Water Resource Management and Climate Change in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo: The Case of the Ruzizi Plain
Bienfait Kazamwali Mukamba, Researcher, Groupe d’Etudes sur les Conflits et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH) based at the Centre de Recherches Universitaires du Kivu (CERUKI) at the Institut Supérieur Pédagogique (ISP) of Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo
Climate disturbances are at the root of long periods of drought as well as heavy rains in many regions of the world, both of which threaten human security. The Democratic Republic of Congo is not spared from this reality. The Ruzizi Plain in South Kivu Province is an area populated by several ethnic groups, most of whom are farmers and herders, as the soil is very rich. However, for some years now, this region has been experiencing serious seasonal changes, such as six to nine months without rain followed by heavy showers that ravage houses and fields and sometimes kill people.
This situation is at the root of insecurity and tension within the local population. The long periods of drought cause a shortage of water for farmers and cultivators as well as for the rest of the local population. Heavy rains, on the other hand, cause flooding of houses, fields, and people, resulting in homelessness, starvation, and loss of life. These climatic disturbances in the region undermine the security of local populations; they also cause conflict between ethnic groups over water and exacerbate other pre-existing issues. The main question to be asked is: Faced with the effects of climate change in the Ruzizi Plain, how should water be managed?
The Ruzizi Plain is located to the north of Lake Tanganyika, between the high mountains of the Congo-Nile ridge on the Burundian side and the Mitumba mountain range in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Due to its latitude, the Plain should enjoy a humid tropical climate. However, as it is located to the west of the CongoNile ridge, it receives very little of the maritime influences brought by the trade winds from the Indian Ocean (Mashika, 2000). It therefore has a semi-arid climate and frequent annual rainfall deficits that significantly affect the productivity of the local population, which is made up of numerous ethnic groups, notably the Bafuliru, Bembe, Bavira, and Banyindu, the majority of whom are farmers, and the Banyamulenge and Barundi, most of whom are livestock breeders. In addition, the Plain experiences a late and sometimes abrupt return of rains (Cirimwami et al., 2019) resulting in flooding, landslides, and erosion. The question of how to manage water resources in the face of these climatic disturbances is critical.
I use multiple methodologies to address this important question. First, I examine the current scholarship on environmental issues related to the impact of climate change on water resources. Then I present my qualitative data collected through individual interviews and focus groups with key actors and organizations (farmers, herders, local administrative authorities, farmers’ organizations, religious denominations, and civil society actors). My study area consists of Katogota, Luvungi, Bwegera, Luberizi, and Sange. The choice of these sites was based on their sensitivity and importance in relation to the research theme, as their context best illustrates climate issues. Finally, I used the technique of direct observation in the Luberizi area’s rice irrigation canals to get a feel for the reality of certain information collected.
In this essay, I present the field results that reveal how water shortages (drought and deforestation) generate or exacerbate tensions within the community and the ways in which these conflicts are resolved. The essay concludes with a global analysis and some recommendations from those who participated in interviews and focus groups.
Water Shortages: Drought and Deforestation
Anthropogenic practices and activities that are detrimental to the environment cause climatic disturbances that result in prolonged drought. In the Ruzizi Plain, infrequent rainfall has been observed throughout 2021. There was not a single month with abundant rain. In contrast to historical patterns, the dry season spanned all months of the year, from January to December. This situation has resulted in the degradation of the vegetation cover. The problems caused by intermittent rain, notably the lack of water (for the local population) and grass (for the animals)—as well as low agricultural productivity—have produced conflicts within the community, especially the famous tensions between herders and farmers. Some herders, in search of pasture for their cattle, do not hesitate to destroy the crops of the farmers.
The practice of denuding areas that were once covered by trees in favor of either agriculture or housing, or both, has also played a major role in the disruption of rainfall. On this subject, the Secretary of the Itara-Luvungi Group explained: “In the old days, it was difficult to see two successive villages here in Luvungi with the naked eye. This is because there were trees almost everywhere. But nowadays, following the deforestation, one can see two or three localities from a distance with the naked eye.”
The Ruzizi Plain region has several rivers. The Ruzizi River, from which it takes its name, is the main river that runs along this region and empties into Lake Tanganyika. Several other small rivers cross the plain from the mid and highlands. These rivers together constitute the water resources for the populations of the region. Farmers use them to irrigate their fields in the dry season, and livestock breeders use them to water their herds. For the inhabitants, in addition to the water from the boreholes, these rivers also serve as a source of drinking water.
For example, in Sange, the Association des Consommateurs d’Eau Potable de Sange, ACEPS for short, is the main organization distributing drinking water in the town. However, ACEPS is no longer able to serve the entire population, which has doubled in number in a situation of climatic disturbances related to the environmental degradation of recent years. According to the chief of the Kajembo neighborhood of Sange city, despite the rotation system instituted, there is still a shortage of drinking water in the city’s eight neighborhoods supplied by ACEPS (Rutango, Museni, Kibogoye, Kahungwe, Kinanira, Kyanyunda, Nyakabere I, and Kajembo). The neighborhood of Nyakabere II, unlike the other eight, is supplied with drinking water by the Maji Ya Amani Project.
