Safe water for thousands from DRC

26th Oct 2012

Rwanda is famous as the country of a thousand hills, but arriving in Kigeme I wasn't quite prepared for what that meant for a refugee camp hosting more than 14,000 people.

To say the camp is striking is no understatement - thousands of shelters lie in neat rows on ridges dug into two hills, one of which is so steep it can only house shelters on three quarters of its slopes. Home to Congolese refugees who have fled an upsurge in fighting in DRC's troubled North Kivu region, Oxfam has been managing water and sanitation facilities across the camp, including running hygiene sessions to help prevent the spread of disease. In such a challenging terrain, this is no mean logistical feat.

Walking around the camp is a heartening experience. Despite having fled terrible conflict, life goes on. Numerous children line the pathways playing with homemade footballs constructed from plastic bags, while others pull toy cars made out of bottletops, or take part in elaborate games involving flicking stones at different targets. Entrepreneurial spirit is high - makeshift stalls have sprung up selling charcoal and other essentials. And in perhaps my favourite spot, there's even a 'guesthouse' selling tea.

In such a densely populated area, the risk of disease can be high. Yet there have been no recorded outbreaks of illness since the camp opened.

"Kigeme camp has been very clean from the beginning," Florence, Oxfam's Public Health Promotion Team Leader, explained when I asked how facilities were being managed. "Our team was at the camp when the first people began being transferred from the transit camp near the border. We greeted them at the entrance and handed out key messages about hygiene so they knew about the importance of keeping toilets clean and washing hands from the start."

This work has since been supplemented by training 40 Community Leaders to teach different areas of the camp about public health. They also help run a number of hygiene clubs for men, women, youth and children involving games and putting on plays to get important messages across.

Our staff also set up a series of waterpoints serviced by large water tanks sitting at the top of each hill. Water is piped to the camp from the city pipeline in Nyamagabe, 5km away, to a large tank in the Oxfam compound, using gravity. From here a diesel pump pumps water up to the top of one hill at a time; from there it's distributed down to a number of tapstands, staggered across the steep terrain so that no one has to carry water too far up the hilly pathways. Signs at each water point indicate specific opening hours and display hygiene messages about keeping containers clean.

We met Jeanette visiting a waterpoint on one of the steeper sides of the hills at Kigeme. Trained by Oxfam in safe hygiene matters, Jeanette now acts as a 'tapstand attendant', manning the waterpoint at fixed times when the supply has been turned on. "I think the most important part of my job is making sure that people don't play around at the water point, and also keeping the area clean. Before, people used to come here with dirty jerrycans, but now I make sure they clean them before they collect water - I think that's the biggest achievement of my job."

It's a small operation here compared to some of the larger emergencies Oxfam responds to, but it's also a unique one in a country not used to dealing with humanitarian programmes. While fighting and instability continues in DRC it's unlikely that these refugees will be returning home any time soon. As our team prepares to hand over its work to a local partner to maintain the systems they've set up, they're rightly proud of the work they've done.