Water at a price: The controversial management of water sources built by NGOs in Butembo, DR Congo
The morning atmosphere at the Kimoteur spring in the Kalemire district.

By Mukulu Vulotwa Hervé

Sanitation has emerged as the main measure to fight against covid-19 – a reality that the provinces of North-Kivu and Ituri in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo have particularly experienced for two years during the Ebola outbreak, from August 1, 2018 to June 25, 2020. To achieve success against the outbreak, clean water must have been used.

But it is a commodity that is not within the reach of all Congolese. This is how some inhabitants of the town of Butembo, in the province of North-Kivu, have complained about the fact that so-called “humanitarian” structures invested in drinking water supply projects have demanded money from their beneficiaries to access drinking water, even in this time of a health emergency.

The donors are giving all the money they have, so that the beneficiaries can enjoy free drinking water, claims some inhabitants of Bulengera commune, in the town of Butembo, North Kivu province, in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But Muhindo, a resident of the Kalemire district, testifies that he regularly pays between 1,500 and 2,000 Congolese francs (approximately USD $1) to access the standpipes, he complained on Radio Upendo Kivu.

These are the facts that have sparked our interest in exploring this crucial issue of the perennial problem of access to drinking water in the town of Butembo. In order to avoid a one-sided story, as the writer Chimanda Adichie points out in her TED talk “The danger of a single story“, we carried out an investigation with financial support from the Pulitzer Center and the National Geographic Society for InfoNile / Water Journalists Africa.

In North Kivu, eastern DRC, only 0.9 percent of the population uses piped water at home with payment by meter or by a flat rate. 28.1 percent uses a community fountain, some of which are free and others, the management committee decides on the monthly fees to be paid per household – generally between 500 and 2000 Fc (about $1) per month. 1.8 percent of the Congolese population uses wells which are also either paid or free. Like the rest of the country, very few residents of Butembo have access to water from Regideso, the national water company, which until recently had a monopoly on water supply – and whose bill varies from household to household, by meter bill or by package. 

“At the start of the year, I was regularly paying less than 5,000 Francs per month, but since June, I’ve been told that my meter broke and I’m being charged a flat rate of 7,000 Francs, while we use between 100 and 200 liters per day,” explains Maman Jacquie, a resident of Lumumba. The quality of this water also remains very doubtful: The water in Regideso is regularly colored with a yellowish tendency; and sometimes, there are residues such as hair and waste.

Children drawing water in a terrace on the Ngese mountains

Water is life, as the saying goes, and we look for it with all means if it is not available. Fortunately for Butembo, a town straddling the equator, it rains all year round in this region with a temperate climate. However, it only takes a week without rain for access to water to become a problem.

Waterborne diseases are one of the main causes of child mortality in DRC, as Ibrahim Nginamau Masumu stressed in his research paper revealing that about 1.8 million child deaths are caused by diarrhea each year, around 4,900 deaths per day and still a number of deaths of children under five – equivalent to the population of New York and London combined. 26.5 percent of the population of North Kivu is at a very high risk of contracting disease from unclean water. InfoNile adds that 44.2 percent of the population is at a low risk of E. coli in 100 ml of water, 29.4 percent at moderate risk, according to the 2018 MICS survey.

In 2018 according to the MICS survey, 68.4 percent of the population of North Kivu had access to an improved water source (running water, a standpipe, a natural spring and a water pumping point, or a drilled well at a depth of more than 200 meters), built under the supervision of a civil engineer and whose water quality has been analyzed by a local laboratory mainly from the Catholic University of Graben. In contrast, 31.6 percent used an unprotected source, with most (23.7 percent) using surface water. Access to water in North Kivu was slightly higher than the rest of the country in general (59 percent).

But the water from Regideso, the public water service, is not fit to drink in the town of Butembo. For drinking water, people have to look for other sources. And this investigation found that these drinking water supplies entail costs whose use is unexplained to beneficiaries.

Rainwater, wells and natural sources

Rainwater harvested in plastic household containers

People regularly use rainwater collected in containers and tanks on the roofs of houses for household chores such as doing the dishes, laundry, household hygiene, personal hygiene and cooking meals. However, only households in the valleys or on the plains have the facility to dig wells. Five to 10 meters are enough to obtain water, but doctors do not recommend this water for consumption because of mold and poor well maintenance.

Much of the water used by households in the town of Butembo comes from natural water sources. Usually located in the valleys, accessibility is a problem because the whole district draws the water in the same place.

