Trench warfare: Sanitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In the Ngiri-Ngiri district of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is a wide trench which runs down the side of the street. Beside it, a team of men are working with shovels and rakes. Most are gathered around the edges, but others are standing in the liquid sewage and waste that fills the trench and laps around their cracked black boots.

The rainy season is beginning and the trench should be draining water from the muddy track which serves as a road, but it has become too clogged with the debris of tightly packed lives. Unless the team can clear the trench the slums on either side of the street will be flooded when the rain comes. One of the men, Karem, in his mid-twenties, is breaking up the solidifying mass of waste and mud with a rake, and his neighbour is shovelling it onto the side. Karem looks dolefully up and down the road. “My country, the DRC,” he says, “it’s fucked”.

There are trenches like this beside streets like this all over Kinshasa, and all across the DRC. Just 8% of the urban population have access to decent sanitation, according to WSP estimates, which means that in Kinshasa alone there are over seven million people living without toilets. The UNDP’s 2005 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper refers directly to the open trenches when it states that “more than 80 per cent of illnesses are linked to the bad state of the environment”.

As the team pause for a break from the heat they buy water in tiny plastic bags from street vendors. It is relatively expensive, but also the only reliably clean source of drinking water. As they dextrously split the bags without spilling a drop, children in school uniforms pass by, seemingly accustomed to the great stench as the sun hits the sewage. They eat food from open stalls just metres from the trench, and for many getting home means making use of makeshift bridges or jumping across where the compacted waste on either side has narrowed the channel. But it is the young who are most at risk from the diseases the sewers harbour. 88% of diarrhoea infections, the second most common cause of infant mortality, are due to a lack of safe water and basic sanitation. For every 1,000 children born in the DRC, 126 will die before their first birthday.

Sanitation also has a consequential impact on education, as a 2007 report by the ODI makes clear. Diarrhoeal diseases and parasites are often linked to a reduction in attendance and attention at school, either due to sickness of the child or a family member, with the burden of caring for relatives and going to collect clean water falling disproportionately on young females. Furthermore, girls will often deliberately avoid school if they cannot access female-only toilets.

The state, however, have neither the will nor the finances to provide this basic infrastructure. They justify the fact that sanitation attracts less than one percent of the already limited national budget by claiming that there is no public demand for it, but this is arguably due more to the cultural taboo that discussing toilet facilities still carries. The tangible desire for cleaner living conditions is evidenced by the fact that Karem and his workmates are all volunteers, working for free simply because the alternative is to watch their homes become swamped by their own waste. They are members of a NAPO (Noyau D’Action Pour Participation Populaire), a community group who work together to solve localised problems.

20-year-old Kaleb joined the NAPO because he was motivated by memories of flooding from previous years. “[During the flooding] there is no transportation and people can’t even walk on foot. You have to carry people on your back to get around as it comes right up to our waists. After the floods, people go to bed hungry as they are unable to get food. People are in a hurry to buy food now while it is not raining as they will be unable to get it when it rains. We are living in a very difficult situation.”

Kaleb does propose a solution. “We need to build a gutter and when it is built, the problem will be solved.” The gutter he describes is effectively a concrete version of the trench that already exists, and is common in the relatively wealthier areas of Kinshasa. However, even these less rudimentary gutters soon become clogged without accompanying sewers and solid waste collection. The ODI report found that Kinshasa’s public sanitation authority possesses just a single working rubbish lorry.

The NAPO in Ngiri-Ngiri has existed for three years, and each year its work is repeated. Without a state infrastructure to fall back on, their Sisyphean task is toiling simply to keep roads traversable and drains flowing, always knowing that the effects of the rainy season mean their labour is only a hard rain away from being undone. A permanent change will require a change in political priorities and with the DRC’s first ever local elections scheduled for later this year, the significance of the local NAPO leaders should not be downplayed.

While in the short-term NGOs have been forced into a situation where they are in a literal sense bailing out the worst affected communities, in the longer term these local leaders have the chance to redirect the political discourse towards cleaner toilets and sewage systems. Cities are built on their sewers, and if the DRC is to break Karem’s despairing assessment of its prospects, sanitation has to be seen not as an embarrassing problem, but as the foundation of good health and education. Jean-Michel Mvondo works for RECIC, a Civil Education network which supports NAPOs across the city. He says “Ngiri-Ngiri is one of the most unhealthy and dirty areas of Kinshasa and there is a serious problem with ditches of water, but we are convinced that good governance starts from the lowest level.”

Originally published in The Guardian, 23 July 2009.