RUNNING DRY: Booming informal trade of cross-border water sellers in Rwanda, D.R.Congo hit by border closure

By Fred W. Mwasa and Sylidio Sebuharara

An estimated 1.5 million people living in Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, don’t have clean water fit for human consumption. 

This, despite bordering Lake Kivu – one of the African Great Lakes with size more than 1,000 square miles. But the lake is heavily salty, unfit for human consumption. And there are no rivers in the region to provide a natural source of water. 

So for decades, the population of Goma has relied on water carried over the border from its small neighbor, Rwanda.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Rwandans and Congolese on bicycles, motorcycles and cars transported on a daily basis a vast amount of water. On any given day around Rubavu, the sight of jerrycans moving towards Goma was a common sight. 

While political relations between the two countries have often been turbulent, the flow of water – and business – continued undisturbed.

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda did not stop the water trade. In the 2000s, business continued even as political relations deteriorated, eastern Congo erupting into war. 

But the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic has effectively slowed the trade to a trickle – putting at risk more than a million people in Goma who depend on the Rwandan water for drinking, bathing and supplying their factories.

Young boy sleeps on top of jerricans in Goma

Changes to the border regime by Rwanda, the total lockdown and social distancing requirements – all measures to control the virus – has also had a devastating impact on hundreds of families whose livelihoods depended on sending water to DR Congo. 

Statistics from Rwanda’s water utility show that the amount of water going into DR Congo has dropped by 73 percent since the two countries closed their borders to combat the spread of Covid-19. 

At the beginning of March, Rwanda began border restrictions at its two main border points linking Goma and Rwanda’s Rubavu district. The border was eventually closed entirely, letting through only cargo. 

In Rwanda, while other regions have eased Covid-19 restrictions, the border districts with DR Congo remain closed as a result of a resurgence in infections from there. Rubavu district, bordering Congo’s Goma, and Rusizi district bordering Congo’s Bukavu, are closed off from the rest of Rwanda. 

The North Kivu Provincial government initially installed a so-called isolation of Goma strategy on April 4, closing the border except for cargo. A night curfew was mandated and only markets and drug shops were allowed to open. The measures have been so far extended twice, as local infections have increased. As of writing this story, North Kivu had 65 active cases, with 43 recoveries and 5 deaths. Nationally, DR Congo had over 6,000 cases, 861 recovered and 135 diesd, while Rwanda has just 798 cases, with 371 recoveries and just 2 deaths.

Goma civil society issued a statement on May 19 appreciating the provincial government’s decision not to impose a total lockdown of Goma. They said it would have had a devastating impact since Goma’s economy cannot sustain closure. 

But with the border closures, one of the city’s major sources of clean water was effectively blocked.

Ikibazo abaturage b’ i Goma bafite nuko amazi yo mu Rwanda yabuze muri ibi bihe cya corona virus , kandi niyo abonetse akaba ahenze cyane. Injerekani yaguraga frw 1000 cy’amafaranga yo Congo ubu iragura 2000 by’amafaranga ya Congo. (Audio story in Kinyarwanda by Sylidio Sebuharara)

The science behind the lack of water

The population of Goma has lacked usable water throughout its recent history. There are no river streams in the region. And although Goma borders the huge Lake Kivu, the water is not drinkable. A study published in the journal of geophysical research, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), in February 2007 explains that Lake Kivu’s structure means its water is heavily salty since it was formed. The situation was made worse by the 2002 eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano, which looms over the city. Various other studies share similar information.  

The fact that water from the lake is not safe for human consumption is common knowledge in Goma. Every adult speaks about it. The people in Goma have no option. For those who can afford buying water ferried from Rwanda, it is usually for cooking and drinking. The water from lake Kivu is used for washing clothes and other chores. The DRC 2017-2018 UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey shows that about 56 percent of the population in North Kivu province, which contains Goma, have a medium to high risk of the bacteria E. coli in their water, meaning it is not safe to drink. 

According to data from Water and Sanitation  Corporation Ltd. (WASAC), Rwanda’s national water provider, every month in early 2020, at least 2,100 cubic meters or 2.1 million litres of water was ferried across to Goma. This means, on every single day, up to 80,000 litres crossed to Congo. 

