High Water Marks a Lesson in Relief and Global Climate Justice

High Water Marks a Lesson in Relief and Global Climate Justice

This is the season where the Congo River is at its highest.  However, this year the increase in water has wreaked havoc on the population living in the Equatorial forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second longest and deepest river in the world has swollen to unprecedented levels during the month of December.  The river’s many tributaries have also risen to very high levels. The river has swallowed up docks, homes and whole marketplaces. It’s an odd site to see a clothes line full of sheets and shirts in the middle of the river, until you realize it was dry land a few days, or even hours, before. Many of Mbandaka’s canals and streams that connect to the river are overrun with water causing major flooding of streets and neighborhoods. Villages in the interior have seen fields flooded and fishing canoes lost, impacting two primary sources of income – farming and fishing.  The high water has quickly become an emergency situation.

In addition to flooding and loss of property, the rising water has also heightened concerns of the health risks posed by such a huge amount of uncontrollable water. The onset of cholera, malaria and other waterborne diseases preoccupy the minds of the CDCC health and development departments. Sanitation and hygiene are at risk when high water and flooding overtake sewage and garbage ditches sending it floating down river to other populated areas.  This is why Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) have been added to the training curriculum where wells and cisterns are being installed by the CDCC. With this the CDCC technicians have been trained to go beyond providing water wells to communicating best practices for improving overall community health.

One might think that continuous, torrential downpours in Mbandaka have caused the river to crest.  Yet this tremendous rise of water has occurred with very little rain in the month of December.  In fact, it didn’t rain for three full weeks during the worst flooding; and it rained only twice in a 40 day period.  So where is the water coming from?  The simple and direct answer is from everywhere else.  The source of the Congo River is the mountain highlands of the Eastern Rift Valley.  From there the river is 4,371 kilometers long flowing north before heading southwest into the Atlantic Ocean.  The Congo River and its tributaries act as vast transportation network, but it’s also a massive drainage system covering an area of 1.6 million miles.  Mbandaka sits on the convergence of the Congo and Ruki Rivers where the water begins to pick up momentum toward the capital of Kinshasa some 586 kilometers away. 

It’s ironic that the United Nations was holding its Climate Change Summit in Paris this past December while an environmental disaster was taking place in the area of the world that many regard as a defense against global warming.  It underscores how poor countries like DR Congo are being impacted right now by changes in climate, and how their voices need to be at the table when discussing resources and methods to protect people, as well as, lowering carbon emissions.  In fact, much of Sub-Saharan Africa is acutely vulnerable to climate change where rising levels of water, drought, heat stress and tropical cyclones can become more intense affecting agriculture and livelihoods.  Seven out of ten Africans rely on agriculture, and 90% of agriculture depends on rainfall.  In a country like DR Congo, where poverty is extremely high, small changes in climate can have devastating effects.  

Meanwhile, in the coming weeks as the river recedes and the damage is fully assessed, communities in the Equator region will rebuild as they always have.  The CDCC’s response involves prevention against infectious diseases, improved community planning, river safety and protecting crops.  The effort builds on its asset of 30 posts scattered throughout the Equator Province to disseminate information, assist with resources (material, human and financial), convene community representatives and create a local coordinated response to high water flooding.

Thank you for your prayers on behalf of the villages, communities and families affecting by flooding.

Paul Turner serves with the Disciples of Christ in the Congo as a project consultant. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission, and your special gifts.