Many of these natural sources are partially developed or even undeveloped and become the source of waterborne diseases. Diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, intestinal worms, and particularly typhoid fever are common in the region. Often regardless of the ailments one suffers from, in the hospital, the first tests are for malaria and typhoid fever.

To alleviate this problem of supplying drinking water, the population has been asking assistance from humanitarian organizations. This is because the few commercial companies that ventured into this sector, despite its liberalization, provide bottled water of which 60 centiliter and 1 liter are sold for between $0.25 and 1 USD – a luxury for the average citizen who struggles to find enough to feed his family on a daily basis.

Humanitarian organizations are therefore providing sources of drinking water. They set up a management committee for these water sources which sets the price to be paid per household between 500 FC and 2000 FC per month. They solved one problem but they created another: the management of perceived fees. One water source generally serves more than 100 households – between 100 and 700 households. If each household pays 1,500 FC per month, for 100 households, that makes 150,000 FC ($75). Butembo is a commercial town with a monthly shopkeeper salary of barely $40.

This money collected is supposed to cover small breakdowns such as water leaks and valve replacements, which are not regularly expensive. For the rest of the money, only the management committee and the humanitarian organization that built the water source know where the money is going. This is a large sum because almost the majority of the population of the town of Butembo draws water from water sources. The management of this money has always created problems. This is why the water source management committees are often changed after management disputes.

Hand-washing, a luxury during the COVID-19 pandemic


Children collecting water at several sources in Butembo

Access to water is not an easy task. 54.1 percent of the Congolese population spend more than 30 minutes to access water, 25.8 percent between 30 and 60 minutes, 19.4 percent between one hour and 3 hours, and 0.8 percent more than 3 hours. In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Congolese nation has come to a standstill. Measures called “preventive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus” have been decreed by a state of health emergency since March involving the closure of schools and churches, prohibition of gatherings of more than 20 people, and the recommendation of face masks whatever their nature, medical or ordinary ones. While schools have been closed to keep children at home under parental control, in Butembo, parents have found free additional labor for more than three months.

At more than 80 percent of the water sources visited for this investigation, at least half of the people encountered at the source are children, as these images show. And no physical distancing was observed. During the 2018 Ebola outbreak, in September, Dr. Bathé Nzoloko, then-coordinator of the teams for the fight against the 10th Ebola epidemic, stressed that the schools should remain open. Because the school is the best place to protect a child from Ebola. Because the schools were equipped with hand-washing kits and thermo flashes for taking the temperature. This would make it possible to identify a patient as early as possible and treat them. Aerosol contamination has been the strongest argument for shutting down schools. But in the Congolese context, this is not always the best, observed the civil society in North Kivu. In a country where people live from hand to mouth on a daily basis, children are abandoned by themselves at home, without any control, by parents who have to go find something to feed them despite the crisis.

During the Ebola or COVID-19 outbreaks, water did not have a big financial impact on households. Washing their hands several times a day is taken as a punishment for many people, especially those who do not believe in the existence of these diseases and those who simply neglect. This is why very few people at home wash their hands regularly. People only typically wash their hands when they are in public, before entering a shop, a business, a public service, a restaurant, or a public market. Some companies have put up hand-washing facilities at the entrance to their service and the NGOs have put water in public places such as roundabouts and markets.

It is very rare for families or households to have placed a hand-washing device within the reach of visitors before entering the house. Wealthy families would rather use disinfectants than water.

Extra charges by water facilities installed by humanitarians

Inventory of water sources in Bulengera commune (City of Butembo). This map shows the state of improved/unimproved water sources in each neighborhood of Butembo. The neighborhoods of Kamesi-Mbonzo and Kyaghala have the biggest proportion of unimproved water sources, whereas Rughenda has only improved sources. © Ir Sorel Wasukundi

Humanitarian aid organizations intervene in this sector in three ways: by improving natural water sources to provide drinking water, by digging water pumping points and by installing water supply networks in several neighborhoods.

People expect access to water to be free since well-wishers have donated enough money to make this project happen. It is one of the pillars of the humanitarian principles for service to the community. This is the case of the 15 natural water sources developed in the Malende district by the NGO Mercy Corps, in addition to the water pumping points, as part of a project to fight the epidemic diseases such as Ebola, said Kambale Katirisa, president of the Ngengere community mobilisation unit in the Ngengere district.