This is the amount of water that crossed officially. However, many villages living on the DRC side of the border get drinking water from colleagues on the other side, Rwanda. The amount of water crossing could have been much higher. Rural regions far north of Rubavu town toward the Virunga mountains share their water with Congolese on the other side. This flow of water is informal, as people in these areas live like neighbors despite being in different countries. 

North Kivu district of DRC was the only one in the entire country where almost 5 percent of households obtained their water from trucks, kiosks or as bottles, according to UNICEF data

Specific numbers of people employed by this sector were not available, but some estimates suggest hundreds to thousands of people were involved. About 350 people with disabilities working with Coopérative de Transporteurs Transfrontaliers de Rubavu (COTTRARU) in Rwanda used customised wheelchairs to transport goods across the border, including water. Powerful businesspeople bought trucks to transport water. It was such a lucrative business. Youth unable to find jobs hustled to get the money to buy a bicycle, which can carry up to eight 20-litre jerrycans at once. 

But this booming water trade came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of COVID-19. In March, the central government in Kigali required all Rwandans to stay home. The ensuing crisis forced a change in policy.

One of the few members of cooperatives still approved to carry water across the border

Rubavu district Mayor Habyarimana Gilbert and the local WASAC office agreed to allow a limited number of people to continue supplying water. However, they all have to belong to cooperatives. As of writing this story, there were only two Rwandan cooperatives: Cotramaru and Girubuzima. They have a membership of more than 20 people, all Rwandans and previously operating independently, but now required to work together. Also, Congolese have continued to come to Rwanda, operating as individual businesspeople. But fewer than five do so every day, compared to hundreds before COVID-19. These Congolese still operating are businessman with trucks, allowing them to buy water in large quantities. 

According to WASAC and local district officials, the cooperatives are meant to reduce the number of people traversing the borders so that social distance is respected. Previously, at any given time of the day, there were hundreds of people carrying jerrycans of water. It would have been impossible for both countries to control the flow. The measures, however, have not only killed livelihoods in Rwanda, but also left the entire population of Goma in a water crisis. 

For the month of April 2020, the plant in Rwanda where most water is obtained to take to Goma recorded just 300 cubic meters or 300,000 litres – an 86 percent drop in water that is ferried across the border. And by May, just 500 cubic meters of water was making its way across the border monthly – a greater than 70 percent reduction from March, according to WASAC data.

A large group of people make long lines waiting to obtain Rwanda water in Goma, DRC, during Covid-19

Due to this huge drop of available water, the cost of water in Goma has exploded to unbearable rates for many Congolese. Before the pandemic, transporters of water bought a 20 litre jerrycan at Rwf 73 or $0.07 at the plant. When the same jerrycan reached Goma, it cost between Rwf 150 and 650 ($0.16 – 68), depending on location.

Today, the price of a jerrycan at the source in Rwanda remains the same. However, in Goma, the jerrycan from Rwanda goes for as high as 2,000 Congolese Francs or about 1,000 Rwandan Francs ($1.07) – a five-fold increase. The price for a jerrycan of Rwandan water has become unbelievable in Goma. This is a rate far too high for the vast majority of Congolese, many of who live in squalid conditions.

According to the two cooperatives currently allowed to transport water to Goma, most of the water still being transported is prioritized for the border city’s factories, such as one making mineral water and several others making wines. A small number of the jerrycans are also taken to the Birere market in Goma. It is here that Goma’s elite, who can easily afford the costly jerrycan, come to buy for their homes. The rest of the population is left to fend for themselves. 

Water produced by Kilimanjaro Water Company in Goma

The region is only trying to recover from more than 20 years of war. There are another 500,000 internally displaced people who abandoned villages for camps around Goma. Since 2018, DRC has also been fighting an Ebola epidemic in the eastern provinces of Ituri, South Kivu and North Kivu, which contains Goma, although only 4 cases out of the total 3,470 were recorded in Goma and Nyiragongo regions.

John Mbuyi has a family of five including young children. The increasing price of imported water worries him. “The water from taps is relatively cheap but has a salty taste and the children cannot drink it,” he said, adding that before COVID-19, he bought a 20-litre jerrycan every three days at 1,200 francs for drinking water only since Goma is extremely hot. Today, he pays 2,000 Francs. 

