Clean water is an essential resource for all people, everywhere—but it’s especially important for people living in precarious settings like displacement camps, where limited access to hygiene services, exposure to contagious diseases, and the risk of violence make water all the more vital.
In the makeshift camps surrounding Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), hundreds of thousands of displaced people have been surviving for months in makeshift camps with access to only a gallon of water per day. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) teams are working in the camps on water treatment and distribution, but even if humanitarian actors mobilize further, larger and durable efforts are needed to improve the lives of displaced people.
"We distribute 400,000 liters [over 100,000 gallons] of water every day in Rusayo camp, but it is not enough to meet the minimum humanitarian standard of 4 gallons per person per day," explained Ottman El Ouartiti, water and sanitation manager at MSF. "We often see children rushing to the trucks filled with water our tanks are empty.
Despite their proximity to Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes, many camps have no access to a water treatment system. The situation is even more dire in camps like Kanyaruchinya, where some 100,000 people have taken refuge and live without any access to water other than what humanitarian organizations bring them.
"I had no choice but to fetch water from the lake every day for my family,” said Tulia, who came to Elohim displacement camp in January after fleeing the fighting in her village in Masisi territory. “We drank it and cooked with it."
Perfect conditions for cholera
The consumption of untreated water coupled with extremely unsanitary conditions have created the perfect conditions for the spread of cholera, particularly as more people continue to arrive in the camps, fleeing a recent resurgence of violence in North Kivu. Amid these overcrowded, unhygienic conditions, more than 4,000 cholera cases were recorded in the health zone of Goma during the first six months of 2023, compared to 100 during the same period in 2022.
"Medical teams were overwhelmed at our cholera treatment center (CTC) in Bulengo," said Jackson Ngandu, MSF's water and sanitation supervisor in Bulengo camp. Between March and April, the number of admissions in Bulengo ranged from 100 to 150 patients per day.
"The response from other actors was insufficient to curb the spread of the disease,” he continued. "We decided to increase our drinking water distribution capacity by installing a water treatment plant and pipeline network to supply clean drinking water to the displacement sites, and we redoubled our efforts to build as many latrines and showers as possible."
MSF responds with new water infrastructure
MSF built a new station on the shores of Lake Kivu that has a pumping and water treatment system with a production capacity of two million liters (over 500,000 gallons) of clean drinking water per day. The installation of a water treatment plant in March, along with 18 ramps and 126 taps in Bulengo camp, has helped distribute water to a large portion of residents. This has contributed to a drastic drop in cholera cases: since mid-June, there have been zero cases.
In order to increase the water distribution capacity in camps located farther away from the lake, MSF teams also built a 3.5 km (about 2 miles long) pipeline to connect the Bulengo water treatment plant with Lushagala displacement camp.
"Water is flowing directly through the taps in Bulengo, Elohim, and Lushagala,” explained Jackson. “We also distribute around 200,000 gallons of clean water per day to trucks that come directly to the station to fetch the water. Yet the people in the camps continue to live on just 5 liters [1.3 gallons] of water a day, even though we have the capacity to treat more water.”
More is needed to secure access to water and sanitation
The water supply system installed by MSF was an emergency response. It is urgent that other humanitarian organizations and Congolese authorities do more to improve access to water and hygiene in the camps of Goma, particularly by constructing more sustainable infrastructure such as piping systems, and installing water treatment plants.
MSF teams also distribute water by trucking in Rusayo, Shabindu, Munigi, and Kanyaruchinya displacement camps. In Rusayo, the recent installation of a third platform capable of distributing up to 200,000 liters (53,000 gallons) of water per day has brought relief to many of the camp's residents.
About MSF in DRC
In camps for internally displaced people near Goma, MSF provides free medical care, supplies drinking water, and builds latrines and showers to respond to the most urgent needs. MSF also responds to cholera and measles epidemics in the camps through medical care and organizing vaccination campaigns. In North Kivu, MSF continues to provide free essential medical care in the health zones of Rutshuru, Kibirizi, Bambo, Binza, Mweso, Masisi, and Walikale.