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FEATURE STORY April 20, 2020

Tackling COVID-19 (Coronavirus) with Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in DRC

Preparations for screening and preventing potential coronavirus (COVID-19) arriving in the Democratic Republic of Congo from Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. Photo: © Hugh Kinsella Cunningham/World Health Organization

Preparations for screening and preventing potential coronavirus (COVID-19) arriving in the Democratic Republic of Congo from Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. Photo: © Hugh Kinsella Cunningham/World Health Organization



  • A lack of safe access to water and sanitation makes DRC particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • The World Bank is providing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services as part of the pandemic response.
  • Key elements of this include focusing on healthcare facilities, funding water points and utilizing digital tools.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is Africa’s most water-rich country, yet many of its people have no safe access to this precious resource. Coupled with a lack of access to sanitation and hygiene, this is putting millions of people at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus (COVID-19). That’s why the World Bank’s rapid response to the threat the pandemic poses in the DRC has a focus on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). 

In early April, the World Bank’s Board approved an initial 25 projects to help countries respond to the coronavirus and shorten the time to recovery. Among these was the DRC Strategic Preparedness and Response Project (SPRP.)

The project aims to ensure that doctors, nurses, staff, and patients – both those with COVID-19 and people seeking treatment for other maladies – have access to water, sanitation, and hygiene at health facilities. All too often, WASH services are lacking even in these places where people go to seek treatment. Available data for the DRC shows that at least half of health facilities lacked basic water or sanitation. During an infectious disease outbreak, ensuring these facilities have a reliable and safe water supply as well as soap allows medical professionals to provide care safely while also protecting their own well-being. 

Existing projects are also being leveraged for the pandemic response. These include the DRC Urban Water Supply Project, which is helping increase sustainable access to drinking water in three urban centers. It now includes financing for 20 new shared water points in densely populated areas that currently lack access. Large water storage containers are being supplied by tanker trucks, which the utility already owns. 

This approach provides an effective and efficient way to reach a large number of people. The infrastructure it sets up will remain in place, so that once networks extend to these areas, the existing standpipes can easily be connected. Dozens of new handwashing stations in public locations such as markets and large intersections will also be financed.   

A communications campaign is underway to ensure that people across the DRC know about the importance of handwashing and physical distancing. Television and radio announcements as well as social media and messaging platforms – such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp – will spread the word, with news and guidance from the WHO and others. Community networks – vital elements of social fabric – are supporting these efforts to help ensure that nobody is left out. Their leaders can be powerful advocates within their communities, and are adding their voices to those of religious leaders, artists and sportspeople already mobilizing around this issue.

In recent years, Ebola spread across communities in DRC that were already beset by the severe hardships of extreme poverty and insecurity. Lessons from these outbreaks are informing the response to COVID-19. The government has mobilized quickly, with the Ministry of Health sharing information via SMS and producing a frequently updated tracker, so that the number of cases and hotspots could be captured and shared.

The World Bank and the DRC government are working with development partners including ENABEL (the Belgian Development Agency), UNICEF, and Oxfam, all of whom have years of experience of providing WASH in emergencies. Leveraging each other’s strengths and coordinating closely ensures that resources are better targeted and service delivery is more effective. Additional investments will also be made to fund further work with Oxfam. 

Because the new SPRP is tackling a pandemic unlike anything in living memory, it is adopting the principles of adaptive management – responding in real time to changes in the operating environment. This iterative approach, constantly attuned and adjusting to new information and feedback, will be a core part of delivery.

The World Bank’s multidonor trust fund, the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership (GWSP), has also helped shape the Bank’s rapid response through the SPRP, both through its knowledge briefs and its WASH Poverty Diagnostic for DRC. The diagnostic shows how the lack of WASH services has stalled the country’s human development outcomes, and it pinpoints the binding constraints to service delivery. Addressing these urgently can be the difference between life and death, during the pandemic response and for years to come.