There are water plants supplying to many neighborhoods. The Congolese water utility has put up public taps where water flows. At any given time of the day, there will be lines of jerrycans at these taps. A 20-litre jerrycan here goes for 200 Francs. 

According to the 2017-2018 UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, about 44 percent of the population in North Kivu spent more than 30 minutes walking or traveling to obtain water. Almost 20 percent spent between one to three hours collecting water. 

Juma Musindu has a family of six. He says water from Rwanda is not accessible for them because it is expensive and far away.

“Leave alone the issue of price for Rwandan water; us in Muja and people I know who live in Kibumba and Mugunga are located far from Lake Kivu,” he said. In these areas, people have to trek more than 10 kilometers to reach the lake, or they walk to neighborhoods with taps. Some spend nights at the taps waiting for their turn. 

During Covid-19, a few water sellers are also benefiting from the increase in prices for the imported water.

Brigitte, a mother of two, runs a water selling business for “Maji ya Rwanda” (Water from Rwanda) in the Katoyi neighborhood. She said: “Every Monday, the supplier brings me 20 jerrycans, which I sell off within four days in different small portions. Prices have gone up and that is good business for me. My children are in secondary school just from selling water.”

Another “Maji ya Rwanda” seller, Jules, whom we found in the water shop of Brigitte, said he buys the 20-litre jerrycan at 1,200 Francs and breaks it down into containers from which he makes a profit of nearly 2,000 Francs. 

One of the water sellers in Goma

Historical lack of water in Goma

The quest for water from Rwanda goes back to as early as the 1930s. The Belgian ministry for colonies established a Fonds du Bien-être Indigène, which attempted to find a solution to the problem of water in Goma. The Belgian colonial administration put the population of Goma at 20,000 people in 1947, according to archive information from the time. 

In 1933, Regie de Distributrion d’Eau et d’ Electricité du Congo Belge et du Ruanda- Urundi (Regideso), was established as the public utility to provide water and electricity in Rwanda, Burundi and then-Zaire (modern DRC) – all Belgian colonies. 

A small water treatment plant was constructed in Gisenyi, Rwanda on River Sebeya. It was built to prepare for the establishment of the beer brewer and soft drinks maker BRALIRWA, which opened in 1957. From the same plant, water was ferried to homes and small factories in Goma. There remains faded signs of the water plant today. The site is barely recognisable. 

Fast forward, in September 1976, Belgium brought together independent Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire to form the Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries (CEPGL). One of the first ideas was finding a long-lasting solution for the water problem in Goma. The solution was to use rivers in Gisenyi, Rwanda. 

A larger water treatment plant as well as a hydroelectric dam called Gihira 1 were set up in 1986 on River Sebeya. The plant was for BRALIRWA still. But it became an opportunity to send as much water to Goma. During the construction of Gihira I plant, two 200mm diameter pipes were put up, one entering Goma from each of the two border points which exist even today. 

However, the regional party did not last. In 1991, the Rwandan government of President Juvenal Habyarimana, through the country’s utilities provider ELECTROGAZ, turned off the water supply pipes to Goma due to lack of payment by Congo’s utility. 

In January 2002, a volcanic eruption on Mount Nyiragongo destroyed much of Goma’s public infrastructure. The water pipes were no more. At the same time, war had broken out in the whole of eastern Congo in 1996, as Rwanda battled former government troops and genocidal forces following the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Anti-Rwanda sentiments in Goma and other regions were at boiling points from then onwards. 

There was no water being pumped to Goma. With no need for the two pipes ferrying water from Rwanda, ELECTROGAZ (now WASAC) decided in 2004 to remove the pipes completely. The route of the two pipes is dotted with residential homes, streets and tarmac roads in Gisenyi town. 

But still, according to an official who headed ELECTROGAZ in the region for many years, but preferred anonymity because he has retired, hundreds of Congolese continued to trek to Rwanda daily for water. As part of a national water infrastructure project, the Rwanda government replaced the metallic pipes with heavy plastic ones. These ferried water to two water points set up at either of the two border posts. They were built specifically for this purpose. 

A water truck at the Rwanda border with DRC in Goma

There was no longer need for Congolese to enter Rwanda in large numbers looking for water, according to our source. However, in 2013, the government of Rwanda also stopped the pumping of water entirely to the border and closed the water points. At the time, relations between Kigali and Kinshasa were at an all-time low as DR Congo, together with various UN reports, accused Rwanda of fomenting war in eastern Congo through rebel groups. 

