Read caption NRC’s hygiene and shelter specialist in charge of the refugee emergency response in western Uganda, Timothée Zoungrana, supervising construction of a communal pit latrine in Maratatu refugee settlement site. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

Cholera puts the lives of Congolese refugees at risk

Nashon Tado|Published 02. Mar 2018
Violence has forced thousands of Congolese to seek safety in neighbouring Uganda, with overcrowded refugee camps there putting pressure on hygiene and sanitation facilities, increasing the risk of deadly cholera outbreaks.

Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) has forced nearly 44,000 people to cross Uganda’s south-west border out of the country so far this year. This has put pressure on sanitation facilities in refugee settlements, and has led to deadly cholera outbreaks.

With hundreds of people arriving in Uganda every day, aid organisations are striving to prevent the disease from spreading across the settlements. Our teams work around the clock  building hygiene and sanitation facilities to help alleviate and prevent the suffering of these displaced people.

Overcrowding is creating risks

Désiré is among the thousands who has been forced to adapt to a new life in Maratatu settlement in south-west Uganda. “There are people everywhere in the settlement. It’s a big risk in terms of the spreading of cholera. Something should be done to ease the congestion,” he says.

The armed violence consumed his home village in DR Congo’s Ituri province. He describes the violence as ruthless, with lawless gangs that use crude weapons like axes and machetes and burn down peoples’ homes. Newly arrived refugees continue to report that armed groups in Ituri are preventing civilians from fleeing their villages to seek safety.

Those who have made it to Uganda now face this new life-threatening situation. Désiré worries about the conditions he and his fellow arrivals face in the packed settlement as a threat to public health:“With so many people crowded in one location, the risk of spreading of contagious diseases such as cholera is very high, and many people can be severely affected within a short time.”


Read caption Sharing of limited facilities such as latrines, bathing spaces and eating utensils heightens the risk of spreading water-borne diseases such as Cholera and Bilharzia. Cholera can result in death as it severely dehydrates the body. Photo: Nashon Tado/NRC.


Striving to prevent further outbreaks, our teams are currently constructing latrines and bathing shelters in Maratatu, including handwashing stations. Using local capacity, we are recruiting hygiene promoters who will help spread awareness about good hygiene practices.A hygiene and sanitation officer has also joined our team and is supporting the construction of vital hygiene facilities.

“Hygiene facilities are over-stretched in locations where refugees are receiving assistance,” says Dominika Arseniuk, NRC’s head of programme in Uganda.

Strict hygiene routines

Meanwhile, hygiene and sanitation facilities in Kagoma transit centre, where newly arrived refugees are registered, also struggle to bear the brunt of overcrowding. This is the location where refugees stay as they wait to be registered, vaccinated and relocated to settlements. Here, the risk of spreading cholera is high as people share pit latrines, communal bathing spaces and water points for hand-washing. The site contains large shared dormitory halls where they sleep, cook and take care of children and other vulnerable groups. 

We need more resources to come in and save the situation.
Dominika Arseniuk, NRC’s head of programme in Uganda

To prevent the disease from spreading, volunteers from the Ugandan Red Cross monitor all people entering and leaving the transit centre, leaving nothing to chance. They use disinfection solution, demanding every visitor or resident to wash their hands with soap and have their feet or soles of their shoes disinfected.

“We need more resources to come in and save the situation,” stresses Arseniuk.

The refugee situation in Uganda
  • Between 21 and 23 February, 1,031 refugees entered Uganda from DR Congo, bringing the total number of new arrivals to 43,818 so far this year.
  • Out of the new arrivals, 27,706 people have fled inter-ethnic violence in DR Congo’s Ituri region and entered Uganda across Lake Albert using fishing boats and canoes. Another 16,112 refugees have arrived from North Kivu through Uganda’s southwestern border with DR Congo, mainly in the districts of Kisoro, Kanungu and Ntoroko.
  • On average, 343 Congolese refugees arrive in Uganda daily.
How we help Congolese refugees in Uganda

With support from SIDA, we are currently constructing 200 latrines and bathing shelters in Maratatu settlement, including 50 handwashing stations. Using local capacity, we are recruiting hygiene promoters who will help with public awareness and teach about good hygienic practices.