Forced displacement and cholera in Katanga, DRC

Currently, 35,000 displaced villagers are dispersed along the eastern and western shores of Lake Upemba and on the banks of the Lufira river on the northern side of the lake. They fled their homes up to three months ago, after their villages were attacked and burnt down.

Since August and November 2005, a succession of attacks and military operations forced nearly 80,000 people to flee their villages in central Katanga. Over a third of the displaced population fled towards the remote areas of Lake Upemba next to the Upemba National Park, on the western side of Katanga.

Much of this zone is mosquito infested marshland, only accessible by boat and, in some cases, only by pirogue.

Currently, 35,000 displaced villagers are dispersed along the eastern and western shores of Lake Upemba and on the banks of the Lufira river on the northern side of the lake. They fled their homes up to three months ago, after their villages were attacked and burnt down.

So far no form of relief had reached these people, probably due to the difficulty in accessing the isolated marshlands.

Health centre for the displaced in Nyonga

In January 2006, MSF opened a health centre in Nyonga, on the western bank of Lake Upemba, to provide basic health care for people fleeing the violence, as well as for the local population.

The health centre includes 10 beds for the short term hospitalization of patients, as well as a maternity. Medical complications are transferred to a hospital in Kikondja, where MSF donates medicine and medical material for the treatment of patients. The MSF teams are also organising a measles vaccination campaign for 8,000 displaced children around Lake Upemba, and the distribution of non-food relief items (fishing nets, plastic sheeting, blankets, mosquito nets, cooking sets, jerrycans, etc) for the most vulnerable families.

Though most of the families fleeing the violence have been hosted and helped by local villagers, nearly 16,000 displaced people are living in terrible conditions without shelter or sanitation facilities, and lack basic items such as clothes, blankets, and soap.

Approximately 8,000 people are living on 'floating islands' in the middle of the swamps, and manage to survive on the fish they catch each day. However, from January until March, seasonal fishing restrictions will hinder people's capacity to cope. Additionally, as the rainy season starts to settle in, the lake shores as well as the dozens of small islands where people have found refuge risk being inundated by the rising waters, in which case the displaced will be forced to move again.

New cholera outbreak

As our team began setting up relief operations for the displaced in Nyonga-Upemba, news arrived of a cholera outbreak in Kikondja, 55 kms north of Nyonga.

Since December 1, 2005 there has been a cholera epidemic along the shores of the Congo river in Ankoro, northern Katanga, where MSF has rehabilitated and supports the general referral hospital. Since then MSF has treated 120 cholera patients in Ankoro and surrounding villages.

Though the number of cholera patients being admitted each week in Ankoro is decreasing, another outbreak has started in Kikondja and Mangi, hundreds of kilometres south of Ankoro, and 55 kms north of Nyonga (Upemba). MSF has deployed an additional emergency team in order to deal with this new cholera outbreak.

In 10 days, 340 patients were admitted into the two cholera treatment centres set up in Kikondja and Mangi, with 12 people dying. Cholera is endemic in this region, and outbreaks occur on a cyclical basis every few years. The last epidemic in this region was in 2002, when MSF teams treated 4,470 cholera patients in eight months. The precarious living conditions of the displaced in the marshlands around Upemba lake, leave them particularly vulnerable to this type of contagious disease.

Upemba is MSF's fifth relief operation in the DRC this year for people fleeing the recent violence in Katanga. MSF teams are also present in Mukubu, Pweto, Dubie and Mitwaba, bringing relief to tens of thousands of displaced who have fled attacks from Mai Mai militia and government troops.

Though Katanga, a province the size of France, has been the theatre of violent conflict for several years, it has received little international attention, and relatively few organisations currently provide much needed relief to the affected population.