The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) possesses over half of Africa’s water reserves, yet 74 percent of its population – or approximately 51 million people – lack access to safe drinking water according to a new study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The DRC’s troubled legacy of conflict, environmental degradation, rapid urbanization and under-investment in water infrastructure has seriously affected the availability of drinking water in DRC, although there are positive signs of recovery.
The findings of UNEP’s technical report into the DRC’s acute drinking water crisis and recommended solutions were presented at a World Water Day event in the country’s capital, Kinshasa that brought together government representatives, development partners, financial institutions, NGOs and researchers to discuss steps to address the DRC’s water challenges.
UNEP’s DRC Programme Manager Hassan Partow said the new UNEP study confirmed that despite recent progress, the DRC simply could not meet its water targets under the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015. Even to meet its national development goals, which are significantly below the MDG water target, the country faces the enormous challenge of supplying an additional 20.3 million people with safe drinking water by 2015.
“Since peace was brokered in 2003, the government has gradually managed to reverse the negative trend in water coverage that has plagued the DRC since its period of conflict and turmoil,” said Mr Partow. “This represents an important achievement which should be applauded.”
“However, the stark reality is that the DRC has one of the fastest urbanisation growth rates in the world and this is not being matched with adequate water and sanitation service delivery,” he added.
The study found that inadequate water and sanitation delivery in DRC’s rapidly expanding urban centres is due to insufficient, ageing and overloaded networks, combined with the degradation of critical water sources and watersheds, such as the Lukunga and N’Djili catchments, which provide millions of people with drinking water in Kinshasa.
These critical peri-urban forested watersheds are being cleared through uncontrolled expansion for housing construction, making home gardens, cultivating crops and producing firewood. Such land development also impacts on water availability in rural areas, where over 90 percent of the population depends on springs located in dense forests.
According to the UNEP study, entitled Water Issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo – Challenges and Opportunities, in addition to major infrastructure improvements, an investment of approximately US$70 million over a five-year period is required to help strengthen the water sector. Such investment should focus on the development of policy and regulatory instruments, data collection, capacity-building, as well as micro-level technological solutions.
UNEP recommends that innovative strategies such as community-managed water supply systems in peri-urban areas and low-cost technical solutions, including communal tap areas and rainwater harvesting, should be promoted and scaled up.
“These steps should enable the water sector to fulfil its critical role in speeding up the DRC’s economic recovery and support the country’s long-term sustainable development,” said Mr Partow.
The water study is part of an ongoing post-conflict environmental assessment of DRC being conducted by UNEP at the request of the national government. Due to be completed later this year, the comprehensive assessment is being carried out in conjunction with the DRC’s Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism, and various national and international partners.