CRS in Democratic Republic of Congo

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Congo Water: Cutting Off Illness at the Source

By Lane Hartill

Across a short dike, where garbage floats and gas bubbles up in water the color of Coca-Cola, and back into the woods, past the bend in the river where the women suds up at a communal bath, you'll find a shallow pool with kids splashing and chirping like sparrows. This is Ndjingala's watering hole.

Congolese woman and child getting water

A Congolese woman and child from the town of Ndjingala push jerry cans into a creek to collect water. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Women haul jerry cans to the river, hitch up their skirts and wade in. They plunge their plastic jerry cans in, and wait for the water, teeming with bacteria, to fill their buckets.

In Ndjingala, in Democratic Republic of the Congo, the river has always served as a fountain, a swimming pool, a laundromat and a public toilet. Latrines placed near the river's edge leach fecal matter into the slow-moving river. Catholic Relief Services tested the water in 1 area and found a coliform bacteria level of 116. An acceptable level is around 1.

And Congolese in Ndjingala—a mining town in eastern Congo—drank from this. They had no choice. They knew that the diarrhea would come next, but that's a given here. A child's diarrhea led to an awkward conversation—a wife asking her husband for money she knew he didn't have. He would tell her it's either food or medicine. That led to frustration, which led to awkward pleas to neighbors who didn't have money either.

So people head to the forest where they peel the bark off the magungu tree. It cures diarrhea, which is good. But it's free. That's even better.

A Passion for Hygiene

All this has Paterne worried. Paterne Aksanti, who was born and raised in Congo, is CRS' water expert there. With his leopard-print cowboy hat and his infectious laugh, Paterne doesn't strike you as someone passionate about water. But spend a little time with him and you'll find that he's passionate about what most people take for granted: water, toilets, hygiene.

To stem the tide of diarrhea, Paterne started out by training health outreach workers in Ndjingala to chlorinate the river water. At first, women complained about the smell of the chlorine. But when the diarrhea, skin rashes and stomach worms disappeared from their families, they stopped complaining. In fact, it's become so popular that, some mornings, close to 100 women wait with their jerry cans for a squirt of chlorine.

It's not just chlorine: With almost half a million dollars from various donors, CRS, under the steady eye of Paterne, will build scores of latrines, construct 100 emergency showers, and bring piped water to the town. Most people here have never known what it's like to turn on a faucet and have clean water come out.

Water Means Health, Schools, Food

Ndjingala has swelled with residents in recent months. Not far away, in the deep forest, rebels still wreak havoc on villages. The Congolese Army clashed frequently with them last year. The clashes, combined with the opportunity for work in the mine, have led thousands to come here. The majority of the families in Ndjingala are somehow connected to the mining industry. The clean water that Paterne will bring means families can spend money on school fees and food, and not as much on medicine.

That's why Paterne is bushwhacking his way to the top of a hill. In front of him is Mashauri, a representative from the government's rural hydrology service, which CRS is collaborating with. Both are soaked with sweat and Mashauri has his pants at half-mast, slapping wildly at the ants marching north from his knees. This is part of the job of finding clean water in Congo. But Paterne is thrilled. He has a machete and is hacking at some vines. He's found it, a tiny bubbling source that will feed all of Ndjingala.

Paterne and Mashauri pull out their hand-held GPSs. They look at elevation. It's going to be a gravity-fed system, so the descent needs to be sufficiently steep. The two men discuss how much pipe they'll need, how they'll get the concrete up here to build a reservoir, and who will help them blaze the trail.

Paterne, glazed with sweat, is all smiles. He's found his source. And before long, he knows the people of Ndjingala will have clean water.

Lane Hartill is CRS' regional information officer for western and central Africa. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.

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