The DRC contains 62% of the Congo Basin and has one of the highest volumes of fresh water in Africa . The Congo Basin is the second-largest river system in the world and supports millions of livelihoods through agriculture, transport, fishing, and timber . Surface water and groundwater are essential in the DRC for food security and health. Nearly 47% of the resources in internal renewable water in the DRC consists of groundwater .
The annual precipitation for the whole of the DRC is on average 1,070 mm. For the east of the country, it is higher and reaches on average up to 1,570 mm per year . The DRC contains around 30 major rivers, including the entire length of the Congo River .
Although the DRC is one of the most freshwater-rich countries in Africa, water security is low because of poor access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Lack of access and poor hygiene behaviours are among the top five risk factors associated with death and disability in the country . The DRC failed to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for both water and sanitation, and access is substantially below sub-Saharan regional averages.
Around 50 million Congolese people lack access to safe drinking water and 80 to 90% of the population lack access to improved sanitation . This is largely due to damages that infrastructure suffered during the prolonged conflicts, but climate change will likely exacerbate the situation by reducing water quality and increasing the incidence of floods, which will continue to damage available infrastructure.
In addition, open defecation, which has harmful consequences for health and the environment, is practiced by 12% of households and by almost a third of the poorest households in DRC .
A combination of several factors slows the improvement of sanitation and access to water in DRC, including traditional practices, natural disasters, outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola and cholera, and population displacements at the result of armed conflicts . Chronic conflicts in several provinces facilitate the spread of water-borne diseases due to large movements of population. The arrival of displaced people in host communities, with a low rate of access to drinking water, further increases the pressure on available resources . Knowledge and inadequate social standards also have a negative impact on health and hygiene practices .
Emerging evidence suggests that changes in the pattern of land use and climate change pose substantial threats to water resource availability in the Congo Basin. Activities such as deforestation, uncontrolled mining and settlements exert unprecedented pressure on the available natural resources across the basin scales as well as their natural variability and heterogeneity. The direct impacts of climate change, in the basin—such as changes in seasonal rainfall and temperature distribution, land use, hydrological regimes and water-use patterns— amplify the vulnerability of about 120 million people across the Congo Basin, who depend on rain-fed agriculture and basin resources for their livelihoods and socio-economic well-being. Predictably, the groups living in the most vulnerable situations, including women and girls, are the most adversely affected .
In early August 2021, toxic substances from three diamond processing facilities in neighboring Angola polluted the Kasai and Tshikapa rivers. Health officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo recorded thousands of diarrhea cases in central Kasai province after residents consumed contaminated water and dead fish from polluted rivers .
Key policies and governance approach
DRC has established a legal and regulatory framework for water management. At the end of 2015, the DRC passed a National Water Law. The law is based on Integrated Water Resources Management principles and the management of water resources at the river basin scale and lays the foundation for new reforms and sector policies. The policy framework includes a National Water Policy, a National Hygiene Policy, and a National Sanitation Strategy and Policy, and calls for a dedicated Water Ministry, with an independent regulator for water and sanitation services. The law recognizes that access to water services is a right for all. It also acknowledges the costs involved in providing water services and provides criteria for equitable tariff setting and cost recovery.
In addition, the law shifts responsibility for infrastructure to the provincial level and allows for private sector participation in water provision. Private sector engagement may increase innovation with regard to sustainable models of service delivery .
Water resources are also among the key sectors identified for adaptation interventions in the National Climate Change Policy, Strategy and Action Plan (PSPA-CC).
Successes and Remaining Challenges
The DRC’s new policy framework represents a major advance and an opportunity to increase water security and meet the country’s water and sanitation objectives. There remain, however, a number of key challenges associated with governance, equity, sustainability, and financing within the sector. A key bottleneck in the DRC’s water and sanitation sector is its poor governance. The sector struggles to absorb funding efficiently, hindered by weak institutions, outdated institutional frameworks, and a lack of qualified technicians and managers .
In addition, there is a lack of basic infrastructure, and freshwater resources are not well managed and are becoming degraded, with reports of seasonal shortages . DRC's rapid population growth rate will further impede access to basic services such as water and sanitation, with women and girls being disproportionately affected by lack of WASH .
Funding is another challenge for the effective management of water resources in DRC. The DRC’s WASH sector is relying heavily on external partners for both funding and technical assistance as donors provide almost 99% of the financing for the water sector in the country . Donors focus activities on water resource management, governance, water supply, access, and treatment .
Initiatives and Development Plans
Climate, water, migration and conflict have been the focus of a research and capacity building initiative in the DRC. “Addressing climate- and water-driven migration and conflict interlinkages to build community resilience in the Congo Basin” is implemented by the Congo Basin Water Resources Research Center -CRREBaC in collaboration with the United Nations University—Institute for Water, Health and Environment, under the financial support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) . The project aims to strengthen the resilience of communities to climate change by addressing the links between migration and climate and water-related conflicts, as well as provide research and policy support for the sustainable management of water resources .
The DRC and neighbouring countries (Rwanda and Burundi) are also leading a project financed by GIZ to support the integrated management of water resources in Lake Kivu and the Rusizi river. The project aims to improve the hydrological and operational management of the basin.
Goals and Ambitions
DRC’s objective in terms of water resources is mainly to ensure adequate water supply to the populations of major urban centers such as Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Kananga . The water catchment, production and distribution infrastructure in these areas are prioritized for rehabilitation and development.
- Improving water use efficiencies is key to safeguarding the ecological and physical functions of water bodies in the country. According to the World Bank, water management plans should consider the sector’s current and future vulnerabilities, and develop fit for purpose actions to manage water sources, in addition to addressing the geo-political issues surrounding the Congo River Basin .
- Research on water resources should identify water resource challenges and geographic hotspots of risk at community and regional levels to be used to inform adaptation efforts in the country.
- The lack of hydrological data across the Congo River system needs to be addressed and studies should focus on understanding the quality of surface and underground water resources.
- Water infrastructure should be targeted at increasing resilience. Investments made to water management need multiple benefits across sectors: agriculture, health, food security, and disaster management .
- Increase understanding of water resource threats and groundwater risks to improve long term management and improve water use efficiency in agriculture and urban management.
 Tshimanga, R.M. et al., 2021. An Integrated Information System of Climate-Water-Migrations-Conflicts Nexus in the Congo Basin. Sustainability, 13(16), p.9323. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/su13169323.
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 République Démocratique du Congo Ministère du Plan (2020). RAPPORT D’EXAMEN NATIONAL VOLONTAIRE DES OBJECTIFS DE DÉVELOPPEMENT DURABLE.
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