DRC: Cholera and violence sweep across Katanga Province

28 October, 2013
September 2013, Katanga, DRC: The sun rises over Tanganyika Lake on the far eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The lake is tainted with cholera, but for many families it is the only source of water. Credit: OCHA/Gemma Cortes
September 2013, Katanga, DRC: The sun rises over Tanganyika Lake on the far eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The lake is tainted with cholera, but for many families it is the only source of water. Credit: OCHA/Gemma Cortes

As the sun rises over Tanganyika Lake on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), hundreds of women arrive to collect fresh water for their families. They fill their containers and begin the long walk back to their villages.

This is how cholera spreads in Katanga Province. The waterborne illness is endemic here. More than 11,000 cases have been reported since the beginning of the year, and an outbreak a few months ago claimed 257 lives. In the past four weeks, more than 300 cases have been recorded.

Humanitarian organizations are focusing on water treatment and hygiene-information campaigns to stem its spread. A US$720,000, two-year project in the city of Kalemie, on the shores of Tanganyika Lake, is providing more than 80,000 people with safe drinking water. The project addresses all factors that contribute to the spread of the disease: access to clean water through chlorination points, sanitation and hygiene awareness.

“Since I started using chlorine, my children no longer have diarrhoea or vomiting, and they have no more stomach pain,” says Esther Nyota, a 20-year-old mother of two who lives in Kamukolobondo, a densely populated fishing community on the outskirts of Kalemie.

“I can now purify the water consumed by my family and do the dishes with hope that the microbes were eliminated.”

Further funding urgently required

This project is being funded by the OCHA-managed Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF). The CHF is a country-based fund that pools money from different donors. Aid agencies can draw from this pool to ensure that urgent needs are met quickly and efficiently.

However, aid agencies in the region are requesting stronger interventions from other donors: they need an additional $1.9 million to implement critical water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects in the region.

Aid agencies say that recent clashes between the Congolese army and a rebel Mai Mai group, and between rebel militias and community self-defense groups have exacerbated the cholera situation. The fighting has displaced thousands of people who are now living in overcrowded conditions where sanitation is poor and access to clean water is limited.

Katanga was considered a relatively stable part of eastern DRC—certainly more stable than the tempestuous Kivus. But the proliferation of armed groups in the province in recent years has undermined this reputation. There are now 350,000 internally displaced people in Katanga, including 43,000 who were displaced in the first quarter of this year alone.

“Poor sanitation always exacerbates the situation”

Charles Bisimwa coordinates the WASH projects of humanitarian organizations in Katanga. He said: “The displaced populations have enormous needs. We are worried that the crowded conditions of displaced people could lead to the spread of the disease.

“Poor sanitation always exacerbates the health situation. The most contaminated areas are the poor neighbourhoods where hygienic conditions are not met, and where there is no access to drinking water.”

Earlier this year, many humanitarian organizations worked with local health authorities to develop contingency plans for cholera-affected communities in Kalemie, a city of more than 270,000 people. As part of the two-year project addressing the cholera disease, the DRC Red Cross installed the first of 66 chlorination points last August.

These chlorination points are manned for 12 hours each day by Red Cross volunteers. They add chlorine to the water that people draw from the lake. About 300 families visit each point every day to take home an average of 60 litres of safe drinking water.

Health authorities in Kalemie, have also set up an intensive cholera treatment centre in the general Hospital.

Building awareness is crucial

Chlorination points are the most visible part of the Red Cross project, but they are only one element of a comprehensive approach.

“Equally important as those activities is raising awareness among the people,” says Kipo Amani, the President of the Red Cross’ Katanga branch. “We go from door-to-door to inform all households about cholera, the importance of proper hygiene practices, and hand out leaflets in the local language, Kishwahili, to prevent contamination. Each volunteer visits eight families per day.”

Amurani Rose, aged 21 and a mother of three, said: “With awareness sessions on water, hygiene and sanitation, my family can now appropriately fight against cholera. We are only drinking water that is treated with chlorine or boiled, and we wash our hands with soap before eating.”

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