Despite abundant natural resources and precious metals, including large deposits of tantalum, a vital component in cell phones and laptops, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is among the world’s most impoverished countries. Poor infrastructure, decades of civil war, and political corruption obstruct democracy and progress in the populous nation of 70 million people.

As is common in many war-torn countries, safe drinking water is a rare luxury in the Congo. The 2021 Mount Nyiragongo eruption left an estimated 1/2 million people living in the city of Goma without access to clean water. People living in the Congo’s rural areas consume contaminated water every day, which puts them at high risk of fatal waterborne diseases, including cholera. With so many endemic health conditions, one in ten Congolese children dies before their fifth birthday.

Women and children fetch water from numerous lakes and rivers in the Congo. Cooking and drinking are the most common water use in a household, with little being allocated to good hygiene practices. Only a handful of Congolese residents have access to proper toilets, which creates a near-unbreakable cycle of consuming contaminated water.

 

A Snowballing Disaster 

The 2021 Mount Nyiragongo eruption only served to worsen this crisis among the Congolese people. Termed Africa’s most dangerous volcano, Mount Nyiragongo, is an active volcano in the North Kivu province that last erupted in 2002. The 2021 eruption caused four hundred thousand residents to flee the city of Goma and the surrounding areas. The mass exodus was also part of the government’s effort to evacuate the city to minimize the risks associated with volcanic and seismic movements.

 

Exacerbating the Water Crisis

The Congo volcano eruption in 2021 left more than 32 people dead and destroyed more than 900 homes. In addition, lava flow from the eruption destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure, including Goma’s main water reservoir, roads, and power supply. By crippling the city’s water source, large parts of the city were left without clean water, denying more than half a million residents access to clean drinking water.

The locals who remain in the city are desperate, placing them at the mercy of heartless water vendors. With no water flowing from their taps, the remaining Goma residents are forced to pay exorbitant sums of money for clean water.

Unable to pay the outrageous sums, most Goma residents are forced to source their water from Lake Kivu, which involves a long trek to fetch water that poses a health hazard. In addition, because the residents don’t have an efficient water purification method, they are at risk of contracting deadly waterborne diseases.

 

A Precarious Situation

Water scarcity, intensified by the 2021 Mount Nyiragongo eruption, creates a precarious situation in the Congo’s mushrooming makeshift refugee camps. It’s estimated that almost 200,000 displaced people are sheltering in the neighboring town of Sake. Most of these people are sheltering in mosques, schools, churches, and even on the streets. Relief organizations are appealing for an enhanced supply of clean water to the refugee camps to avoid creating a crisis within a crisis.

A lack of clean water in these makeshift refugee camps exposes people to a higher risk of waterborne diseases. Cholera is endemic to these parts of the DRC, and now the threat it poses to the incoming population and the host communities has skyrocketed.

Nearly all the refugee camps hosting people displaced by the 2021 volcanic eruption have an inadequate clean water supply. They can barely meet the minimum daily requirement of 20 liters per person. The lack of water infrastructure makes it impossible to supply adequate water to keep the refugee camps clean and sanitary. The surging numbers of refugees quickly outpace the available clean water in the otherwise water-scarce region.

While the Red Cross, MSF, International Red Cross Society (IRC) are on the ground to help the refugees, they’re ill-equipped for the surging demand. The inability to provide each refugee with at least 20 liters a day increases susceptibility to waterborne diseases. In addition, it translates to declining sanitation and cleaning efforts, which could amplify the threat of waterborne diseases.

 

Combating Water Shortages in Refugee Camps After the 2021 Eruption

The sheer number of people displaced by the 2021 Mount Nyiragongo eruption makes it impossible for local authorities and humanitarian organizations to meet the demand for clean water. Surface water from nearby rivers and lakes remain the only viable option for most people. Despite being readily available, it’s not safe for human consumption—at least without boiling or adding chlorine.

Thirst Relief International has a biosand filter manufacturing process facility in Goma and has increased production to meet the needs of the displaced Congolese.

Chlorine is the most popular water treatment option in refugee camps, but it’s hardly an option in such resource-scarce settlements. Besides the cost implications, chlorine is a short-term solution with one major shortcoming. Recent findings indicate that chlorine concentrations used to purify the water, especially in Africa, don’t eliminate all bacteria. Current emergency guidelines call for 0.8 to 1.0 mg of free residual chlorine concentration for every liter of water.

Unfortunately, these guidelines are extrapolated from water systems in various cities, and urban settings and are not customized to the unique conditions found in refugee camps. For example, following an outbreak of waterborne diseases in South Sudan, researchers found chlorine decayed in 10 to 12 hours, a rate much higher than under average conditions.

In refugee camps, water is collected from a central point and ferried home in jerry cans for 24-hour storage. By then, all the chlorine in the water has decayed, exposing the refugees to a heightened risk of waterborne diseases.

While increasing the chlorine concentration in the water can help counter this challenge, it doesn’t entirely solve the problem.

 

Biosand Filters

Biosand Filters are a much more cost-effective, efficient, and reliable, clean water solution in times of crisis and beyond. Although slow sand filters have been around for many years, Dr. David Manz, at the University of Calgary, Canada, modified it in the 1980s, developing the small, portable designs that require virtually no maintenance used today. Within 30 days of usage, a Biosand Filter creates a biolayer that combats pathogens and removes contaminants from the water.

Thirst Relief advocates using Biosand Filters to help people living in refugee camps secure a reliable source of clean water. These filters provide a simple answer to pressing water needs because they use locally available resources. All materials necessary to build a Biosand Filter are locally manufactured or readily available.

One Biosand filter can provide clean water for ten or more people, and can cost as little as $100 to manufacture, deliver, and train users on its proper usage. Other than the occasional rinse, Biosand Filters are virtually maintenance-free. Thirst Relief can provide a household in a refugee camp with a sustainable clean water solution that uses concrete filters and has a lifespan of more than 30 years.

Biosand Filters allow communities to be self-sufficient instead of becoming reliant on humanitarian organizations. They only need to collect water from a nearby river or lake and pass it through the filter for a clean supply of clean water.

 

Save a Life Today After the 2021 Mount Nyiragongo Eruption

For less than a penny a day, we can help safeguard the lives of the half a million people affected by the 2021 Mount Nyiragongo eruption. There are many ways to empower them to live safely and rebuild their lives. From creating a fundraising event to joining an existing fundraising event, from donating a vehicle or boat to making a cash donation your generous contributions will help Goma residents stay safe and overcome this crisis.