A drilling machine of a water pumping point in Ngengere. The drilling machine digs at a depth of up to 200 meters, extracting water at a flow rate of 20 liters per second, which can serve about 500 households on average.

With a vision of project sustainability, some NGOs in collaboration with the public administration, grassroots leaders and local nonprofit associations are setting up management committees for improved water sources. These committees decide how much money to pay per household to access water.

About two years ago, the Kalemire district had only two almost-finished water sources. Access to water was often a source of conflict, says the neighborhood chief, Visiri Isaac.

“In the Kalemire neighborhood, there is a population of 42,000 inhabitants. We only had two sources including the so-called “Kimoteur” source in the Kikyo concession and the Vishika source in the Mukondo cell.  There were regular fights within the population for the control of this water. Because the water was insufficient for the population. Residents of other neighborhoods used to come here to draw water at these two sources of clean water.”

Visiri Isaac, neighborhood chief

The first source is located in a concession belonging to the Anglican church, concession of Kikyo, with a flow rate of about one minute for 20 liters. No monthly payment is required. This source is in a valley. It’s a challenge for women, generally, who have to carry around 10 jerrycans of water a day on their backs when their homes are sometimes more than a kilometer away from the source. The second source has a monitoring committee. It is a source developed six years ago by the organizations Consortium for Urban Agriculture (CAUB) and the Center for the Promotion of Birth Health Care (CEPROSSAN), according to the head of the district, Siviri Isaac.

On the other hand, Jacques Muhindo Mukoha, head of the Mukondo cell in the Kalemire district, gives himself full credit for the development of this water source six years ago. Because, according to him, the development of humanitarian workers had failed. They did not know how to stabilize water. During the rainy season, there were water leaks in the foundation, destroying the infrastructure put in place. It is his efforts and his ingenuity that have succeeded in having a stable source of water that never runs dry even in times of drought or that never overflows in times of rain. He has well laid out the natural spring canal.

Jacques Muhindo Mukoha is the chairman of the water monitoring committee. As for the monthly payment per household, he denies before giving in, stressing that each household pays only 100 Fc per month:

Muhindo: “There is a management committee. It takes care of the cleanliness of the spring. There are no contributions. Sometimes there are one-off contributions. For instance, now we want to put slabs, but there are no contributions to do it.”  

Journalist: “However, there are people who say they pay 1000 fc monthly!”

Muhindo: “It’s 100 Fc per month per household. When it’s a little money, we’ll buy a bag of cement. 100 Fc per month. How much per year? And many families do not pay.”

Jacques Muhindo Mukoha, chairman of the water monitoring committee

However, the young girls met at the source said that each household pays 1000 Fc per month. What is this money used for? “Only the committee knows. It’s for maintenance, they say,” a lady replies. But access to the source remains a problem because it is in the valley. In rainy weather, the slope becomes slippery. The cell head stresses that households do not pay regularly for him to give an exact figure. Nevertheless, a cell is more than a hundred households. And this source only serves one cell. And even if 100 households paid 1,000 Fc per month, that is 100,000 Fc, around $50 USD at the current exchange rate. The money that can buy more than four bags of cement – but the image of the site shows that the last development works have been completed a long time ago. Where does the money go? None of the people who we met at the source could answer.

Journalist Hervé Mukulu conducting interviews in Butembo for this story.

Currently eight standpipes have been erected in this district. They belong to the Muleke water supply network, a project of the NGOs Hydraulique Sans Frontières, OXFAM and Swift.

“The standards require that a water source with a flow rate of 10 liters per minute serves 500 people. With an average of six people per household in our country, that’s 83 households per source. That remains insufficient, given the sources that we have in the town of Butembo. I estimate that only 30 percent of the population has access to drinking water. But the NGOs are doing a great job and compensating for this divide,” explains Maboko Nzanzu, a civil engineer.

Muleke water: salvation for a few, too expensive for most 

Winnowing plan for Muleke

Muleke water is a network of 19 standpipes in four districts of Bulengera municipality. According to the Kimbulu neighborhood chief in Bulengera commune, Paluku Vasosene Sébastien, the project was developed to fight against water-borne diseases in the region. This is how a local NGO, Hydraulique Sans Frontière (Hyfro), was commissioned to carry out the project with funding from Oxfam and Swift.

This 65 kilometer supply network, from the source to the standpipes, has 12 water tanks with a capacity of 50 cubic meters. Salvation for the inhabitants, but the management is still being criticized by some.

