An estimated 51 million people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – or three quarters of the population – have no access to safe drinking water, even though the country holds over half of Africa’s water reserves, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said in a new study released today.
The country’s troubled legacy of conflict, environmental degradation, rapid urbanization and under-investment in water infrastructure has seriously affected the availability of drinking water, UNEP said in the study, unveiled to coincide with World Water Day.
UNEP was among several participants at an event in the capital, Kinshasa, staged by the National Water and Sanitation Committee, which brought together government representatives, development partners, financial institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and researchers to discuss steps to address the DRC’s water challenges.
Speaking at the forum, UNEP’s DRC Programme Manager, Hassan Partow, said the study confirmed that despite recent progress, including water sector reforms, the scale of the challenge means that the country will not be able to meet its water targets under the UN-set Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which calls for reducing by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015.
The DRC would have to supply an additional 20.3 million people with safe drinking water by 2015 even to meets its national development goals, which are significantly below the MDGs water target, according to UNEP.
“Since peace was brokered in 2003, the Government has gradually managed to reverse the negative trend in water coverage that has plagued the DRC since its period of conflict and turmoil”, said Mr. Partow. “This represents an important achievement which should be applauded.”
“However, the stark reality is that the DRC has one of the fastest urbanization growth rates in the world and this is not being matched with adequate water and sanitation service delivery,” he added.
Based on extensive fieldwork and stakeholder consultations across the country, the UNEP study found that inadequate water and sanitation delivery in the DRC’s rapidly expanding urban centres is due to insufficient, aging and overloaded networks, combined with the degradation of critical water sources and watersheds, such as the Lukunga and N’Djili catchments, which provide millions of people with drinking water in Kinshasa.
According to the study, entitled “Water Issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo – Challenges and Opportunities,” in addition to major infrastructure improvements, an investment of approximately $70 million over a five-year period is required to help strengthen the water sector.
UNEP recommends innovative strategies such as community-managed water supply systems in urban fringe areas and low-cost technical solutions, including communal tap areas and rainwater harvesting.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), meanwhile, drew attention to an estimated 37 million rural residents in DRC who risk contracting disease because they have no alternative but to draw untreated water directly from rivers or lakes that are likely to be contaminated.
“A child living in a Congolese village is four times more likely to drink contaminated water than someone in town. Yet, all children have equal right to survival and development of which drinking water is a vital component,” said Pierrette Vu Thi, the UNICEF representative in DRC in a statement to mark the World Water Day.
More than 2 million Congolese children under the age of five, or one in five in that age group, are regularly sick with diarrhoea, according to figures from the country’s department of health cited by UNICEF.
“The fact that we are unable to provide each family clean drinking water is an affront,” said Ms. Vu Thi. “Too many children die because we do not respect our responsibility, and their deaths are ignored,” she added.