People power brings clean water to Central African Republic

October 9, 2017

Years of conflict have decimated wells in Central African Republic, putting the population at risk of disease from drinking dirty water. But with a little bit of innovation — and a lot of people power — communities in the Kouango region are finally getting access to clean water.

When armed fighters came to Julien Dieudonné’s* village, he fled into the bush with his family. They lived in hiding for three months, foraging for food to survive.

Julien lives in Kouango in Central African Republic (CAR), a region decimated by conflict. Recently, soldiers attacked villages in the area, burning nearly 500 homes to the ground and forcing the population to flee for their lives.

The conflict has forced more than 600,000 people to flee their homes; many are living in crowded displacement camps without clean water or sanitation.

A scarce resource

Though Julien has now returned home, sporadic fighting continues to this day, and it’s taking a heavy toll on affected communities. Most worrying of all, the majority of water points (such as wells) in the area have been destroyed. A staggering 95% of the area’s population is without access to clean water.

Women carrying water from a Concern-constructed water point at Boyali, Central African Republic. The water point is now managed by the local community. Photo: Kieran McConville

Sadly, in CAR this situation is not uncommon. The population has been dealing with the impact of conflict since violence erupted in late 2012. Infrastructure across the country has been destroyed, and countless water points have been left unusable due to violence, disrepair, and overuse. In some villages, water sources were purposely contaminated by armed groups who placed the remains of the deceased inside of community wells. The conflict has also forced more than 600,000 people to flee their homes; many are living in crowded displacement camps without clean water or sanitation.

In all, 70% percent of the country’s population does not have access to safe drinking water, and three out of four people lack adequate sanitary facilities. That’s a total of 2.2 million people who need water, hygiene, and sanitation assistance.

Off the grid

But how do you bring water to rural, undeveloped areas? Many parts of CAR are quite literally “off the grid,” meaning there are no water pipes to connect to and roads are often in poor condition or nonexistent. So bringing water to these remote communities means drilling wells — a task that’s more difficult than it sounds. It requires money, technical expertise… and a very big drill.

Unsurprisingly, there are not a lot of mechanized drills in rural CAR. So Concern has pioneered the use of manually operated “village drills,” which rely on genuine people power rather than electricity. The drills are 33% cheaper than typical mechanized drills, and can be transported to remote areas and assembled on site.

Men assemble a drill

Julien (in gray) and the rest of Concern’s team assemble a mobile drilling kit or “village drill,” which is used to provide new water sources for conflict-affected communities in Kouango, Central African Republic. Photo: Kieran McConville

Harnessing people power

Of course, a village drill isn’t much use without a team to make it work.

When Concern arrived in Kouango, many people were still in hiding, afraid that violence would return to their communities. Julien’s family was among those who has returned, but he’d found that job opportunities in his town had all but disappeared.

“Now I can actually save some money for my children’s future. I’m saving for a small plot of land for a coffee plantation for them.”

So when Julien heard that Concern was hiring community members to form teams to manually operate the drills, he signed up. Now that he’s been trained, he and the seven other members of his drilling team are earning a fair wage — and twice what unskilled laborers make.

Here's how a village drill works

Powering more than drills

For Julien, drilling is a way to lift himself out of poverty.

“During the crisis, everything stopped and it was difficult to earn any money,” he explained. “Now I can actually save some money for my children’s future. I’m saving for a small plot of land for a coffee plantation for them.”

Best of all, the drilling teams have been set up for a sustainable future. The teams will one day become local associations that can be hired by other organizations. Julien and his team receive business management training in addition to all their technical training, and also learn about spare parts and tools so they can maintain the equipment over the long haul. In addition, the drills themselves are designed to be sustainable — running on manpower and using readily-available materials like rubble and gravel — and are much more environmentally-friendly than traditional mechanized drills.

Two children pump water

A Concern-constructed water point at Boyali in Central African Republic, which is now managed by the local community. Photo: Kieran McConville

“In addition to the money we receive now,” Julien explains, “we have learned skills particularly around maintenance. I like that I am part of a team as well — and hopefully we can continue to work together after the program is over.”

This year, Concern’s drilling teams will create 40 boreholes, providing clean water to some 14,000 people in the area.

*Names changed for security

Our work in Central African Republic

Concern has been working in CAR since May 2014 and has reached hundreds of thousands of people. The complex situation demands a holistic response, so we’re engaged in a range of activities, including:

  • Providing seeds and tools through seed voucher fairs
  • Improved farming practices (which we call Farmer Field Schools)
  • Supporting families to re-start vegetable gardening and fishing activities
  • Cash-for-work programs, which allow some of CAR’s most vulnerable people to access cash, while improving the country’s infrastructure (e.g. rehabilitation of roads)
  • Construction of and restoration of water points (such as boreholes and wells) that were damaged during the conflict
  • Teaching improved hygiene practices and promoting toilet construction
  • Treating acute malnutrition and illnesses in children under five and providing vaccination and maternal health services
  • Supporting community health volunteers, who do critical work conducting health and nutrition screenings and delivering health and hygiene messaging to their communities
Concern staff member holding five-year-old Mario Doutifed

Concern Nutrition Officer Grekpengou Mathilde with five-year-old Mario Doutifed and his mother, Remadere Clemantine, at a Concern-supported health centre in Boyal, Central African Republic. Photo: Kieran McConville

How you can help

We’re reaching as many people as we can, but hundreds of thousands more need help. Together we can expand our life-saving assistance to off-the-grid communities in need.