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Forget About The Tap: A City Of 2 Million Has Virtually No Running Water

Oct 18, 2019
Originally published on October 19, 2019 2:44 am

Every morning, just as the sun rises in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, men, women and children walk miles to collect water.

They walk gingerly into Lake Kivu — its blue waters lapping against the hills surrounding it.

Pascal Bitasimwa, 12, is a boy with a big smile and a small frame. He carries a yellow jerrycan that is half his size and when he walks into the lake, he has to use all his weight to wrestle the jerrycan underwater.

"This takes me much of my time," he says. "Instead of going to study, I come first to take water."

Goma, a city of 2 million people, is the command center for the world's second deadliest Ebola outbreak, which is raging some 250 miles away. When the virus briefly spread to the city this summer, the World Health Organization declared it a public health emergency of international concern.

But many of the concerns here are more basic. In Goma, it's often about the lack of running water.

Fetching water at Lake Kivu. Goma, a city of 2 million, has virtually no running water — not even in the fanciest hotels, which have their own pumps and treat their own water.
Samantha Reinders for NPR

Bitasimwa, for example, has never seen running water. Nelisse Kakulya, 32, had also come to fetch water. But looking at Bitasimwa dive into the lake, then struggle to carry the jerrycan up a hill, she can't hide her dismay.

Kids drown here all the time, she says. The water they're taking isn't treated so drinking it carries risks; the lake sometimes lets out methane bubbles that can kill.

"This is unacceptable," she says.

The irony of it also eats at her every day. Goma has virtually no running water – not even in the fanciest hotels, which have their own pumps and treat their own water. Yet it hosts the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world. Dozens of charity organizations invest millions every month here. And this is a region brimming with mineral riches. So when she thinks about having to walk to the lake every day, she seethes with anger.

But here in Congo, the government is notorious for brutally snuffing out any dissent.

"They won't give you that opportunity; they won't listen to you," she says. "And that makes you feel powerless."

Residents of Goma trek to Lake Kivu for water. The water is not treated so drinking it carries health risks.
Samantha Reinders for NPR

"Blaming game"

The American charity Mercy Corps has been working in Goma for decades. Many times over those years, they have tried to address the water issue.

But Whitney Elmer, the country director, says Congo is complex. It's huge — more than three times the size of Texas; there is still active conflict and it has poor governance across the board. So, for example, when a water system is installed, repairs to keep it in working order never get made.

"You don't find that [combination] in many other countries," she says. "So to be able to really address those issues, it takes time."

Still, charities, United Nations agencies and peacekeepers have been in this region for decades. Their presence was beefed up as war raged following the Rwandan genocide in the '90s and last year, Congo was one of the most-funded humanitarian regions in the world.

So who is to blame?

Elmer sighs.

"Ultimately, the blaming game at this point, I don't know that it really matters," she says. "I think it's more about how you put in place an action plan to move it forward and how do we get out of this systemic cycle of violence, of conflict, of now major public health issues."

She says once that is done, it will be important to put in place a system of accountability for delivering public services.

"Because ultimately, the people who are suffering are Congolese citizens, and they're the people who have the least voice in all of this," she says.

Let down by the rain

Back at the lakefront, Selemani Solomon jumps into the lake with two huge jerrycans. He spends his whole day carrying water to the neighborhoods. He charges for each jerrycan, and he pays his rent with this job.

Some folks in Goma get water for personal needs. Others make a living by filling up jerrycans and selling the water in city neighborhoods.
Samantha Reinders for NPR

He knows that the city's unfortunate water situation benefits him monetarily.

"But I'm not proud of this work," he says. "Because no one should have to do this."

He says his work is a reminder of how each and every one of them has been failed by their leaders.

"How is Goma called a city without water?" he says.

Some people here, he says, own huge, fancy homes and even they don't have water. Sometimes, he says, if it rains, they can collect that water at home and not have to come to the lake.

He laughs.

"But this place is so forsaken," he says, "even the rains have failed us."

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