02 Sep 2016 Story Water

River basin management improves access to drinking water in DR Congo

Pilot project shows how drinking water supply and ecosystems can be protected by catchment-based Integrated Water Resources Management.

Nairobi, 2 September 2016: River catchment management is improving drinking water supplies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) thanks to projects implemented by UN Environment.

A catchment management demonstration project from 2013 to June 2016 protected and rehabilitated Lukaya River, one of the main watersheds supplying drinking water to DRC capital, Kinshasa.

Lukaya River is a vital source of drinking water for about 400,000 of the capital’s 10 million inhabitants, providing water to three major water treatment plants.

Situated in Kinshasa’s rapidly urbanizing southwestern outskirts, the community-led Lukaya River basin project helped established a community-based agroforestry scheme as an alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture; used vetiver bioengineering to stabilize gullies; and invested in hydro-meteorological data collection for catchment modelling, mapping flood risk zones and to improve flood forecasting and early warning.

“Protection of the river banks near the plant's water intake, and an end to polluted wastewater dumping from industrial poultry farming has significantly improved our capacity to guarantee good drinking water to Kinshasa residents,” said Mr. Nguisana Zikanda, Chief of Production, Lukaya water treatment plant at Kimwenza.

The project boasts the only functioning river discharge gauging stations in the DRC, offering a valuable training ground for young water professionals from both the DRC and the wider central African region. New major water infrastructure investments are also under way in the downstream sections.

In addition to safeguarding drinking water supplies, the project’s integrated approach addressed several core development challenges, including livelihoods and poverty reduction, food security and disaster risk reduction.

“Through this demonstration project we now know how to stop devastating gully's threatening our homes and schools; and with agroforestry, boost our cassava and beans harvest and produce honey, which we sell for a good price,” said Madame Kinja Beatrice, the secretary of the NGO Oeuvre Chrétienne pour la Femme (OCF)

A shared vision guiding the development of the Lukaya River basin was conceived through a participatory process by reconciling multiple and conflicting priorities for water and land use. Dialogue between different water users and linking water and land management is at the heart of the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach, accepted internationally as the way forward for equitable and efficient water use.

“I am proud of the River Users'Association of Lukaya. It brings us - we the people of the N'jdili Kilambu village - together with the people of other communes to reconcile issues of utmost importance,” said Honorine Kimpeyala, village chief in N'djili-Kilambu.

An IWRM-based river basin management plan was developed by the local community and endorsed by central government. It provides a clear road map, defining priority actions to be carried out over the next three years (2016-2018).

A strong argument in favour of river catchment management is made by the national public water company, REGIDESO, which says project interventions reduced its drinking water treatment costs. Environmental rehabilitation measures led to Lukaya water treatment plant downtime being reduced from an average of 300 hours to less than 40 hours per year. Reduction of organic and sediment pollution loads also helped reduce the plant’s water treatment costs.


“Seeing the results of the Lukaya catchment management project, REGIDESO is urging for replication of this approach in the larger N'djili basin, where we operate and are planning to construct Kinshasa’s largest water treatment plant,” says Jean-Louis Bongungu, national coordinator in charge of project implementation at REGIDESO. “Proper management of watersheds reduces water treatment costs and guarantees a better price for our clients.”

A January 2016 national water law mandates that water resources be managed at river basin scale. This should help promote replication of similar initiatives in the DRC’s priority watersheds.

The Lukaya River basin project was implemented in collaboration with the DRC Government, the Lukaya River Users Association, the public water utility (REGIDESO), local communities, and the University of Kinshasa.

UN Environment oversaw this first-ever catchment-based initiative in the DRC with support from the UN Development Account.

Tackling disaster risks through catchment-based planning
During the same period from 2013-2016, UN Environment and the European Commission piloted a demonstration project in the same area, which leverages ecosystem services to reduce the impact of possible future disasters (ecosystem-based Disaster Risk Reduction or Eco-DRR).

The project aimed to reduce flood and gully erosion risks and support community livelihoods by reducing disaster risks within an IWRM planning framework. 

Working jointly with the integrated catchment management demonstration project, the Eco-DRR pilot in DRC had four main components:

  1. Mainstream Eco-DRR in the IWRM Action Plan for the Lukaya River basin;
  2. Undertake field interventions, including reforestation, agroforestry and gully erosion control through bioengineering techniques;
  3. Develop local and national capacities for implementing Eco-DRR through IWRM;
  4. Support national advocacy on Eco-DRR through IWRM.

The project clearly demonstrated that Eco-DRR can be successfully applied through an IWRM framework.

DRC is the most water-rich country in Africa. Paradoxically, it has one of the lowest access rates to safe drinking water on the continent.  

“This project shows that catchment-based planning is part of the solution to resolving the country’s drinking water crisis. Its proposed expansion to the larger N’Djili basin is a concrete step to helping ensure better water access to Kinshasa’s rapidly growing population,” says Bienvenu Mulwa, senior water expert at the Ministry of Environment.

With government, investors and communities eager to implement catchment-based planning to safeguard water infrastructure, river basin management has finally arrived in the DRC and the Central African region. What is needed now is increased and better coordinated finance between development agencies and governments to foster and scale up these efforts.

“The future for catchment-based IWRM in the DRC looks bright, it’s finally taking off,” said Mulwa.

Project highlights
Four tree nurseries were established, producing 42,000 seedlings (forestry and fruit trees) per year.

Community agroforestry system was established on over 15 ha and will be expanded through a benefit sharing and revolving fund system. This system was introduced for the first time in DRC and has unique, innovative features.

Vetiver bioengineering, implemented in collaboration with local neighbourhood committees, was pioneered in the Lukaya River Basin to reduce gully and river bank erosion.

A green buffer zone was established at the REGIDESO water treatment plant in Kimwenza to reduce river bank erosion and sedimentation.

Lukaya River Users Association was strengthened and restructured into functional sub-committees and gained legal status, more visibility and legitimacy.

For more information, please contact Hassan Partow: Hassan.Partow [at] unep.org

Want to learn about the ecosystems approach? An online learning opportunity is coming up in September.