alternative solution.

Gautier Dianzittu Kulu-Kimbembe, head of an organization that builds wells in Selembao, says that Regisdev once served the entire commune.

But landslides caused by massive construction and erosion have damaged the network, he says.

“The population has been left to its tragic fate”, with people “forced to walk miles to fetch water”, Mr Kulu-Kimbembe regretted, adding that “women and children in particular are suffering from this”.

Neither Resideso nor the Ministry of Water Resources responded to requests for comment.

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