Democratic Republic of Congo

‘We End Up Slowly Dying’: The Struggle for Water in DRC’s Displacement Camps

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled violence in eastern DRC and crowded into camps that fail to meet their basic needs. Here, residents wait in long lines for limited water and must make every drop count.

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‘We End Up Slowly Dying’: The Struggle for Water in DRC’s Displacement Camps

Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

Every morning, Clémence Fazili walks 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) to fill her jerry cans with water. She has to wait in line to access a single pump that provides water to approximately 7,700 people.

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Clémence Fazili, 31, a mother of three, gave birth to her youngest, a boy, at the end of February. After delivering her older children, who are now 4 and 6, she avoided carrying heavy loads for at least two months. But this time, after six hours of labor, recovery is a luxury she can’t afford. Fazili is in charge of an essential task for her family’s survival: fetching water.

Fazili, her husband and their children fled their town of Rutshuru, in the country’s east, two years ago, after gun battles between Democratic Republic of Congo’s Army (FARDC) and the armed group March 23 Movement (M23) brought the village to a standstill. Several civilians were killed by stray bullets and bombs. Like thousands of others, Fazili’s family took refuge in Kanyaruchinya, one of the makeshift camps for displaced people on the outskirts of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

For the past two years, they have spent their days and nights crammed in a 3-by-2-meter (about 10-by-7-foot) tarpaulin tent. Every morning at dawn, Fazili, armed with a 20-liter (5-gallon) jerry can and a smaller 5-liter (1.3- gallon) can, walks 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) to the nearest water source. Here, she patiently waits in line to access the single pump, which serves approximately 7,700 people in their area of the camp.

Fazili can’t skip a day of this routine. While her husband uses the water in the small jerry can to wash himself before going out to look for work so they can buy food, the rest of the family relies on the remaining water for all their daily needs: drinking, cooking, dishwashing and personal hygiene.

“With the only can I am able to carry, the only way I can use this hard-earned water is by counting every drop,” Fazili says. “Even the baby is not allowed to bathe every day.”

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Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

Clémence Fazili's eldest son, Samson Tumaini, 6, stands outside his family’s tarpaulin tent in Kanyaruchinya, a makeshift camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Goma. He doesn’t go to school because there are no schools in the camp.

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Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

Clémence Fazili with her daughter, Hortense, 4, and newborn, Honnête.

Democratic Republic of Congo is experiencing one of the worst displacement crises in Africa and one of the largest in the world, with more than 7 million people displaced nationwide. Since 2022, when fighting between M23 and FARDC and their allies reignited and escalated in the country’s east and, in particular, in North Kivu, thousands fled their homes and sought refuge in makeshift camps around Goma.

In recent weeks, as the conflict has raged on, triggering another wave of displacement, more than 200,000 new arrivals have settled in the overcrowded camps, where 500,000 people already lived.

But while the displaced families have managed to escape the fighting, in the camps they have encountered another threat: lack of access to clean water.

According to a February report from the United Nations Children’s Fund, known as UNICEF, the camps were barely scraping by, with a mere 6 liters (1.6 gallons) of water per person daily, less than half the 15 liters (4 gallons) per person daily recommended by international standards. And, as camp populations swell, even that is likely to drop.

Surviving with a Jerry Can

“With each passing day, the health situation in the camps is getting worse,” says Jeanine Muhindo, chief medical officer of the Goma health zone. “The number of displaced people is growing, but the water problem remains the same, and more and more people are dying from diseases caused by lack of hygiene.”

In the first seven weeks of 2024, Doctors Without Borders, an international aid organization, registered around 1,020 cholera cases in Bulengo — a displacement camp 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Kanyaruchinya — and almost half of the patients hospitalized were in critical condition.

“Access to water remains a major challenge, and we are victims of waterborne diseases such as cholera because of poor sanitation,” says Faustin Mahoro, a displaced person and president of the Bulengo camp.

