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Paradox of abundance and scarcity of water in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

31 July 2013

Africa’s water towers, illustrating the interconnectedness of surface water systems at the scale of major basins in the African continent and their contribution to people’s need for water resources beyond political boundaries. Photo credit: Africa Water Atlas, UNEP, 2010

Christian N Ndoki, SJ

In Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the paradox of water abundance and scarcity is felt by this city of 10 million inhabitants along the Congo River.

I was visiting a young friend whose leg was amputated after a serious accident. While I was trying to comfort him, her mother told me that they were more worried about water than anything else: for four days, they have had no water. I was shocked. How was it possible that in a university clinic of a large capital city of a great country in the heart of Africa there is no drinking water, no water at all?

Kinshasa fails to fill its 10 million inhabitants with water for various services. Even the rich places in the city scarcely have drinking water. Wealthy people will generally buy drinking water in supermarkets, in cans of 10 to 20 liters. Poor people sometimes buy small bags of drinking water sold in the streets. And it is no longer surprising to see lines and lines of people walking around with yellow-colored cans in search of water. The official service for water distribution, Regideso, does not distribute much and is overtaken by urban expansion, population growth, aging pipes, and other infrastructure breakdown. Unable to serve the old quarters, it has not even had time to settle in new areas. Rivers crossing the city are polluted due to the general lack of hygiene and industrial activity. If this is the situation in the capital, Kinshasa, I can only imagine what it is in rural areas.

The paradox is that DRC is a very wet country, with an average of 900 km3 of internal renewable water resources. This is a quarter of the freshwater resources of Africa. The country is watered by the Congo River, the second longest river in Africa (4,700 km), the first and most powerful in Africa (with a flow rate of 50,000 m3/sec), and the second in the world after the Amazon in terms of its watershed area (3,882,000 km²). DRC has many rivers and lakes. When people speak of natural resources in DRC, they often forget to mention water. They think of mineral resources, but neglect water, which is a huge mistake.

The paradox is that it rains a lot in Kinshasa (1,500 mm/year). But as the city does not have a good system of disposing that water, the result is catastrophic flood and erosion.

However, from a certain angle, the problem of water in Kinshasa bears within itself the solution. As the official service of water supply is not able to fulfill its task, individuals and non-governmental organizations are contributing some solutions. Some initiatives are focused on drilling for water such as the project that Father Benoit Mbuyi, SJ, is supporting. Father Benoit is the parish priest at Daniel Comboni Parish in Kindele, a poor area in the western suburbs of Kinshasa, and the parish is supporting the construction of a drill to help people get water in the area.

Another initiative is to systematically collect rainwater for reuse. This would help to partly solve the problems of flood and erosion and water shortage. I remember having spent the first year of novitiate in a house constructed in such a way that every drop of rainwater was collected for services. All the rainwater was stored in three big tanks, and then returned to a water tower to be redistributed to the various services. During the dry season, there was no water shortage.

The issue of water in Africa arises in various ways depending on the place. However, there is a constant: access to drinking water is an extremely complicated operation. On the one hand, the North of the continent faces the challenges of desertification and drying rivers. This creates conflicts between people and makes agriculture and livestock activities difficult to pursue and implement. On the other hand, in the Centre and the South, both areas being generally well-drained and watered, there is much trouble in providing drinking water to their populations. It is a problem of facilities, equipment, and structures to get and distribute drinking water or water for other services. In addition, rivers are polluted, wastewater is not properly evacuated, and rainwater is causing erosion and flooding.

Investing in local initiatives that respond to the need for water in many communities can contribute to sort out the paradoxical problem of water in Kinshasa, DRC and the Jesuits of Central Africa are seriously considering this option.

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