When Mount Nyiragongo erupted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the damage to vital infrastructure was swift and terrible. Lava flows destroyed a reservoir and pipes, depriving hundreds of thousands of people in Goma of something that we take for granted – water.
The damage inflicted by the May eruption has been compounded in recent weeks by a spike in COVID-19 cases linked to the delta variant. At the end of May, the country had around 30,000 cases. The most recent data from Africa CDC has indicated a jump to more than 44,000 cases.
The lack of clean water and upheaval of communities in the wake of the eruption have hindered efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Goma. How do you wash hands when you don’t have clean water? Hospitals and health centers could soon become overwhelmed by an influx of patients. Water, or rather the absence of water, could play a terrible role.
But the struggle to get water in Goma is not new. People fleeing the armed violence that has been raging in the region for decades have been settling in western Goma, where there isn’t even a public water system.
Water, a chronic health problem in eastern Congo
Without water a healthy life is impossible. Goma experiences regular outbreaks of waterborne diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns: “If nothing is done, we risk a major cholera epidemic even more deadly than the 1994 outbreak that killed tens of thousands of people in a few weeks.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been working for years to safeguard public health in Goma, despite the recurrent violence. But daily life remains hard. We still see people trying to escape poverty and conflict, with little access to essential services and little chance to earn a decent living.
The use of private companies for the less disadvantaged
Take Mama Mika, who lives in sight of the volcano, can’t afford to buy water from street vendors. Instead, she comes to lake Kivu four times a day, each time carrying two 25-litre jerrycans. “If you drink this water, at some point I guarantee you will get diarrhea,” she tells us. “Then you’ll have to go to the hospital and pay for treatment. If we had clean water, we could take better care of our children and find jobs.”
For those who can pay, water is pumped from the lake and trucked in by private companies. But it is poorly chlorinated and much more expensive than water supplied directly to homes.
A new approach, one that involves bigger and longer-term thinking, is needed if we want to break the seemingly never-ending cycle of violence, ill-health and underdevelopment. And the lessons from previous health crises are clear: investing today in sustainable water infrastructure is far less expensive than reacting to massive cholera epidemics. According to the WHO, investing in water supply and sanitation generates an economic return of over four dollars for every dollar spent.
That’s why we launched the Goma West Water Project in 2019 with the goal of providing clean drinking water to more than 300,000 people by 2025. It’s an enormous undertaking, with a budget of 40 million dollars.
Access to water within reach
But, although the ICRC has decades of experience in providing access to clean water, often in countries torn apart by war, we cannot do it all on our own. For that reason, we are seeking funding as we look to build partnerships with governments, financial experts, businesses and other development and humanitarian organizations.
If we work together, more sustainable, equitable and inclusive access to water is within reach. Women and kids will be freed from the tedious and time-consuming chore of fetching water of dubious quality. Everyone will have more money to spend on education and business, rather than hospital bills and overpriced water.
A healthier environment can bring growth and stability to this part of the country. And to other countries, too, ‘where we have large infrastructure projects – such as South Sudan, Libya and Nigeria.
Innovative partnerships can create sustainable solutions to complex humanitarian challenges. But it requires a global vision and all the technical and political actors working together, as well as the backing of the international donor community.
Public-private, a promising and necessary mix
It has, after all, become increasingly difficult to get governments to fund humanitarian operations. Since the financial crisis of 2008, donations have shrunk while the needs on the ground have only grown. The strain the COVID-19 pandemic puts on national economies is likely to accelerate this trend.
Some say that public and private don’t mix. We think they can. By keeping in mind our fundamental principles of neutrality and independence, we can explore new ways of working to improve what we do and scale up our impact – without compromising on our values.
Do no harm has been our motto for over 150 years. That won’t change now.
Considering the growing complexity of the countries and situations in which we work, and the benefits for local people that new partnerships and financial models can bring, we believe that not taking action today would be a moral failure.