Turning on the taps in Goma’s makeshift camps

Why MSF’s health response in displacement camps near Goma, DR Congo, includes the construction of water infrastructure.

Construction of water platform and latrines at Rusayo displaced camp

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. 

Empty water jugs at Lushagala displacement camp near Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo
Crowd of displaced people wait to refill water tanks in Lushagala displacement camp near Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

Residents of Lushagala camp wait to refill their water tanks. On average, each person receives around five liters per day, one-third of the minimum humanitarian emergency standards. DRC 2023 © Alexandre Marcou/MSF

"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."

A bulldozer on mound of dirt where MSF is constructing latrines in a displacement camp near Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo
Latrines are constructed beside the platform MSF has built to distribute 200,000 liters (about 53,000 gallons) of clean water daily. DRC 2023 © Alexandre Marcou/MSF

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.

"My work is very important, because without functional water pumps sick people cannot access clean water, get medical treatment, or wash themselves. Also, without water we cannot fight cholera."

Eugenie Banganyigabo Diane, a mechanic in Bulengo camp

"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."

"Women can also do it."

"Many women believe they cannot work as mechanics as it is a profession for men, but this is not true," says Eugenie Banganyigabo Diane, a mechanic in Bulengo camp.


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.”  

An MSF water and sanitation worker installs pipes in ground beside Lake Kivu in Democratic Republic of Congo
MSF teams built a 3.5 km pipeline (about 2 miles long) to connect the Bulengo water treatment plant with with Lushagala displacement camp. DRC 2023 © Alexandre Marcou/MSF
An MSF water and sanitation worker wipes down tanks at water treatment station at Lushagala displacement camp in Democratic Republic of Congo.
MSF water and sanitation teams operate the new water treatment station at Lushagala displacement camp in Democratic Republic of Congo.

The waste treatment station that MSF built includes an innovative system to prevent the spread of diseases like cholera using lime stabilization. DRC 2023 © Alexandre Marcou/MSF

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.  

MSF water distribution team trucks near Lake Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo
MSF water trucks go to the water treatment station a few times each day to fill up the tanks in displacement camps including Rusayo, Elohim, Shabindu, and Lushagala. DRC 2023 © Alexandre Marcou/MSF
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.