Despite being close to Lake Kivu, one of the continent’s great freshwater reservoirs, and getting an abundance of rain, the city of Goma has faced water shortages for years, due to the dilapidated state of distribution pipes, environmental degradation, and lack of investment and funding, as well as conflict. People living in displacement camps face even greater obstacles, says Albert Mugisha, chief of the Kanyaruchinya camp. While the lack of infrastructure and water treatment stations prevents displaced people from accessing clean water, the camps are so overcrowded that residents have to share what little water they have.

Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

People in the camps have been scraping by, with a mere 6 liters (1.6 gallons) of water per person daily, less than half the 15 liters (4 gallons) per person daily recommended by international standards.

Humanitarian organizations, including UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross, have been handing out water, but those living in the camps say distribution has been inconsistent and supplies are often not enough to satisfy everyone’s needs.

While many, like Fazili, have to carry heavy loads, those who are more vulnerable, like the sick and the elderly, don’t have that option.

Mado Nyamwiza, an 80-year-old woman from Rutshuru who lost both her children in the conflict and was forced to flee, lives alone with her 4-year-old granddaughter. To fetch water, she relies on the help of others, and when someone refills her jerry can, she has to make the water last. “This jerry can has just lasted four days,” she says. “I have to count every drop because I don’t have anyone to fetch water for me and I don’t have the backbone to carry a whole jerry can anymore.”

After washing the dishes, Nyamwiza uses the wastewater to wash herself and her granddaughter.

Personal hygiene is difficult for everyone in the camps.

Every weekend, Rachel Mwanza, a mother of six who was also displaced from Rutshuru and now lives in Kanyaruchinya, goes to Lake Kivu to do her laundry. “It’s also an opportunity for me and the children to have a full bath,” she says. Until two months ago, before the water pump was installed in the Kanyaruchinya camp, Mwanza and others also used the untreated lake water to cook and drink.

Muhindo says that the consumption of untreated water associated with extremely unsanitary conditions has created the perfect environment for cholera to spread, especially as more and more people arrive. In Bulengo, for example, earlier in March, 892 functioning toilets served 57,385 people. This represents one toilet for every 64 people.

Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

Before the water pump was installed in the Kanyaruchinya camp, residents used untreated water from Lake Kivu to cook and drink.

Fazili Chirimwami lives in Bulengo camp. His son died two months ago, shortly after turning 3.

“He was throwing up and had diarrhea for two days and passed away on the third. I was told at the hospital that it was cholera,” he says. “We fled so we wouldn’t get killed by rebels, and we end up slowly dying from cholera.”

Joyeuse Mathe, a nurse in Bulengo camp, points out that the lack of water is a threat to thousands of displaced families, especially children and pregnant women, who are the most vulnerable. “Every day, we get at least 20 cases of people suffering from diseases related to lack of hygiene, including cholera and typhoid.” Mathe says that there have been one to five deaths monthly over the last three months.

Thirty years ago, following the Rwandan genocide, hundreds of thousands of refugees sought safety in and around Goma. Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and the governments of the United States and Germany pulled together resources to provide clean water to the sprawling refugee camps, where a devastating cholera epidemic was causing thousands of deaths. At the time, enough water was pumped from Lake Kivu and purified to provide 10 to 12 liters (about 3 gallons) of clean drinking water per person per day to the people in the lakeside camps, according to a 1996 study by the U.S. Army War College.

Today, people struggle to survive with nearly half that amount.

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Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

A child carries water in Kanyaruchinya, a makeshift camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Goma.

Last August, during a public meeting with the mayor of Goma, David Angoyo, director of the water distribution authority, REGIDESO, acknowledged the lack of water and apologized to the population, including those who were displaced, promising to expand the city’s reservoirs.

In January, Goma inaugurated an extension to the municipal water network, funded by the European Union through UNICEF. The new system provides water to an estimated 150,000 people, including locals and displaced people.

But for many in the camps, it’s not enough.

Mahoro, the Bulengo camp president, calls on authorities to find a solution, arguing that the lack of water is threatening the lives of people who have survived a conflict.

“We cannot hope for peace,” he says, “if our basic needs, such as water access, aren’t met.”

Noella Nyirabihogo is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.


Megan Spada, GPJ, translated this article from French.

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