March 21, 2011 was World Water Day and the theme of this year’s celebration was “water for cities: responding to the urban water challenge.” As I prepared to write this, I wondered what will be the appropriate caption for the response to this challenge by Nigerian government.

  Where will Nigerian cities be ranked in their response to water challenges? Are Nigerian cities facing any water challenges in the midst of ubiquitous ‘pure water?

Unfortunately, these are questions nobody seems to be asking these days. The public sector in Nigeria has woefully failed in its responsibility at providing clean and affordable water to the citizens.  Instead, while the network of water distribution systems in most cities were abandoned and allowed to decay, the private sector quickly filled the gap by providing “pure water” in different forms to the thirsty populace. Worried by the low quality and hygiene of these ‘pure water’, the federal government through NAFDAC quickly started ‘regulation’ of the ‘pure water’ industries. At the state level, worried by the indiscriminate drilling of water bore holes by wealthy individuals in cities, the state governments started their ‘regulation’ by taxing the owners.

Were these decisions socially, economically and environmentally efficient? The answer requires a comparison of what the alternative – public water supply system – would have meant.

The first time I felt the need to bring this forgotten problem of the failure of political economy in Nigeria to adequately provide clean water to citizens was in spring of 2009. In a class on environment and development at American University, a Ghanaian in my class worried by the environmental impact of polythene waste from ‘pure water’ usage in Ghana, blamed Nigerians for exporting that business to her country.  I however quickly made it known to her that while it is easy to blame Nigerians for environmental nuisance from ‘pure water,’ the main culprits – Ghanaians municipals – who failed to provide potable water to city dwellers are spared.  I made it clear to her that Nigerian business man brought their trade to Ghana simply because there was a vacuum begging to be filled.   

While the government may argue that the public water supply sector collapsed because the operating cost far exceeds the revenue from such services, I will argue on the contrary.  The polarized debate over water as an economic good - a commodity that can be priced - and water as a social good - a basic need and a fundamental right - may still be on but the fact today in most Nigerian cities is that on the average, most homes pays as much as two times what their counterparts pays in developed world for clean water services.  Also, what most homes that depend on private water supply spend is three times what they would have paid to an efficiently managed public water system.

Large city household water rates are from $2.00 to $3.00 per 748 gallons of water in the United States. Converting this to Naira will give =N= 450 (four hundred and fifty Naira) for 748 gallons. Now, you estimate how many days an average Nigerian home sill use 748 gallons of water and compare the cost with what is currently obtainable. Meanwhile, an average home in the United States consumes around 176 gallons of water per day compared to 10 gallons of water the average Nigerian family.  Now, these cost analysis does not include time lost in bringing these services to homes, as well as health and environmental costs.

A closer look at the environmental cost of ‘pure water cities’ shows that indiscriminate and unregulated boreholes drilling lead to unreliability of the wells. As more wells are dug and water pumped to the surface, the water table in the aquifer falls. This reduces the lifespan of the wells, increases the cost of future drilling that taps from the same local geology and consequently the cost of liter of water eventually sold to the public.

From calculations I extrapolated from available data on pure water industries in Nigeria, plastic bags, sack, and wrap consumption in a city like Lagos is between 10 million to 20 million plastic bags are consumed every day. Of those, about 30% end up in the litter stream outside of landfills and the other 70% in gutters, creeks, rivers and Atlantic Ocean.  Once in the environment, it takes months to hundreds of years for plastic bags to breakdown. As they decompose, tiny toxic bits seep into soils, lakes, rivers, and the oceans.

Back to the debate on water as an economic god or social good and pricing, environmental economists have been arguing that a key step in moving toward more rational water management is to place a price on water that reflects its value (social and environmental) and scarcity.  But Nigerians are already paying far above that. So, the issue is not cost but efficient management and services. The willingness to pay is there which is what is being exploited by the private sector to charge these exorbitant prices.  I will therefore say that maladministration and mismanagement are the primary reasons why the public water systems are failing. Most importantly, because most of us Nigerians grew up under this water inequity, we have failed woefully to compel our elected official to live up to their responsibilities of providing potable water to citizens.

Poor governance and absence of political commitment to addressing the water issues in Nigeria is a challenge. State and federal agencies do not provide adequate budgetary allocation to water and sanitation. To date, most state water boards and agencies have promoted quick and cosmetic solutions that, while ‘rational’, have generated mixed results. Sustaining services continues to be a problem, and integrated water resources management (IWRM) remains an aspiration rather than a reality. One reason for this is that current approaches to water resources management are devoid of politics – the missing piece of the water puzzle.

When was the last time we’heard elected public officials giving target on how many households in our cities will be provided access to potable water? Nigerians will be voting in a couple of days but is there a city where access to potable water was an electioneering issue? How can we make our elected officials care for cheaper cleaner and environmental friendly water services in cities full of ‘pure water’? A comprehensive solution to Nigerian water crisis lies in municipal water treatment and distribution.

Clearly, what you need do is take a look at the surface water bodies on Nigerian map and you will find an easy solution to ‘pure water’ cities. Think of the capacity (cubic liters) of potable water we can easily harness from Rivers Niger and Benue, Imo River, Cross River, Gongola, Hadejia, Ka, Kaduna, Katsin-Ala, Kamadugu, Ogun, Osun, Owena, Osse, Sokoto, Yedseram, Yobe, and Zamfara Rivers etc. These river reservoirs can provide the primary supply of water to the local population. In addition, a series of wells can be used to supplement the surface water supply for short periods of time. Why these enormous water resources potential has not been fully utilized remains part of the bigger question mark on Nigeria when it comes to natural resource management.

Not only will the supply of potable water through municipal freshwater treatment reduce the dangerous treat to the environment by plastic ‘pure water’ bags, it will also be cost saving. Not to be forgotten too is the chain of employment opportunities for our graduates especially civil and environmental engineers that will be involved in the planning, distribution and maintenance of the water distribution network.

Hopefully, this piece will bring to public consciousness what is and what life would look like were these water services efficiently delivered to the comfort of most homes in Nigerian cities.

[email protected]
Greenworld Environment Society

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