Another example comes from Luvungi, where there are several drinking water points spread throughout the villages, which can only be accessed after payment of a monthly fee. At the time of our visit, the service responsible for distributing this water had raised the price per month from 500 Congolese francs to 1,000 Congolese francs. A pastor of a local Protestant church complained: “This increase is considered arbitrary by consumers, especially as the purchasing power of most of the local population is low and they are therefore unable to raise the sum. This situation is at the root of the tensions between the local population and the local authorities, who are accused of mismanaging drinking water.” And the Civil Society coordinator added: “In addition to this mismanagement, there is also a shortage of water in this entity due to the fact that the pipe coming from the catchment source in Lubarika is blocked by fields, which is also used for irrigation in the dry season.”
There are several rivers in the Ruzizi plain that provide water for irrigating fields and for drinking, such as the Sange river. The head of the environment department of the Sange township told us that an irrigation canal from the river has been built for the rice fields and where the cows also come to drink. However, during the dry season, irrigation water can be a source of conflict between farmers. In this regard, the president of a local agricultural cooperative told us that: “In the rice fields in Kiringi, Rurambira, Ndogombo, Kahuli, Rugoze, etc during the dry season, farmers tend to each appropriate a larger quantity of water to irrigate their fields, which creates tensions between them.”
Finally, flooding (and the resulting erosion) in the Ruzizi Plain threatens the human security of the local population. The heavy rains of the last three years, which preceded our visit to the area, washed away fields and houses, causing famine and the displacement of the population. On this subject, a geography teacher in a secondary school in the area, himself a victim of these floods, described the situation in these terms: “Several houses in the Lumumba III, Ruvubu II, Bandare I and II, Majengo I and II, Adra, Rugobagoba, Itara I and II neighborhoods in Luvungi, were destroyed due to the lack of a good drainage system, which caused the waters of the Ruvubu, Kamujeri, and Kise rivers to overflow as a result of the rains. Several fields cultivated in swamps were also destroyed as a result of the floods. This situation was at the root of a considerable drop in harvests and the displacement of the victims to other districts.” And Pastor Mwagalwa added the following: “Beyond the famine and the displacement of populations that these floods can create, they are also a source of conflicts between victims when it comes to reconstituting or re-measuring the affected plots of land.” A resident of Sange added that the same scenario had occurred in the Nyakabere II neighborhood of the Sange district.
From the above, the observation of the parish priest of the Catholic parish of Sange was that “in general, the lack of water channels from the rivers was the cause of flooding and erosion during heavy rains, destroying the entire ecosystem of the region.”
Resolving Water Access Tensions
Competition over water is a source of tension in these communities, as everyone needs to have access to an increasingly scarce resource either to irrigate their fields or to use in their households. For example, in Sange, mothers argue over the water standpipe and sometimes fight for access to drinking water. On the other hand, in Luberizi, Luvungi or Bwegera, tensions between farmers arise around irrigation water.
Farmers’ committees have been set up to regulate issues related to irrigation water and to resolve the resulting conflicts. If necessary, those conflicts can be transferred to either local authorities or ad hoc NGOs, or both, which proceed to reconcile the concerned parties. In this regard, a block leader in the Luberizi farmers’ cooperative, COOPALU for short, told us the following: “With the support of ZOA, a proposal for an irrigation schedule in Luberizi is being prepared. This will allow all farmers to be served in turn, i.e., by rotation. Also, the block leaders are circumventing conflicts between farmers through a series of sensitizations.”
As for the resolution of tensions resulting from access to drinking water, once again, it is the local authorities who take charge in collaboration with the organizations set up to distribute water to the inhabitants, like with ACEPS in Sange.
Finally, due to the almost total lack of national policies for managing conflicts related to access to water in the different localities mentioned above, this issue remains the prerogative of local initiatives. Associations and committees have been set up for this reason by the local population with the support of some NGOs working in the sector of conflict resolution.
The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs for short, set out a pathway to a better and more sustainable future for all by 2030. They address global challenges including poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, peace and justice. Guaranteeing access to water for all and ensuring sustainable management of water resources (SDG 6); combating climate change (SDG 13); preserving and restoring terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, and halting the loss of biodiversity (SDG 15); remain especially relevant goals for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The palpable effects of climate change in the Ruzizi Plain are due not only to the geographical location of the region but are also exacerbated by anthropogenic activities on the ecosystem. The systematic felling of trees for economic needs or for construction and development to deal with the multiple movements of populations in the region (refugees, displaced persons, farmers, herders and transhumant herders for example) could be at the root of the climatic disturbances. Moreover, reforestation remains almost ineffective.
This phenomenon is at the root of the extreme weather conditions that result in interrupted rainfall for several months on the one hand, and the return of the rains on the other, which is sometimes sudden and causes flooding. In both cases, this situation affects the natural resources in the region, particularly the water resources that are essential to the lives of the local populations.
This dynamic poses great challenges to the management of resources, which remain to be met at local, national, and international levels as recommended by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Members of local communities who have taken the lead in trying to resolve these challenges have offered suggestions such as developing water pipes in the neighborhoods that suffer from flooding during the rainy season and taking care of the victims. They also suggest that creating irrigation channels for fields in swampy areas would allow year-round cultivation, even in the dry season, which would increase harvests and help eradicate famine. Another suggestion is to regulate the supply of drinking water throughout the region in order to curb shortages and the harassment suffered by the local population. Addressing the water challenges will require sensitizing farmers about reforestation through ad hoc local associations and cooperatives to remedy the problems of climate change, which are the main cause of transhumance in the Ruzizi Plain.