Nigeria’s water crisis
Lagos, Nigeria, is surrounded by an abundance of water, but millions of inhabitants in Africa’s most populous city can’t drink it. The state is not providing water and they’re also not allowing people to fend for themselves to survive.
Water shortages, fueled in part by recurrent drought and violence, has been decimating Nigeria for years. The charity WaterAid has said the water crisis had killed more people across the country than the militant group Boko Haram. While the terrorist group had claimed more than 4,000 lives in 2014, the nonprofit said a lack of running water had killed more than 70,000. Water has long been a source of tension in Lagos, it added.
The coastal city that’s bordered by a lagoon is in the throes of a water crisis. Only1 in 10 people have access to water that the state utility provides. The rest — some 19 million residents — rely on informal water sources, eitherdrilling their own boreholes to drink from or fetching water from lakes or rivers. Those that can afford it pay exorbitant amounts to local “mai ruwa,” or water vendors, who peddle their wares in often-unsanitary jerry cans, or bottles and cellophane sachets.
Yet, activists say, the Lagos House of Assembly passed legislation last month that could threaten even this last-resort source of drinking water — an imperfect, but critical lifeline for most Lagosians.
Opponents of the Lagos Environment Bill say politicians did not follow due legislative process before it was signed into law on March 1 ― and its final language has still not been made available to the public two weeks after the fact. It could criminalize the private extraction of water, including the drilling of boreholes and purchasing water from private sellers, activists warn.
“One of our rights as citizens is to live, to have good water to drink, good environment,” said Agnes Sessi, president of the African Women Water, Hygiene and Sanitation Network, this month in reaction to the new law. “If government has failed to provide water for us, they do not have the right to take away our efforts to provide for ourselves. Do they want us to die ?” the United Nations issued a strong-worded statement last month condemning the water bill.
“When the State fails to provide adequate access to drinking water, no one should be criminalized or fined for fetching water from lakes, rivers, or any other natural sources,” said Léo Heller, U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation, on Feb. 27. “The government is taking a step too far by imposing fines of the equivalent of $310 on ordinary individuals fetching water for survival, when the minimum wage stands at approximately $60.”
As the metropolis ballooned in size over recent decades, growing from an estimated 1.4 million people in 1970 to more than 21 million today, Lagos’ public water system has struggled to keep pace. Pipes, many of them decades old, have rotted through and taps now often run dry.
The two major water treatment plants in the city have fallen into disrepair ; workers there have complained of non-functioning pumps, poor power supply and production rates well under capacity. And that only applies to the 10 percent of households in the city that actually receive piped water from the state. For everyone else, finding any means to attain water — unsanitary or not — is an everyday battle.
In Lagos, 60 percent of Nigerians earn less than $1 a day, yet the country is now home to almost 16,000 millionaires, most of them in Lagos. And the discrepancy is acutely felt when it comes to water, according to Bragg.
Some poorer communities don’t have access to clean water themselves but have pipes running over-ground through their neighborhoods to the more wealthy ones. “The contrast is stark,” he said. “They can’t get water, but there’s water literally passing right by them.”
Buying water from private vendors is a common practice and Lagos residents have called the service a “saving grace,” but it can be inaccessible for the poorest Lagosians. The average family may needs to buy seven or eight jerry cans of water daily, which could cost $50 or more a month, according to a 2016 report from the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria. In Nigeria, the average middle class family income is between $230 and $300 monthly.
The more severe the water shortage, the brisker the business for some water sellers. Abubakar Audu, a long-time mai ruwa, told local paper Eko Trust last year that he sets his price “depending on how desperate the customer is” and whether or not there’s light (blackouts are an everyday occurrence in the city).
With proper sanitation practically non-existent across Lagos and most residents drinking water from untreated and unreliable sources, the city’s water problems have had a dire impact on public health. Water-borne diseases including cholera, dysentery, as well as typhoid and malaria fever, are a concern. In February last year, 25 children under the age of 6 died in one Lagos community after drinking pathogen-infected water.
Long-term exposure to toxins is also a concern. A 2012 investigation found high concentrations of heavy metals like lead and cadmium at levels far above World Health Organization standards in borehole water samples extracted in Lagos.
The city’s government has precipitated the water crisis in Lagos by years of inaction, according to activists.
For decades, the state has “neglected to invest into the infrastructure,” said Corporate Accountability International’s Bragg. Instead, it has chosen to prioritize the possible privatization of Lagos’ water utility through public-private partnerships — a plan that has repeatedly failed, he added.
“Lagos is very key to the African continent ; it is the heart of Nigeria,” he said. “If water privatization is successful in Lagos, it could spread across Nigeria and across Africa. Quality will go down, sanitation will be impacted and the poorest of the poor will not be able to get adequate water.”