IN an era that is witnessing the resurgence of Ebola and other contagious haemorrhagic viral diseases, having access to running water may well be considered a national security issue. Adequate water supply is a problem that faces most of us daily, almost regardless of income bracket. If you live in a rural area, you probably have to go and fetch water from a well, stream or river. If you’re wealthy enough to build your own house, you probably have to sink a borehole. If that house is in a sand-filled area, highbrow or not, you either have to drill past the 200 metre mark to get useable water or contend with the contaminated water available at shallower depths. The person who can solve the challenge of getting clean pipe borne water into every household in Nigeria will be a national hero.
The UNICEF sponsored Water and Sanitation Summary Sheet for Nigeria authored by the Water and Sanitation Monitoring Platform says: “Water and sanitation coverage rates in Nigeria are amongst the lowest in the world.” The summary goes on to say that “Nigeria is in the bottom 25 countries worldwide in terms of sanitation coverage.” Why don’t we have better access to running water? Why are we still struggling with a plumbing system the Romans figured out more than 2,000 years ago? How many of our children grow up saying, “I want to be a hydrologist”? Is water science even taught in our schools?
Reading a paper entitled, “The Enterprise of Fire Safety Services in Lagos, Nigeria”, by John M. Corbin, a professor of economics and public policy from the Andres Bello University in Santiago, Chile, I came across his rather surprising, scathing, unnerving, grossly unflattering and somewhat one-sided description of Lagos. His withering invective takes up the entire introduction to his thesis and what stands out is his vitriol at his perceived notion of our standards of hygiene and sanitation. Cobin insinuates that most people practice open defecation and declares: “people have little concept of sanitation… bathrooms are a hygiene hazard and are very filthy almost without exception outside of five-star hotels and a few of the decent miniature malls.”
One could say he is guilty of exaggeration and generalisation. It seems to escape his purview that many people who practice open defecation do so because they have no alternative, and many more people would love to wash their hands before eating or after using the toilet, but they simply don’t have the water with which to do so (let alone soap). Of course, there are individuals who wouldn’t properly use an available toilet or wash their hands even if they were paid, but such individuals, I dare say, exist all over the world and even in his own country.
Currently, it is estimated that fewer than 34 percent of Nigerians have access to adequate sanitation and less than 61 percent have access to running water. As a nation, we had a Millennium Development Goal target that by September 2015, at least 63 percent of us would have improved sanitation facilities and at least 75 percent of our population would have access to improved drinking water. Improved drinking water is defined by UNICEF/WHO as including “household connections, public stand pipes, boreholes, protected wells and springs.” Improved sanitation is taken to mean “public sewer or septic system, pour-flush latrines, ventilated improved pit latrines and pit latrines with slabs.”
Unfortunately, not only did we not achieve these goals, it appears we’ve regressed in the improved drinking water category, partly due to population increase nationwide. (Major cities like Lagos and Abuja face further pressure due to the increased rate of urban migration which is putting a strain on efforts to provide and sustain robust water supply for residents of those cities).
We appear to be making marginal headway in providing improved sanitation coverage across the country but currently it would seem that our best is not good enough. According to the WSMP, “much more effort and resources are clearly required to accelerate sanitation coverage rates both in rural and urban areas.” The report goes on to say, “there are clear indications that coverage is deteriorating even as significant investments are made in the sector, especially for water supply.” In other words, we are not building water infrastructure fast enough and we can do a better job in maintaining what we already have.
In 2006, the National Bureau of Statistics conducted a survey on Core Welfare Indicators across all the 774 local governments in Nigeria including the FCT. The aggregated findings show that water distribution coverage varies by zone with the South-West having the widest comparative distribution of piped water and the North-East having the most limited coverage.
With respect to the availability of adequate sanitation facilities as a percentage of population figures, the NBS survey shows the South-East leading the way and the North-East having to catch up with the rest of the zones. In state by state comparisons, Lagos, Oyo, Kwara and Osun had the widest distribution of improved water access and Enugu, Anambra, Gombe and Taraba had the greatest need to improve their ability to provide access to water for their residents. In terms of sanitation, Lagos, Akwa Ibom, Anambra and Imo had the most effective networks of sanitation facilities in comparison to the other states of the federation. Bauchi, Kogi, Ebonyi and Bayelsa had the most work to do to be at par or better than all the other states. By now, the rankings may have changed.
Going forward, more attention needs to be given to the rural areas so that those who dwell there have at least the same level of access to safe water and hygienic sanitation facilities as those who live in the cities. The WSMP advises that there is a “need to enhance co-ordination and institutional collaboration in the water and sanitation sector to sustain gains of the past and maximise benefits.” The Ministry of Water Resources, The Ministry of Agriculture and the MDG office have all made efforts to alleviate water problems, but more needs to be done. The UNDP says, “There is a major challenge in translating substantial public investments in water into effective access. This requires more involvement by communities to identify local needs, and better planning to deliver holistic and sustainable solutions.”
A representative of a particular NGO was being shown round a certain local community school. When the tour got to an area near the perimeter of the fence, the representative was asked to be careful where she walked because of “shot put” bags thrown in that vicinity. What, pray tell, is “shot put”? Plastic bags employed as vessels for the receiving and disposing of human waste, which are then thrown in the general vicinity of the nearest refuse heap. The pupils resort to this method because the condition of the lavatories is so degraded that it is hazardous to life and limb.
Those toilets started falling into disrepair when there was a problem with the water supply. Rebuilding the broken toilets or installing new ones would yield only short term benefits (and the new facilities risk the same fate as their predecessors) unless the underlying water supply problem is solved. The conundrum goes even deeper than that. Even if the apparatus for running water with which to flush toilets is provided to the school, water can only be pumped when there is electricity (assuming the school is wired to the power grid). So, do you provide a generator to the school?
How will they pay for the fuel to run the generator? Or do you install solar panels? At what cost? A “patch-patch” approach to the problem is better than no approach at all, but it would be cost ineffective and of limited usefulness. Supporting the work of the Water Sector Reform Programme (the brain child of the Federal Ministry of Water Resources) may be a better place to start.
The old MDG 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 targets couldn’t be achieved partially because of the water problem. There is an inverse correlation between the availability of water and levels of extreme poverty; child mortality; maternal unwellness; rampant diseases and environmental degradation. Seven of the new 17 Sustainable Development Goals (namely, 1, 3, 6, 10, 13, 14, and 15) may not be achieved without better access to consistently safe water (with its knock-on effect of bringing about better sanitation and better hygiene practices).
Ms. Olubunmi Aboderinis a Member of the Institute of Directors and the Founder of an NGO with a mandate to enhance productive capacity.