Pumped up: lake water meets the needs of displaced people

By Coco McCabe
Helene Kanyere Ndakas, who fled her home because of conflict, has been hired by Oxfam to manage a water storage station at Buhimba camp.

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How do you keep disease at bay in a place where thousands of people are camped just feet from each other in the tiniest of homemade shelters and where the only visible source of water appears to be as much as two and a half miles away? The answer starts with a small pumping station on the banks of Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There, on the shore behind what's left of a half-constructed mansion, the chug-chug-chug of a diesel pump holds the promise of clean water for 11,042 people at Buhimba camp. They are just some of more than one million villagers forced to flee their homes as conflict has swept across the eastern provinces of that vast country. A short distance away, a second pump, submerged deep in the lake, provides water for an additional 18,016 people in two other camps known as Mugunga I and II.

Without clean water, without decent sanitation, and without the public health outreach that helps people understand the link between the two, waterborne diseases could ripple through theses camps with devastating consequences. That's what Oxfam, together with its local partner, Action Santé Femme, or ASAF, was determined to prevent when it helped establish the water systems for these three camps—and a fourth, Bulengo—outside Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. Through a network of rigid plastic pipes, storage tanks, and outdoor faucets, water from Lake Kivu now gushes into the jerry cans of thousands of families with the turn of a tap.

Supply watch

At the top of a short but steep hill at Buhimba, where two massive water storage tanks frame the sprawling camp below, Helene Kanyere Ndakas stands ready with a notebook in hand. She is the manager of this storage station—and knows better than almost anybody the importance of making sure the system runs smoothly.

What gives her that special knowledge?

Ndakas herself relies on the water that flows from it. She and her family are among the thousands of people who are now making their homes temporarily at Buhimba.

Flipping her notebook open, Ndakas points to the careful records she keeps each time she opens the valves to refill the tanks with lake water. And she notes the amount of chlorine that goes in to guarantee its cleanliness. Hired by Oxfam, Ndakas is on water duty from 6am to 4pm each day—a job she takes very seriously.

"People are depending on her," says Charles Mampasu, an Oxfam program manager in Goma. "And they're happy with her job."

Sharing the challenge

In a place where there was little or no infrastructure to support a water system, supplying tens of thousands of people with clean water on an emergency basis has been no small feat. And making sure they continue to have access to it when Oxfam moves on to its next project is one of the organization's central concerns. That's why Oxfam is working hand-in-hand with ASAF to help it build its ability to handle the water system on its own, particularly in Mugunga camps.

A tour through Mugunga I shows how important a steady supply of clean water can be—especially when people are struggling with such harsh living conditions. Built on fields of sharp volcanic rocks, the shelters many people now call home are not even tall enough in which to stand. Made from grasses and dried banana leaves flung over a frame of saplings and topped with a plastic sheet, the huts offer only minimal protection from the elements. To keep warm—and to drive the bugs out—many people cook on small wood fires inside their huts, the smoke curling into their lungs and out through the cracks in the shelter walls.

At the health clinic, the nurse on duty reports that respiratory infections are among the most common medical problems he sees. About 150 people a day flock to the clinic with a host of ailments that also include malaria, tuberculosis, and diarrhea. The latter is what the clean water—and scores of latrines that Oxfam has also installed—help to fight.

Snaking across the rocks, over roots, and through the mud, a network of wide black plastic pipes carries the water from Lake Kivu. It's replacing a temporary supply that another agency had been trucking in daily and storing in two plump water bladders—they look like giant egg yokes when full—at a cost of $3,500 a week. Nearby, the water blasts from faucets when kids turn on the taps to fill plastic jugs before lugging them home.

The water jug of choice for many kids has a familiar look: it's the container that once carried their family's allotment of cooking oil, doled out during the regular food distributions that displaced people have no choice but to depend on. Here at Mugunga, nothing goes to waste—not the jugs, and not the precious water they carry.