Congo River is a Life Source, Not a Garbage Dump

Ange Asanzi


Congo River, Kinsuka

The Congo River has a special place in the history of Congo – and to my own heart, as it is the river of my homeland. In fact the country is named after this huge river, the second largest freshwater river in the world, which covers 98% of DRC’s surface area. Yet today, this remarkable natural lifeline is suffering not just from the threat of large dams to come, but also the modern scourge of pollution. 

Day of Action, Kinshasa
Day of Action for Rivers banner in Kinshasa, March 2015.

On March 14, International Rivers joined local partners from the Coalition of Civil Society Organization to Follow Up Reforms and Public Action (CORAP) to co-host a day of awareness-raising on pollution as a way to commemorate the 2015 International Day of Action for Rivers. We chose to congregate on the shores of the Congo River, in Kinsuka, where we held a social and ceremonial event.

Historically, the population of the DRC has used the Congo River for trade purposes and to sustain their livelihoods – for instance using the river for water and fishing. This paradigm continues, and therefore the river remains an essential and integral part of the DRC’s population. As a young vender confided in me, she frequently transports her merchandise from Brazzaville (the capital city of the Republic of Congo) to Kinshasa (the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo). This is an additional benefit of the river – it separates two of the closest capital cities in the world, with Kinshasa on the southern bank and Brazzaville lying across. Growing up in DRC, my mom would tell my siblings and me tales about this extraordinary river, of how they swam in it and enjoyed themselves immensely on the river. Unfortunately, I did not get to experience the river so directly, as we moved away when I was a small child. However, I still harbor beautiful memories of the river’s role in my family’s lives.

Congo River, Kinsuka
Congo River, Kinsuka, DRC

As I longed to make my own experiences of the Congo River, I’ve been thrilled to travel to DRC for International Rivers’ work on the Inga dams, proposed for the Congo. But I shuddered when we arrived at the shore of the Congo River, in Kinsuka, for this recent trip. What shocked me was the amount of litter pollution that I witnessed. There were empty bottles, plastics and paper, cans and a lot more, thrown indiscriminately into the river. The river was murky and smelled of rotting waste; it was so repulsive that one would have nightmares of falling into the river. It made me sad to realize how much we have abused this resource and turned it into a garbage dump.

We Congolese really need to take action as a nation to protect our rivers.

Bitshaku-tshaku River, Bosindo
Bitshaku-tshaku River, Bosindo, DRC.

The same afternoon we visited Bitshaku-tshaku River. This river passes through an informal settlement on the peri-urban area of Kinshasa called Bosindo. This river is in far worse shape than what we witnessed on the shores of the Congo. It has become a cesspit – every form of garbage is dumped into it. Dwellings are as close as one meter from the river, close enough so that people can simply throw garbage from their home windows.  A local elder lamented how the river used to be very clean in the early 1960s and ‘70s. With the rise in population and pressure on the environment growing, along with a lack of governance, the situation has spun out of control, and people have lost any sense of pride or responsibility over their river. 

Most people seem to believe it should be the government’s responsibility to clean up this mess, but with a state that is dysfunctional, this task becomes a challenge. Clearly we all need to play a part.

Day of Action, Kinsuka
Rivers are in Our Hands photo from the 2015 Day of Action for Rivers in Kinsuka, DRC.

We gathered around Bitshaku-tshaku and reinforced our key message to the communities “rivers are not garbage dumpsites.” One of the interesting developments of the event was when a young girl from Congo Leadership Initiative (a local youth organization) passionately spoke-out against the ongoing pollution of the river. “Our irresponsible behavior affects the quality of water” said the young girl. “The river and us are one, if the river is dirty, then we will suffer the consequences,” she added. 

Sadly, while the DRC has abundant water resources, the quality of the water is extremely poor. Nearly all of Kinshasa’s rivers have become health hazards responsible for the occurrence of infectious diseases, including typhoid, because of human activity. Only 23% of people in DRC have access to safe drinking water and at this rate of pollution that percentage may go down. Communities and government must unite to save their rivers. 

Rivers should unite us. It is unacceptable that parliament can sit on a water policy for more than two years without passing it. It is a shame and like one citizen said to me, “If I reflect too much on what this country could be, I will die of stress. I try not to think about it”. 

My hope is that citizens become proactive. Not only lament on the state of the country, but also become actively engaged. Change is possible through inspired and united action. 

Day of Action, Kinsuka
Participants at the 2015 Day of Action for Rivers in Kinsuka, DRC.                              
Monday, April 6, 2015