With average rainfall of 85 inches annually, one would think water would not be a problem in Mbandaka, capital of Equateur Province in the Congo. But rainwater catchment systems are rare in the city of 700,000 plus persons and Regideso, the public water utility has been unable to upgrade its infrastructure since the original installations of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Only 5 per cent of Mbandaka households are served by Regideso. In the country as a whole, only one third of the urban population now enjoys running water; that figure has declined from 68 per cent of urban Congolese with tap water in 1990. Outside Mbandaka, the only other city in Equateur Province with running water is Gemena and from 1990 to 2009 the system there did not function.
This past summer in Mbandaka, my bathroom water barrel was kept full thanks to a large cistern on scaffolding just outside the window. Regideso supplied the water for the cistern but only every other day for a few hours. Were it not for the payments from the Bralima brewery (owned by Heineken) in Mbandaka, Regideso managers say they would be out of business. Drinking water in plastic bottles was purchased for my household, a leading item in the budget.
Warfare in Equateur and in the eastern Congo has contributed to the decline in water delivery systems. With only ten per cent of the estimated 5.4 million deaths in eastern Congo from 1998 to 2006 due to the violence, one wonders how many of the deaths stemmed from typhus, cholera, dysentery and diarrhea transmitted by contaminated water.