But that did not stop Congolese coming for water, which eventually led to growth of the water ferrying business that relies on individuals using trucks, motorcycles, wheelchairs and bicycles. 

Congo’s utility provider has a water plant in Goma which pumps water from Lake Kivu. However, Congolese water wholesalers who transport from Rwanda say the factories in Goma prefer Rwandan water.  One of the Congolese allowed to ferry water from Rwanda works for Kilimanjalo factory which packages mineral water in Goma. He said the factory prefers Rwandan water because it costs less to process, as compared to water from Lake Kivu that would require more complex cleaning including desalination. 

To ease the suffering of Goma’s poor, international organisations have stepped in to aid the struggling national utility. For over two decades, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been managing the supply of water in Goma. As recently as 2014, it was still working to improve the water distribution network of the city of Goma, in particular by opening two new pumping stations. It is said to be is serving some 500,000 people in Goma. The ICRC also has water supply programs for more than 85,000 people living in rural areas in the territories of Walikale, Masisi and Rushuru, in North Kivu province. 

These programs combined with imports of water from Rwanda may have helped Goma register a greater access to clean water than most of the rest of the huge central African nation. Statistics on water access from the UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys show that 68.5 percent of households in DRC’s North Kivu region had access to an improved water source in 2018, higher than 20 out of 26 sub-regions of the country. 

In the Western region of Rwanda that includes Gisenyi, about 83 percent of people were using an improved water source in 2017 – with a majority using a protected spring or public tap, according to the Malaria Indicator Survey by the Demographic and Health Survey program. But all five of the Rwandan regions had improved water access of greater than 70 percent, while in a majority of districts in the DRC, less than 50 percent of inhabitants had access to clean water. 

Water, a costly business today

With all these natural and man-made factors working against the people of Goma, the Congolese people continue to need water from Rubavu, Rwanda, putting a strain on the local water supply. At the moment, the Gihira 1 water plant in Rubavu produces 8,000 cubic meters of water, shared between Rwanda’s brewer BRALIRWA and the city of Gisenyi and also sent into Goma.

In the 2012 national census in Rwanda, Rubavu district had 430,000 inhabitants. That number may be much higher today. WASAC, the water provider in Rwanda, is currently expanding Gihira I plant to produce an additional 2,000 cubic meters of water. Another second Gihira II is also under construction to pump 15,000 cubic meters monthly. These are part of the government’s expected investment of USD $300 million to achieve 100 percent access to safe drinking water by 2024.

But until then, the cost of Rubavu and Goma neighboring each other will remain high. The reduced amount of water going into Goma, 500 cubic meters, is ever more expensive. 

One of the “Maji ya Rwanda” water trucks transporting water from Rwanda to Goma

Kasereka Makazi, one the Congolese businesspeople still allowed to ferry water to Goma, told us the changes introduced after COVID-19 emerged have brought new payment terms. Every route, he takes 5,000 litres of water. However, he is now required to pay Rwf 22,960 ($24.6) in cash to the Rwandan cooperatives, in addition to the Rwf 73 ($0.08) per 20-litre jerrycan to WASAC via bank payment for water at the plant. 

“These are new charges I have to pay. Not only is the money too much, up to this moment I don’t know why I have to pay those charges,” says Makazi. “Why do we have to pay money to the Rwandan cooperative yet it doesn’t give us any service?”

In addition to the new charges, Congolese trucks operate under unusually strict conditions while on Rwandan territory. COVID-19 instructions require the trucks not to stop anywhere inside Rwanda, from border to water plant and back. 

Munyantwari Mohamed, head of the Rwandan cooperative Girubuzima, says their Congolese counterparts are paying them because they facilitate them to get water from Rwanda. 

Murindabigwi Gilbert, the regional manager for WASAC, distanced the national utility from the decision to licence only two cooperatives to deal in cross-border water delivery. “The licencing is the responsibility of the district; our job is to sell water to those who have licence, and for us to be able to control COVID-19, the two cooperatives are the only ones for now,” said Murindabigwi.

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa and funding from the Pulitzer Center and National Geographic Society. Additional reporting and editing by Annika McGinnis.

This story was originally published on The Chronicles.