For the Kalemire district, for example, two years ago, the district of 40,000 inhabitants had only two water sources. For two years, this district has been equipped with 8 standpipes belonging to the Muleke network – a sigh of relief for the inhabitants of this district. On the other hand, the Kimbulu district was provided with several standpipes for Muleke water, but they have been abandoned by the population. The population prefers to draw water from unimproved natural water sources, which abound in the neighborhood, rather than paying 1,500 Fc per month ($0.75 USD).

“Unimproved natural sources of water remain free, and the population is completely unaware of the danger of waterborne diseases,” complains Chief Vasosene.

On the other hand, the 32,532 inhabitants of the Bishopric district would give anything to have water. There is only one natural water source in this area, taking almost five minutes to draw 20 liters in times of drought. The majority of households draw this water for housework. The second source of water, for drinking water, belongs to the Catholic Church. “Each household pays 700 Fc per month, of which 500 Fc is given to the Catholic Church, to have access to 20 liters per day. It’s table water, drinking water. Households have to manage differently in order to have water,” the fountain manager tells us.

This district has not yet been reached by the Muleke water network. However, Muleke subscribers are entitled to 100 liters per day for 50 Fc per day.

To have the same rights of 100 liters per day, in Beni, a town of 700,000 inhabitants located 54 km from Butembo, each household would have to pay 15,000 Fc ($7.5 USD) for water from the water supply network installed by the NGO Solidarité International. This is a network of around 100 standpipes that have already been handed over to the government. Without this network, Beni would be a desert.

In Butembo, a city with around 1 million inhabitants, Muleke’s water has so far only reached about 18,000 people, most of whom are unable to pay. “Today, July 2, 2020, around 500 households are still in debt for the month of June but continue to draw water on credit because each household has its notebook. And many have credits lasting several months,” says Kavugho Florine, cashier of the Muleke water network, who we met at her office. 

“Serving water for free doesn’t make sense. Water is always paid for, even if it is not expensive. And it should be cheaper because water is not a scarce commodity in our country. The money we charge is just to pay for small repairs, expenses like the taps, because it is a project. It has a beginning and an end. We still won’t be there forever,” stresses a project manager in an organization involved in water supply in the town of Butembo. 

‘Ebola water’ – How the outbreak turned Butembo off to humanitarian aid

A part of the Muleke water network

It should be noted that the city of Butembo is by nature reluctant to NGOs. The business vision of a city run by local business owners is that NGO money is easy to earn and young people should not get used to it. It was a humanitarian emergency that imposed the NGOs on the town of Butembo: a context which explains why the population is still hesitant to subscribe to this Muleke water. It’s ‘Ebola water,’ for some. Since this network was built during the time Ebola epidemic was raging in the region, this water is also blamed for the outbreak. Some believe water installed by NGOs contains Ebola and would contaminate the population. And others think the water arranged by the humanitarian workers during the Ebola outbreak must be free, says the Kimbulu neighborhood chief.

Another section of the population wonders instead how the fees collected are managed. Mrs. Kavugho Florine, cashier for the Muleke water network, points out that these fees are set by the general meeting which takes place twice a year. They are used to pay for maintenance services, repairs to valves, leaks, fountains and members of the office. Recently, following pressure, the NGO Hydrolique Sans Frontières handed over the management of this water to the local community, which elected the managers at a general assembly. Nevertheless, this local NGO keeps an eye on the project because the project is supposed to be autonomous. The guarantee of this project, which cost nearly $500,000 USD, is 20 years, says Kavugho Florine, cashier of the Muleke water network.

We are left with these questions: Are the varying fees collected by the water management committees of these NGO-funded projects fair and accessible for the low-income population? And are the monies going to the stated repairs? What is clear is that access to water for drinking and sanitation is still a huge challenge in this eastern town; the humanitarian-funded projects may be a drop in the bucket.

This map shows that in North Kivu province where Butembo is located, 55.9 percent of the population has a moderate or elevated risk of exposure to E.coli bacteria, an important indicator of water safety and purity, according to the 2018 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey. The province’s indicators are comparable to the country average, where 60 percent of the population is at a moderate or high risk of contamination. © Ir Sorel Wasukundi

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa and funding from the Pulitzer Center and National Geographic Society. Additional reporting and editing by Annika McGinnis. All interviews in this article were translated from French. This story was also published on Radio Upendo Kivu.