Rebel groups looted and attacked major water supply plants during the outbreak of violence in Central African Republic. As taps ran dry, people were forced to turn to boreholes, which struggled with the increased demand. UNICEF had to find a solution, and fast. So we turned to local experts in the field.
We decided that there was only one way that UNICEF could supply sufficient water to the thousands of displaced people streaming in from villages to Central African Republic’s major towns. We had to restore pillaged water supply plants. And to do that, we needed the help of local experts like Henri Congo.
Having worked for the country’s national water distribution company, SODECA, for more than a decade, Henri knew how to fix problems at the pumping plant with materials he could buy at the local market. UNICEF provided the major infrastructure he needed, with the support of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).
With a length of wiring, a cheap electricity meter, a new generator and some fuel and chlorine – Henri was able to restore safe water to 45,000 people in one of Central African Republic’s major towns, Bossangoa. Henri is currently managing a second ECHO-funded water plant of Bouar in the north west of the country, and he has two more plants in Bozoum and Berberati to fix.
“The families I knew were suffering,” Henri told me. “There was no more water in the borehole. I had to do everything I could to give them water.”
There were doubts about whether this ambitious partnership would succeed, said UNICEF WASH specialist Freddie Mantchombe. Doubts about whether the team from the national water distribution company had enough experience in an emergency like the one they were facing.
“We said to the skeptics ‘Just wait and you will see’,” he said. “We were convinced it would work, and it did.”
The initial aim of the project was to provide the minimum 15 litres of water per day to each person displaced by the violence.
“But by helping SODECA we were able to help everybody access safe water,” Freddie told me. “If it wasn’t for the partnership, there would have been no water for months in these major towns in the interior of the country. The water processing company had been decimated, they couldn’t pay salaries, or afford to buy fuel and chemicals.”
Ninety per cent of the water supplied through urban water supply systems in CAR is supported by UNICEF – with the aim to help get SODECA on their feet again. People are starting to pay SODECA again for the water they use, and with that money, the company will be able to pay for staff and supplies itself.
As I drove around Bouar, tracking the water from the river, to the pumping station, to reservoirs and finally to the public taps which dot the town – I couldn’t help but be impressed. This was a project led by local experts. A short-term program which will help a well-run company regain its independence.
And in the meantime, water is flowing. Safe, clean water that keeps children healthy.
Madeleine Logan is a communications specialist who has been living in the Central African Republic since January.