Ambode should tackle Lagos water crisis

originally posted on January 20, 2017


FOR a city that literally sits atop water, Lagos should ordinarily not encounter too much difficulty meeting the water needs of its mammoth population. But this has surprisingly been the case. While the state has made remarkable progress in the transformation of much of its physical infrastructure, the same cannot be said about the provision of access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The result is that residents suffer untold hardship in their daily quest for potable water, due to acutely inadequate supply from the public water agency. Many homes never had pipe-borne water and where it used to exist, the pipes have long run dry. The few lucky ones that still have pipe-borne water cannot trust the water enough for drinking for fear of contracting diseases that might come with contamination due to burst or vandalised pipes.

But in many places, people drink from shallow wells, just as others depend on the ubiquitous water vendors who peddle their ware in jerrycans, bottles or cellophane sachets curiously referred to as “pure water”; even when, in reality, there is nothing pure about the water. For those who can afford it, the best option has been to dig boreholes, regardless of the numerous hazards they pose to the environment. In short, the situation has resulted in a boom in water business which has not escaped the attention of even multinationals.

Despite the government’s seeming lack of interest in tackling the water problem, water is so important to human beings that it is believed to be next to life itself. The United Nations says access to “safe drinking water and sanitation is central to living a life of dignity and upholding human rights.” This is why the situation in Lagos has already attracted international attention. Not long ago, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights and Sanitation, Leo Heller, warned that the situation, which he described as unacceptable, had already assumed a crisis dimension, calling for it to be squarely and promptly addressed.

Ascribing the condition to years of mismanagement, Heller said, “Government reports indicate alarmingly high deficits in the sector, representing clearly unacceptable conditions for millions of the megacity’s residents.” According to him, only one in 10 people has access to water provided by the state public utility.

This may indeed seem unacceptable, but it is not altogether surprising, given the alarming rate of population growth in Lagos. A sprawling megacity, with an estimated population of 20 million inhabitants that is still growing, it should be taken for granted that Lagos will always have to deal with a situation where the population outstrips available amenities. Even when there is a headcount, many residents tend to migrate back to their states of origin, thus making it impossible to know the actual number of residents to plan with.

This has been most glaring in the area of safe water provision, as is also the case in many other areas. In a 2014 comment, the former Managing Director, Lagos State Water Corporation, Shayo Holloway, said the corporation, when fully functional, had the capacity to pump 210 million gallons of water a day, compared to the 540 million gallons requirement in Lagos. He also said that the state had developed a $3.5 billion Water Master Plan that would deliver 745 million gallons per day by 2020. This may be music to the ears but will be dependent on access to funding.

Since Lagos is not situated in the Savannah or other arid regions of the country, where access to water is supposed to be challenging, all the authorities need to do is to harness the numerous water sources available – a long stretch of coastal ocean water, the lagoon, rivers and rivulets – for processing into safe drinking water. But what is happening now is that people are left to fend for themselves.

The 18th century English poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, might as well have had Lagos in mind when he wrote the Rime of the Ancient Mariner . In the lines, “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” he captured the situation in Lagos, a state suffering in the midst of plenty.

Needless to say, the state authorities have to take more than a passing interest in the provision of water if they are desirous of keeping a healthy population and a productive workforce. Drinking contaminated water predisposes people to diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera and diarrhoea. According to a UNICEF report, India (24 per cent) and Nigeria (11 per cent) account for more than a third of under-five deaths in the world. “These same countries also have significant populations without improved water and sanitation,” the report said.

Even those who feel that they have overcome the challenges of water by drilling boreholes may not be aware that they are only creating new problems by trying to solve an immediate one. Moses Beckley, the Acting Director-General, Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency, said, “It (indiscriminate drilling of boreholes) will make the underground water vulnerable to pollution and that will unleash terrible consequences for the country.” As governor, Babatunde Fashola, while inaugurating a World Bank-assisted mini-waterworks in Iponri, Lagos in 2012, identified another danger of indiscriminate drilling of boreholes as the threat of landslide.

Lagos can no longer afford to relegate action on water to the fringes.  The Ambode government should initiative a realistic water policy and strategy. In the 2017 budget, the Governor promised to employ Public Private Partnership to increase the capacity utilisation of water treatment plants. Participation by all stakeholders is fundamental to sustainable water resources management. It is argued that active consultation and transparency significantly increase the likelihood of the sound development and implementation of water resources management initiatives.

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