The conflict in the Central African Republic follows a line that is the boundary between the savannah and the tropical interior of Central Africa. On that line is Bossangoa, a city at the centre of a range of conflicts that gripped the country in 2013 and 2014.
Residents fled to displacements camps and across the border to Cameroon and Chad.
When they returned, a horrific sight awaited them: Not only had their homes and schools been destroyed, and everything of value either taken or burned, but, in an act of perverse vengeance, the armed groups had thrown dead bodies of citizens who’d not been able to leave, down the wells, poisoning the water.
As a WASH specialist in Bossangoa, I have seen how the crisis has had lasting consequences for people’s health, well-being and survival. I know that clean water is key to rebuilding a nation.
In Bossangoa we started out with water trucking and we began building new boreholes. It was an exciting and ambitious project.
Because of the geography of Bossangoa, it’s impossible to dig a well 20 metres deep and find water. You have to go much deeper. UNICEF brought experts and equipment worth millions of dollars into a volatile, high-security environment.
Little by little, UNICEF’s boreholes started to take shape across the city. There are now 30 of them.
After the bores were drilled, each hand pump was assigned a coordinator, to organize the queue at the pump, and to make sure every person was being served.
Each pump was given a community association, with a treasurer and president who’re responsible for making sure that the pump is maintained. They collect a small fee each time a household fills up a bucket, also known as a bidon, and the money goes into a fund which helps to the community to respond quickly to fix the pump when needed.
Providing water is about much more than a physical commodity. Around the new boreholes, when people gather, they have no choice but to talk to each other, and to leave the past and the hatred behind. We’re not only building wells, we are also playing a crucial role into rebuilding peace and social cohesion in the city.
The project has changed the community in every way. The wells have created a space where community members can come together and talk about how water really brings them together and makes them connect to each other. If there are issues they get worked out, if there are disputes they get talked through. The water plays more than just the role of a primary ingredient to life, but it’s provided a primary base for the community to connect, to be together, and to use that time to reflect on what they’ve been through.
Three years on, the boreholes are all fully functional. The communities that manage these wells are all thriving and well on the road to recovery. Children benefit from drinking clean, easily accessible water; mothers know that their children are not going to get sick.
If you spend time at any of the pumps in Bossangoa, or anywhere around the community, you start to hear stories about how the water has changed their lives. You also hear sobering stories of the conflict. What was like when four of a woman’s brothers were killed, along with her husband? What was it like for people to flee for their lives, to leave everything they had, and then to come back and face not just the trauma of coming back to this place of extreme violence where they had experienced such horror, but to come back and find that they had nothing? And how, when they got back home, they did not even have the one thing that they needed most, which was water?
The story of Bossangoa has so many different layers to it; layers of pain, of conflict, of loss, and of resilience, but water played a key role in the recovery. There can be no schools nor health clinics without water.
I am very proud of the work we have been doing in Bossangoa. I am happy to see that, because of clean water, the incidence of waterborne diseases, such as diarrhea and parasitic infections, has decreased dramatically. And I am also very proud when I see the children going to school instead of having to wait on lines and walk long distances to find water.
Christophe Belandombi is a WASH Specialist in Bossangoa in northwest Central African Republic. He’s helped the community recover from the violence that ripped the town apart in 2013, and the new water systems are making a big difference for children.