The quest for clean water comes closer to home

DR Congo

November 20, 2014

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  • Women and children in the city of Goma spend hours every day hauling water from a lake to their home. To change this, Mercy Corps undertook the huge project of rehabilitating the city's entire water network. Photo: Gerry Ellis for Mercy Corps

Clean water is essential to survival, but getting it is a constant challenge for millions of people around the world. It’s common for women and children to spend hours every day just traveling to find water, keeping kids from school and often putting mothers in dangerous situations.

Before Mercy Corps stepped in to help, this was the case in the the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo city, Goma — home to more than 750,000 residents.

Decades of conflict here have forced people to flee their homes time and time again, and many of those families eventually end up in Goma seeking safety. But the city sits at the base of a volcano, which erupted in 2002 and destroyed most of the local water system — leaving hundreds of thousands of people with little or no access to clean water.

The newest arrivals live at the edges of the city, usually atop old lava flows and miles away from the nearby lake that acts as the main water source. The daily journey is long to get water that isn't even clean and the work it takes to haul it back home is backbreaking. The hours it takes require women to set off in the dark early morning hours, which makes them a prime target for attacks.

In 2008, Mercy Corps set out to change this. Partnering with the local government and hiring local workers, we undertook the largest construction project in our history — rebuilding Goma’s water network to connect hundreds of thousands of residents to this vital resource.

Rehabilitating Goma’s water system took years of construction and innovative thinking from Mercy Corps’ engineers. Because they were working in extremely hard lava rock, jackhammers had to be replaced with hand tools. The new system pumps water from Lake Kivu to several enormous reservoirs that store and treat the water. To get the water to Goma's residents, our team repaired and constructed miles of pipeline in the lava rock and built tap stands throughout the city's neighborhoods.

Now, there are 57 water points — each with four taps — located throughout Goma. For local families, this means the difficult chore of gathering water now takes minutes instead of hours.

Tabu, 48, describes how her life has improved since the Mercy Corps water points opened:

“Before Mercy Corps brought water here, I used to get water from the Lake Kivu. My two sons and I had to wake up at night (between 3:00 and 4:00 AM) and walk three hours there and back. The quantity of water we brought home was not sufficient to cook, clean the house, do laundry and wash.

In my area, we developed a system of borrowing water from neighbors — sometimes I just went to the lake to give back water I borrowed from them. Life was really tough."

Tabu now only has to walk 10 minutes to get clean water from the new Mercy Corps water tap, saving her time and money. Photo: Mercy Corps

"Today, we are in a paradise. We have a lot of water. I just walk less than 10 minutes to reach the water point and get as much water as I want. I can get my shower anytime, wash my clothes. I can smile now as water is there.

I really say thank you to Mercy Corps, its partners and donors for having brought us water. Now, we don’t spend all our time getting water and we can improve our lives.”

Kavira, 22, lives nearby and tells a similar story. It’s only been a week since the water points opened, but the project is already making a difference in her life.

“People in this area used to get up at 3:00 AM. Each family had a day of not sleeping — when it was time to go, a person from that family had to wake neighbors. None of us could go alone because there are so many bandits who wander at night.

I was able to carry only one jerry can. It was impossible to go to the lake twice a day as I was already worn out. With the only one jerry can, each child here could be washed with only a cup of water.

The rest of water was used for drinking and cooking. Sometimes, foods such as sweet potatoes were not washed before cooking them to avoid the loss of any water.

Now, Kavira can bathe her children in clean water every day. Photo: Mercy Corps

Today, I use easily four jerry cans of water per day. I get water anytime. There is no need to rush to the water point as it is near and water is permanent. We are joyful every day — we are now in a new era, an era in which people are free from water slavery. Thank you to Mercy Corps and people who donated to make us happy.”

By the end of January, the new taps will serve 400,000 people in Goma. For families who once spent half their day in a quest for clean water, a nearby tap means better health and more time for school, play and earning an income to better their own lives. Now, the project is expanding and our team is working to bring potable water to more than 1.5 million people in Goma and nearby cities Bukavu and Bunia.