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Bad roads, low rivers stifle life in northwest DR Congo

By AFP - Aug 26,2015 - Last updated at Aug 26,2015

A truck stuck in mud on the road from the town of Zongo to the Mole refugee camp in DR Congo’s northwestern Equateur province (AFP file photo)

ZONGO, DR Congo — Imagine living in a place bigger than Germany and Belgium combined but with few or flooded roads, broken bridges and unnavigable rivers as your only link to supply lines.

Welcome to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s lush Equateur province, which once made multinationals rich and exported food to other parts of the country before decades of neglect changed all.

“When the bridge is repaired, I’ll drive on. Now, I sleep in the lorry,” said sheet metal worker Jean-Pierre whose supply trip between the towns of Zongo and Libenge, 120 kilometres apart, turned into a three-week saga.

Land transport is difficult at the best of times in Equateur, where a chronic lack of infrastructure has seen the scarce roads fall into disrepair and complicate trade and daily life.

Locals’ only alternative is patience. “I was left with a little money, but it’s almost run out. You eat once a day, you sleep,” said Jean-Pierre.

A potential lifeline is the Ubangui River, which forms the border between Equateur and two neighbouring states, the small Republic of Congo and the restive Central African Republic (CAR).

But a marked dry-season decline in water levels over the past 20 years has prevented cargo boats from heading upstream from the spot place where the Ubangui flows into the mighty Congo River.

‘Challenge... is the roads’

“The real challenge in Equateur is the roads,” said Ursula Nathalie Dzietham, bureau chief in Zongo for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which struggles to reach people who fled the latest strife in the CAR.

“The means of getting around really aren’t obvious,” she said. The UNHCR tries to maintain several wooden bridges in the region, but they are prone to breaking.

On a recent day, a dozen men unloaded a truck full of chickpeas sent by the UN World Food Programme. The lorry can only cross the bridge when it is empty, so the men will reload it later, hoping to earn a little food.

A farming community of about 140,000 people, Zongo sprawls across rich green land in a bend of the Ubangui. On the far bank lies Bangui, capital of the deeply poor and partly arid CAR.

During the dry months from mid-April to mid-July, it takes roughly an hour and a half to drive from Zongo to Mole, 30 kilometres to the south. After the rains start, it takes up to twice as long, with a constant risk of skidding or getting stuck in mud.

“Since it’s soon the rainy season, we’ll be cut off from the rest of the country... There will be shortages,” said Eudes Eloko, Zongo’s deputy mayor.

Local people and refugees can make up some of the losses by shopping in Bangui. Even in Zongo, traders tend to shun the Congolese franc for the CFA franc, a multinational currency used in the CAR.

Much of Equateur — whose 7.5 million residents account for about 10 per cent of the country’s population — is covered by trees forming part of the Congo Basin forest, often called the planet’s “second lung” after the Amazon. The tropical forest is so dense that light barely penetrates it.

Major logging firms working in the region sometimes assume the role of the state by building roads and keeping them operational, but heavy rain can make slippery mud of the paths.

Most tracks date from Belgian colonial times, when people in Equateur grew essential foodstuffs to supply other provinces, including cassava, palm oil, groundnuts and rice.

Decades of decay

A few signs remain of other once-lucrative export products, such as rubber and coffee. Dutch food and cosmetics firm Unilever would most likely not be a multinational giant today without the palm oil plantations it managed in the province in the first half of the 20th century.

But three decades of dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko (1995-1997) brought decline and conflict, and the country’s infrastructure was left to fall apart.

Equateur has gotten little help since the change of regime when rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila ousted Mobutu and took power, to be succeeded in turn by his son Joseph Kabila when he was assassinated in 2001.

Local officials complain that the province is being punished by Kinshasa authorities because it was the birthplace of Mobutu and Jean-Pierre Bemba, a businessman and rebel leader during the second Congo war (1998-2003) and rival of Joseph Kabila in the 2006 presidential vote.

 

But isolation can occasionally be an advantage. It enabled health workers to prevent the spread of the last Ebola outbreak in DR Congo, which claimed 49 lives between July and November 2014, according to official figures.

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