Collecting water – a child’s burden: DRC refugees in Uganda

Janna Hamilton

Blog post by Janna Hamilton

Oxfam New Zealand, Media Coordinator
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As conflict in eastern DRC has worsened in the past few months, people continue to flee across the border to Uganda. Oxfam is delivering clean water and sanitation in the Rwamwanja camp, now home to upwards of 25,000 refugees.

Children in Rwamwanja collect water. Photo: Janna Hamilton/Oxfam

In the heat of the midday sun, 5-year-old Innocent wobbled along the road under the weight of his full jerry can.

He and his group of young friends had set out to collect water at 7am that morning. Five hours later, the little water gang was returning back to their tents with the precious water their families will use for all their cooking, bathing, washing and cleaning that day.

Francise, six, said she doesn’t mind walking the four kilometer journey, nor carrying the heavy jerry can home: “If I collect water, it means my mother will be able to cook me food, so I don’t mind, but I wish the water tap was here,” pointing to the ground near her tent.

Rwamwanja settlement camp, now home to more than 25,000 Congolese refugees, is spread over 80 square kilometers of hilly terrain, and many refugee families are being settled far from existing water sources. Innocent and his friends have had no alternative but to collect water from the water pump that belongs to the host community in Rwamwanja.

Tensions about access to water have been growing

Oxfam’s water and sanitation engineer, Evarest Ochola, said tensions have been growing as more and more people are having to share the limited access to clean, safe drinking water.

Nyirahabimana, 47, said she has been shouted at when collecting water from the same water pump, and told to wait until all the members of the host community have filled up their jerry cans.

Despite this, Nyirahabimana said her biggest concern is sanitation. She points to a hole in the ground just a few meters from the tent she shares with her husband and 11-year-old son.

“Our latrine is unsafe – I know it’s unsanitary, but we don’t have anything else yet.”

What Oxfam is doing

  • Oxfam is drilling new boreholes and constructing water pumps within the settlement camp, so fresh, safe water will soon be flowing just a short distance away from where refugee families have settled.
  • In the meantime, 90,000 water purification tablets and bars of soap are being distributed – to help keep water-borne diseases at bay. Water will be constantly tested to make sure it is safe for drinking.
  • Oxfam is also training members of the refugee community in health promotion and maintenance of the water points, as well as providing job opportunities for refugees to help build much-needed latrines.

Bringing the water closer to the refugee community cuts off the time women and children spend walking to collect water. And increasing the number of boreholes on the edge of the camp will act to resolve any conflict over shared water resources – when it is safe for the refugees to return home, the host community will still be able to use the new water sources.

Related links

Blog: “I miss my husband” – DRC refugees seek safety in Uganda

Photos: Oxfam's work in eastern DRC

Oxfam briefing: "For me, but without me, is against me": Why efforts to stabilize the Democratic Republic of Congo are not working (pdf 957kb, 4 July 2012)

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo