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CONGO: Rural residents left high and dry for lack of clean water - le 20-12-2005 par

Clean tap water provided by a humanitarian NGO in Mindouli, a sub prefecture of the Pool Department, about 140 km south of Brazzaville, the nation's capital(© Laudes Martial Mbon/IRIN).

BRAZZAVILLE, 15 Dec 2005 (IRIN) - Although the Republic of Congo (ROC) is one of Central Africa's wettest countries, the majority of its rural population has no drinkable water due to a lack of infrastructure.

The state water utility, Société nationale de distribution d’eau (SNDE), lacks capital to improve the way it pumps, stores and distributes water through its 55-year-old network of decaying pipes to the growing population. As it stands, only 69 percent of ROC’s urban dwellers receive water through SNDE. The absence of a reliable means to deliver pipe-borne water means that barely 11 percent of the rural population has access to this precious resource - and even then only with great difficulty.

About 48 percent of the country's 3.1 million people live in rural areas, according to the Ministry of Population, and most of them do not have access to pipe-borne water. Although some average-wage earners buy bottled mineral water from Gabon, most rural folk use streams, rivers and rainwater.

ROC receives 1,700 to 2,000 millimetres of rainfall each year. If the country’s water distribution problems were solved, said the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources, each person could be served between 20 litres and 30 litres of water a day.

A multifaceted problem

In Ewo, the main town in the northwestern administrative department of Cuvette Ouest, the water-storage tower has a capacity of 100 cubic metres, which SNDE says is only enough to serve one-fifth of the town's 5,000 inhabitants. About 303 residents subscribe directly to SNDE for 50,000 francs CFA (US $90), and in addition must pay a fixed monthly bill of 3,420 francs CFA ($6).

Venance Bola, head of SNDE in Ewo, said that the company’s rates do not cover its operating expenses.
"This fixed charge means SNDE cannot make a profit and cannot provide water on a regular basis," he said.
To fill Ewo's water tower, SNDE needs 72 litres of fuel to power its pumps each day. The utility, however, can afford to buy only six litres of gas oil a day. As a result, residents connected to the SNDE network in Ewo only have water three days a week. To supplement the SNDE supply, they must use a network of small streams around the town for bathing and drinking.

"We've become used to drinking spring water because it is natural. It is not often associated with chemicals," Romuald Onanga, an Ewo resident, said.

Unbeknownst to many, such water sources pose a myriad of health risks.

"Stream water is infected. The majority of the patients whom we receive in our hospital suffer from malaria, or diarrhoeal and skin diseases," Gervais Serge Marcellin Kionghat, the chief medical officer of Ewo Hospital, said.

One 35-year-old patient, who did not wish to be named, said she did not believe that polluted water was the cause of her stomach problems, despite using streams for drinking and cooking.

"I do not think that my problem is related to bad water," she said. "If it were so then the entire inhabitants of the smallest villages would suffer."

Mercellin said people contracted diseases because they did not boil the stream water before drinking it. Making matters worse, he said, was the fact that there was no permanent government programme to inform the rural public of the dangers inherent in consuming untreated water. However, in hospitals pregnant women are always informed of these dangers.

The privileged few in Ewo who can buy imported bottled water pay 600 francs ($1) - for a one-litre bottle. Most cannot afford the luxury.

An integrated approach

An abundant water supply is worthless without the means to deliver it to consumers. Because water pumps require energy to operate, the key to solving the problem lies in the provision of electricity.

Rural areas in the ROC have approximately 5 percent electricity coverage, compared with 50 percent in urban areas.

Bolo said Ewo’s water woes could be overcome. The town, which lies 700 km north of Brazzaville, is divided by the River Kouyou, one of the tributaries of the River Congo.

"If the government could build us a small dam on the Kouyou, 90 percent of the water supply problem would be solved," he said.

The SNDE grid is currently operated by a 40-kilovolt power-generating unit which, because of a fuel shortage, only operates for three hours a day and is insufficient to meet public demand. A dam would increase power supply considerably and enable the water utility to boost its output. While an improvement, increased output would only be helpful if storage capacity are also increased.

In other parts of the country, the situation is hardly better. In the Pool Department, for example, civil war from 1998 to 2002 destroyed almost the entire infrastructure.

Under these conditions, access to drinking water - already problematic before the conflicts - has become increasingly difficult. In its 2005 report "Pool, a Forgotten Humanitarian Crisis", the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said: "The population, in a general way, does not have access to drinking water except for some hospitals, thanks to the intervention of humanitarian actors."

OCHA reported that most people used stagnant ponds, river and swamp water, resulting in a high prevalence of waterborne diseases and gastrointestinal infections. Polluted water is one of the leading causes of mortality in the region.

Possible solutions

Since January 2005, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), in partnership with the ROC Ministry of Energy and Water Resources, has been developing a $470,000 emergency clean-water-provision programme for the Pool Department funded by the Norwegian government.

This financing followed a government and UNICEF effort in 2004 to provide water and electricity to various towns. The southern Department of Kouilou, whose capital is Pointe-Noire, was the first to profit from the project.

Although progress has been made, Alphonse Koya Djeré, SNDE director in Kouilou, is not entirely satisfied with the work so far.

"The output out of drinking water has certainly improved, but the production itself is intermittent and makes delivery difficult," he said.

The company said it was hard to know exactly how many litres of water each person needed each day but that it would like to be able to provide each person with 25 litres to 30 litres daily.

The minister of energy and water resources, Bruno Jean Richard Itoua, said the government was committed to providing clean water to all departmental and district urban centres in the country, that is to say 86 localities. The administration hopes to provide clean water to 75 percent of the country by 2015.

"This rate will be higher than that set by the UN within the framework of the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals," he added.

To this end, the government signed a deal with China in June to improve the provision of drinking water to the Brazzaville neighbourhoods of Kombo, Massengo and Moukondo. This will require building three reservoir tanks able to hold up to 10,000 cubic meters of water for the 160,000 people in these neighbourhoods.

In addition, the ministry said that 416 water storage facilities had been rehabilitated in the departments of Niari, Cuvette and the Plateau between 1997 and 2005. The work was achieved through support from the government, UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

According to Itoua, the government invested approximately 21 billion francs CFA ($37.28 million) during the period of 1980-1990 for the provision of water. From 1995 to 2004, it pumped in another 20 billion francs (about $36 million).

"All these investments came mainly from government funds and with the help of the African Development Bank and the Agence francais de developpement [the French development agency]," Itoua said.

Once the country returns to full stability, the task of rehabilitating and building drinkable water infrastructure in urban areas will be a priority as the provision of water is crucial in the fight against poverty.
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