March 7, 2014

CONGO: In Congo, Water Is Everywhere, Except In The Taps

France24 news
written by Guy Milex Mbondzi
Monday February 3, 2014

Drinking water should be plentiful in Congo-Brazzaville, yet most people living in the country's capital are forced to resort to private wells. Not only does the Congo have abundant groundwater resources, it's also bordered by the one of the world's most powerful rivers. But power failures coupled with an insufficient water supply mean that many of Brazzaville's residents have no other choice.

This lack of basic infrastructure has led to severe water shortages in a country that paradoxically receives plenty of rainfall. In rural areas, only 10% of people have access to clean water. The situation is far worse in towns and cities, where 50% of the urban population can't access safe drinking water.

According to a Global Water Partnership report, the Congo lacks “production infrastructure [factories, pumping stations], water treatment systems [chemical products to treat the water], storage capacity [water towers], and distribution infrastructure [pipes and water fountains]." As a result, for the most part residents get their water through informal networks such as private water wells.

“In the cities, women carry water containers on their heads like they did when we lived in villages!”

Our Observer lives in the Mpissa neighbourhood of Brazzaville. He took these photos showing residents waiting in front of private wells, surrounded by dozens of water containers.

In some neighbourhoods, power outages lead to these situations. However, in other neighbourhoods like Mpissa and Bacongo, this is our daily life. First of all, the National Water Distribution Company [known as SNDE, it is in charge of the production, distribution, storage, and marketing of drinking water in Congo] is an old company that has barely modernised its equipment since it was created. Most of its equipment dates back to pre-independence days [some equipment dates back to 1954]. So the water supply has a hard time even reaching areas that are supposed to be part of the SNDE's coverage. It's often yellow, in part due to dirty pipes. [SNDE officers state that the water is regularly treated, but that its quality may deteriorate because of the pipe network’s shortcomings]. Many areas are outside the SNDE’s coverage area, mainly because the infrastructure hasn't been able to keep up with the city's rapidly expanding population.

The authorities have made some efforts to improve the situation. For example, a second water treatment plant was built in Djiri [Djiri II, located north of Brazzaville, will be operational in 2014. According to the government, this plant will provide roughly 80% of the city’s clean drinking water. The rest will be supplied by the renovated Djoué factory, which was built in the 1950s]. However, given the sheer scale of the problem, we are taking this information with a grain of salt.

The short-term solution for now is to get water from private vendors who have the means to build wells. Sellers will buy 25 litre water containers for 50 CFA francs [0.08 euros] and carry them to residences to sell at 100 CFA francs [0.16 euros]. It’s very profitable. The daughter of a politician has even gone into this business in my neighbourhood. The problem is that this water isn’t even drinkable. To find water safe for drinking, it’s another story altogether. For that, we need to go to neighbourhoods that have water towers.

In Mpissa, we’ve gone through two-year periods without any running water. This year, we had some running water during the rainy season, but it’s been dry since October. And the worst is that SNDE never fails to send us a bill.

And yet the Congo is blessed. Unlike the Sahel countries, water here is plentiful, but it's just not in the taps. In the cities, women are carrying water containers on their heads like they did when we lived in villages. Is that what they call development?

In 2009, the authorities launched a sweeping reform of water management that focuses on urban areas. The Congolese government is working with the French company Sade, a contractor for Veolia, which will carry out part of the refurbishing work on the water system. Last October, it was announced that construction would end in early 2014 in Brazzaville and in 2016 in Pointe-Noire, the country’s second largest city.

When contacted by FRANCE 24, Nicolas Labarre, the managing director for water at the Congolese Ministry of Energy and Water, claimed that the new Djiri II plant would be 100% operational by late March. “We will need to continue repairing the pipe network as the water starts coming back into the pipes, but I think we can safely say that the city of Brazzaville, including the centre and the suburbs, will be receiving water two months from now. Everyone will have access to water at home, or through water fountains.”

Nicolas Labarre claims that since 2005, public investment in the Congolese water sector has totalled over 300 billion CFA francs, or more than 450 million euros.

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