Education in the Congo? - Just add water.

I’ve just returned from a visit to Goma, a city of 1 million people in the east of the ironically named Democratic Republic of Congo.  As across the entire country, Goma is beset by institutional corruption and subject to constant flare-ups of tribal warfare.  In addition, Goma’s geographical location places it in the lee of Africa’s most volatile volcano, Mount Nyiragongo, which last erupted only 15 years ago destroying 40% of the city, and next to Lake Kivu, one of the 3 lakes in Africa known to be subject to Limnic Eruptions; a catastrophic release of CO2 from deep lake waters that can suffocate humans, livestock and animals.


Surprisingly, there are a number of schools but few young children are able to attend them.  Most of the population collects their daily supply of water from the lake.  A family of eight uses a substantial amount of water and when this has to carried long distances, with women and children typically spending up to 6 hours each day on the round trips, there is little time for the remainder of the day’s essential tasks, including education.  The little water available in one of the neighbourhoods I visited had to be purchased at a huge cost.


What a place.


One of the reasons for my visit was to look at a new public/private partnership between Mercy Corps, a Global NGO and a Congolese water company to run a water distribution system which has been created with the help of, among others, the British Government.  The structure of the public/private partnership will ensure the system continues to operate sustainably once it is complete and doesn't fall into immediate disrepair, as can happen if distribution systems are not maintained.  All things being equal the partnership will break even.  It is a real achievement.


As a result of the investment about 1/3 of the population now has access to affordable, clean water from stand pipes within 250m of their homes and as the program continues this will be rolled out across the remainder of the city. 


The impact of the partnership is far greater than simply clean water:


  • The unsanitary conditions inevitably lead to outbreaks of cholera with diarrhea being the primary cause of death among the under 5s.  Having the ability to improve hygiene will help the residents of Goma to address these problems.


  • The women and children collecting the water were frequently subjected to sexual violence.  They are now able to safely collect water in their own neighbourhoods.


  • The six hours per day spent collecting water can now be used more productively.  Talking to families in Goma where the standpipes have been installed, this extra time has had a huge impact on their ability to care for and feed their families.  It has also given their children the opportunity to go to school and get the education which will eventually help them pull their country out of the spiral of violence and corruption that besets it.


There are two important lessons to be learned from the success of this partnership.  Firstly, spending money on infrastructure projects in complex places may make the donor feel good but if a mechanism isn't put in place to make the project sustainable, the money will probably be wasted. Secondly, if you want to educate children don't assume building schools is the answer or the eradication of disease requires medical intervention.  It is vital to first understand the root cause of the problems before diving in.