As It Happens·Q&A

Congo's volcanic eruption has left 500,000 people with no clean water, says aid group

Aid groups in Congo say the country is in desperate need of clean water. 

Doctors Without Borders says the situation could lead to outbreaks of cholera

Children line up for water given to residents displaced by the volcanic eruption of Mount Nyiragongo. (Guerchom Ndebo/AFP/Getty Images)

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Aid groups in Congo say the country is in desperate need of clean water. 

The volcanic eruption on Mount Nyiragongo on May 22 shook the African nation, killing at least 31 people and destroying thousands of homes in the eastern city of Goma.

It also damaged water pipes from Goma's main reservoir, leaving roughly 500,000 people without clean drinking water and at risk of catching cholera, according to Doctors Without Borders. 

Juliette Seguin, the country director for Doctors Without Borders in Congo, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Wednesday from the capital city of Kinshasa. Here is part of their conversation. 

This volcano is considered the most dangerous volcano in Africa. Is it still erupting?

There is no more eruption. What happened after the eruption was an intense seismic activity for several days that slowed down, I would say 24 to 48 hours ago. Still not over, but there is no more lava flow.

How much damage has it done to that area near Goma?

It is estimated that more than 3,600 houses have been destroyed because of the lava. And one of the main [types of] damage ... caused because of the lava was the damages on one of the main water reservoirs for Goma that was providing water to an estimated 500,000 people.

So does that mean there's half a million people without a source of clean drinking water? 

We have half a million people that were before accessing water from this reservoir that no longer have access to it.

This aerial photo taken on May 30 shows the column of ash expelled from the crater of the Nyiragongo volcano. (Alex Huget/AFP/Getty Images)

So what are people there doing for water at this point?

You still have neighbourhoods that have access to water, so there is a way to access water. But one of the main issues is also this massive displacement of population that left the city of Goma following the announcement of ... the official evacuation. 

Access to water for these people that have been displaced so that they are no longer in their homes, in their neighbourhood, is one of the main issues.

So this is why one of the big humanitarian needs is to provide access to safe water to these people.

All the basic needs need to be covered urgently, immediately, for the people that are displaced, meaning food, non-food items, shelter.- Juliette Seguin, Doctors Without Borders 

And so if there's no clean drinking water, there's also not much sanitation. Are you concerned about cholera at this point?

Obviously, we are concerned by cholera, but in general, by [any] waterborne diseases that could spread among the displaced community, the displaced population, but also what we call the host community, so the population that is still living in their houses.

It is important to know that cholera is endemic in several places in [Congo].

This is why [Doctors Without Borders] called to scale up the humanitarian response and access to water, because lack of sanitation, lack of water, could be a source of cholera outbreak.

Displaced Congolese civilians receive water at a distribution point by Doctors Without Borders. (Doctors Without Borders/Reuters)

There's a great deal of poverty. There are a lot of people. And not many resources. So I'm just wondering how, if you've got hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced, where are they staying? How are you caring for them? How are they being accommodated?

What we see on the ground is that people are sitting in some churches, in some schools, in informal settlements with what they can get ... to protect them a bit. But some people are just outside in some very critical situations.

Drinking water, obviously, but what are the most demanding needs right now that you're trying to provide for these people who have been displaced by this volcano?

We focus mainly on the provision of water sanitation as much as we can, and on the free health care. But all the basic needs need to be covered urgently, immediately, for the people that are displaced, meaning food, non-food items, shelter, etc.

What medical issues that you're dealing with? Were people affected by the gases — some of the fallout of the volcano itself, of the eruption? Are people still suffering from that?

There is concern around acute respiratory infection, because it's cold in this part of the country.

There is concern around diarrhea because people may not drink or eat appropriate or safe enough food or other safe water. So it's also all the basic medical needs that need to be urgently covered, because if you don't cover the basic health needs, it could escalate and create more medical needs, acute needs and more mortality.

A Congolese woman who fled from recurrent earth tremors after the volcanic eruption of Mount Nyiragongo shelters inside a church in Sake town, near Goma, on May 28. (Djaffar Al Katanty/Reuters)

There's just so much these people are up against. I understand as well this is an area where there it's volatile. There is regional violence. There are militias. How insecure are people from that point of view?

The city of Goma, as itself, can be insecure, but I will say not the most insecure area of this part of the country.

But many parts around Goma are, indeed, facing clashes and fights between the regular army and armed groups. So it should remain a concern for people that have been displaced in some remote location.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Niza Lyapa Nondo and Sarah Jackson. Interview produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo. Q&A has been edited for length an clarity. 

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