Covid-19 Impacts in the Democratic Republic of Congo | Crisis to Opportunities Series

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The global Covid-19 crisis has shed a light on the deep-seated inequities in the way our rivers and the people who depend on them are treated. With the exposure created by this crisis comes an opportunity. As International Rivers adapts to current circumstances, we are strengthening our support network to partners and communities facing immediate challenges, while working toward solutions that re-imagine a healthier future for our rivers.

We are grounding this work in the direct experience of our long-time partners and those facing increased threats. The following blog series, “Crisis to Opportunities,” is written by our regional campaign staff. For each region, we seek to answer two questions: And what solutions are arising? 

A woman resident of a resettlement camp for inhabitants of the Inga area displaced by the Inga 1 and 2 dams on the Congo River in DRC. Photo by International Rivers, 2014.

The African context of COVID-19

There are estimated to be over 240,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases on the African continent – with more than 109,900 recoveries & 6,400 deaths. While it is still too early to assess the full extent of the humanitarian and economic damage inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic, there are already three mega-trends emerging that will play a role in shaping Africa’s economic future – the three “Ds” of the emerging new world order; de-globalisation, debt and fiscal sustainability and digitalisation. 

De-globalisation has been an inevitable consequence of the pandemic as the world diverges rapidly in an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This has had negative effects on world trade which will affect the developing world including Africa. Debt, and the fiscal sustainability of countries, the outflow of capital from the emerging world has been huge in recent months and has left deep holes in developing countries’ finances. Lastly, the need to embrace remote working to allow for social distancing and self isolation led to an urgent need for digitalisation which could impact many economies that are ill-prepared for rapid change driven by technology and this forced shift could delay an economic recovery in many developing African states.

There have been reports of widespread human rights abuses in the enforcement of lockdown measures across the continent. Reports of police brutality and the disproportionate use of force by the military have emerged from a number of countries including the DRC, Egypt, Kenya and  South africa. 

Experiences of activists and communities in the DRC

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, a national lockdown was instituted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on the 31st of March 2020 and has yet to be fully lifted. On the first of June the Ministry of Health of the DRC officially declared the eleventh Ebola outbreak in the country. The DRC has also seen over 6000 deaths attributed to measles.This means that the DRC is now fighting the spread of three major health outbreaks – Ebola, Measles and Covid-19 simultaneously.

The situation in many parts of the DRC is tense, with a number of lock down extensions and violent enforcement of lockdown measures, general insecurity and economic stress. In many areas there are also shortages of water, soap and personal protective equipment. These factors coupled with the almost instantaneous need to shift to working remotely has created a number of operational challenges for river defenders and their organizations in the DRC. 

Travel bans and social distancing regulations have stopped their grassroots community work in its tracks with no concrete date on which they will be able to start again. Organisations were not prepared for this rapid shift to remote working and as a result did not have the resources to provide every member with the necessary equipment like power banks, modems and laptops. Unstable electricity and wifi in the region makes remote working even more challenging. 

The Grand Inga project in the DRC consists of three major dams. Inga 1 was completed in 1972 and Inga 2 in 1982 on the Congo River. These dams forcibly displaced communities without compensation, resettled them into camps, deteriorating their standards of living, and negatively affecting, and limiting their livelihoods. The same communities will be sacrificed and involuntarily relocated for the development for inga 3 to be built. Not only will this deepen poverty-induced development, generational debt and human rights violations, the Inga 3 project will also adversely affect the DRC’s freshwater ecosystem. International Rivers along with partner organizations in South Africa and on the ground in the DRC are campaigning to prevent this from happening.  

Salome Elolo, director of Femmes Solidaires (FESO), a women’s organisation campaigning against the Inga 3 hydropower project in the DRC, and an International Rivers partner explains; “Some of the work that we can do at home, we do, but we are tired psychologically. As the situation continues, the work plan calendar is changed every two weeks as extensions are added.”

In addition to the difficulties of the context Emmanuel Musuyu, of Coalition des Organisations de la Société Civile pour le Suivi des Réformes et de l’Action Publique (CORAP), another partner organisation in the DRC explains the toll the situation is taking on morale, “Motivation is an issue because there is no teamwork — people are working from home and salaries are not enough because activities have been limited”.

Both organisations also identified the unique ways in which women are affected by the lockdown and resulting insecurity. Largely responsible for managing their households and ensuring adequate food and water, women travel many kilometers to collect water and are often confronted with attacks and assaults on route. The same thing happens when women go to the fields. In addition to external threats, many women face domestic violence at home.

With organisations like FESO and CORAP struggling to do their work effectively, unable to travel or meet regularly they have in effect been neutralised as watchdog organizations, leaving space for regressive policies and deals to take place in the midst of the Covid-19 chaos. The true extent of these policies and deals might only come to light once lockdown measures are eased and organisations can properly engage with each other and the riverine communities they defend. 

Until then, organizations like FESO and CORAP are continuing their work even in the face of these seemingly insurmountable challenges and remain committed and optimistic. Emmanuel highlights the opportunities presented by this sudden change “The pandemic gives us an opportunity to reflect and improve the planning of our activities. Our ability to analyse context is also much improved. In the past, this analysis was not constant. So when the pandemic passes, we will continue with this practice. In addition, while communication is a challenge, our communications with communities have become more regular as we plan our activities together. We are keeping in touch more regularly. This practice will continue after the pandemic.”

Going Forward: A call to action

The campaign against the Inga dam project and for the protection of the Congo River and its riverine communities is ongoing despite the new challenges presented by the pandemic, with organisations shifting focus to digital communications and campaigning strategies including social media campaigning and webinars (where communication infrastructure permits), until they can get back out in the field. 

International Rivers links up regional and national campaigns like the one against the destructive Inga 3 dam in DRC to similar campaigns around the world led by communities and movements protecting their local rivers. We have noticed that, in the region, while the activities of our local partners are slowing due to lockdown restrictions, plans for the construction of large dams has not slowed in spite of the lockdown measures and the related economic fallout. In this time, partners have been continuing their engagement with policy-makers who are hell-bent on pursuing dam projects on Africa’s rivers despite the economic uncertainty. The pandemic and its impacts will hopefully provide an opportunity to halt this destructive “business as usual” model of development. 

We must act on this opportunity before it’s too late. In a recent statement from the International Hydropower Association, the world’s largest hydropower corporations are calling for governments to “fast-track planning approvals” to ensure new construction can commence as soon as possible. The industry is also working to make sure large dams are seen as essential to the recovery, casting ecologically-devastating projects as both renewable and central to a clean energy transition. As demonstrated in the case of Inga 1 and 2, and now the proposed Inga 3, projects like these pose extreme threats to biodiversity, our ability to slow the climate crisis, and the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people. That’s why we’re calling on governments, developers, and financiers to support a moratorium on new dams, and to prioritize energy development which respects the health of river ecosystems, community rights and energy justice. 

From cancelling the Inga 3 dam on the Congo River, to protecting indigenous lands and waters in the Amazon, to promoting community-led decentralized energy initiatives in the Himalayas — we are calling for investment in a just energy transition to renewables that do not harm our precious water sources. You can join us in this call by signing on for the future of our freshwater in a post-COVID world, and stay tuned as we continue to monitor on Covid impacts across the riverine communities where we work.