By Iwunze Jonathan
Every year in April, the rainy season starts. And every year, a renewed sense of hope fills the hearts of rural dwellers of certain communities in Biase L.G.A of Cross River State, Nigeria.
The rainy season is a symbol of hope for them because they can access clean water easily during this period. For these rural dwellers, the challenge to access basic water supply is one that is not clearly discernible from afar, but an inside story.
Afifia North village in Biase L.G.A. is one community that is affected by the water challenge. Here, we find Patience Etowa, a mother of three who explains with sadness and defeat the unavoidable method that the locals have long employed to access clean water for everyday use.
Her daily routine consists of getting up as early as five in the morning to commence the forty to forty-five minutes trek each way to Ogamena, a neighboring community which houses a local stream that they have deemed the most suitable for consumption. Then, she prepares food for the family and gets the children ready for school before going about her daily routine.
Sadly, the case of Patience is not unique as most people in the village have the same routine, and most households in the community have appeared to make peace with their inability to access basic water supply. Thus, they must resort to other alternatives.
Why the challenge?
Ironically, the road leading into Aififia features a functional solar-powered borehole by the left, which is in the middle of the community, and at least two streams can be located within Afifia village.
Chief Obeten Ikwa, a village head in the community explains why the water sources are unfit for consumption: “We discovered that the water from the borehole is too salty and thus cannot be ingested without health hazards, and the streams are dirty, which is why water gotten from these sources can only be used for washing and bathing.”
“During the dry season, the streams dry up and the solar powered borehole does not have the capacity to fill the water needs of the entire community as its operation is regulated.”
Therefore, on the average, drinking water is sold to the locals by vendors who travel to Ogamena to get same at fifty naira per twenty-liter gallon. Those who cannot afford to buy and don’t have a motorcycle to travel to the location, have no alternative than to make the arduous trek to get drinking water.
However, despite their claim that water in the village is not ingested, one can’t help but wonder if the local practice of food processing does not translate to that. For instance, since drinking water is hard to come by, they use the water from the stream that is supposedly unfit for consumption to process their cassava harvests before processing it into garri or fufu which is a regular staple in the Nigerian diet. Thus, without realizing it, these locals consume the very same water that they have declared unfit for consumption.
Asked if she has ever had to deal with health issues for herself and her family, Patience mentioned earlier answers that the issue of health challenges is a ‘normal’. She says, “My children get sick from time to time from diarrhea and dysentery, and I have to take them to the hospital. I believe it is a part of human nature for little children to get sick sometimes.”
Her view unfortunately represents that of many in the village who feel that getting sick from time to time is synonymous with the human factor.
Patience, however, wishes that the illnesses were not so frequent so that she could save some more money for the family’s upkeep, rather than expend it on healthcare.
One feature that stands out in Afifia community is the common sight of feces littered around the community. In this village, open defecation is still a norm, and crossbar toilets can be found in several locations around the village.
Chief Ikwa explains that because of a lack of water, a VIP toilet that was constructed and donated to the community by an NGO was mismanaged, the septic tank blocked, and the toilet was subsequently abandoned. Thus, the common practice of open defecation in the community.
Without access to adequate water to cater for their daily needs, the Afifia people who are predominantly peasant farmers lose many of their productive hours to water search, and frequently spend resources on treatment of water-borne diseases as a result.
A striking contrast
Ikpariyong village in Ibogo community is less than 10 minutes’ drive from Afifia village. The village appears clean as the people have put remarkable efforts to ensure that the community is open defecation free (ODF). This is a milestone in the history of the community as health-related diseases have reduced significantly.
However, before the Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene Committee’s (WASHCOM) foray into their domain, the people of Ikpariyong suffered recurring bouts of diseases that were sanitation related.
Dysentery and diarrhea were common in the community especially amongst their children, and even the adults were not spared from the health effects of a dirty environment.
Inspired by a need for change, men and women volunteered as community watchdogs upon WASHCOM’s formation. They were empowered to perform citizens arrest of anyone found defecating in the open. A stipulated fine was set as the penalty for defaulters, as well as a compulsory community service which started with the proper disposal of the fecal waste matter that the defaulter was caught with.
“I made many enemies in the community because people felt I was being overzealous for a job I was not even paid for. But I did not mind because I wanted to ensure that change for the better is attained in our community for our collective interests,” recounts Joseph Otu, who is the WASHCOM chairman in the community. He continues, “they even nicknamed me ‘shitman’, because I was always searching the village and the bushes for defaulters who persisted in defecating in the open.”
“Sometimes, certain individuals threatened me to warn my husband to stop doing a ‘work no pay’ job. Their aim was to make a caricature of us as a couple so that we would stop the volunteer work,” relates Mrs. Otu, who is also a WASHCOM volunteer.
Undeterred, they persisted until their efforts bore fruit. Their community was recognized as open defecation free (ODF), and cases of sanitation related diseases reduced significantly. Despite the milestone reached, these ever-active WASHCOM members remained vigilant to ensuring that their community sustains their ODF status.
A twist in the narrative
Unfortunately, the people of Ikpariyong village have the same challenge of accessing suitable water as their Afifia counterparts. Located right at the heart of the community is both a solar powered borehole, and a manual borehole normally referred to as ‘Manpower’. However, both boreholes are dormant and dysfunctional.
Chief Ojobe Ehom spoke on the effects of a lack of basic water supply on the community. He says, “The boreholes stopped working not too long after they were constructed. Ever since they broke down, there have been frequent cases of diarrhea among my grandchildren and other children in the village as a result of consuming water from a nearby stream which is not safe.”
The locals however do not have much of a choice as there are little or no alternatives to getting safe drinking water. The challenge to sustain their ODF status is also threatened everyday as a lack of adequate water supply would invariably translate to the inability to use adequate toilet facilities.
Interestingly, the World health Organization reports that Diarrhea is the leading cause of death in children under five years old. Each year an estimated 525,000 children under five dies as a result of the disease.
UNICEF’s statistics reveals that “the consequences of unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) on children can be deadly. Over 700 children under age 5 die every day of diarrheal diseases due to lack of appropriate WASH services. In areas of conflict, children are nearly 20 times more likely to die from diarrheal disease than from the conflict itself.”
It further estimates that worldwide, “2.2 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water. While more than half of the global population does not have access to safe sanitation. And some 673 million people still practice open defecation.”
Furthermore, a 2019 study by the Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene, reports that in the rural areas of Nigeria, some 38% have access to a basic water service (improved, available on premises), 26% have limited water service (improved, but not available on premises), and an interesting 37% have no water service (no facility or unimproved).
UNICEF defines Basic water supply as water from an Improved source within 30 minutes round trip collection time; while Limited water supply is water from an improved source over 30 minutes round trip collection time; Unimproved water supply on the other hand is water from an unimproved source that does not protect against contamination.
“In 2017, 785 million people still lack a basic water service and among them 144 million people still collected drinking water directly from rivers, lakes and other surface water sources,” UNICEF observes.
The living conditions of the natives of Afifia and Ikpariyong communities, are undoubtedly captured in these statistics.
Tackling the sanitation and the water challenge
An article by the World bank titled “World Bank. 2017. A Wake-Up Call: Nigeria Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene Poverty Diagnostic. WASH Poverty Diagnostic. World Bank, Washington, DC.” Observes with regards to Nigeria’s Water challenge that “around 25 percent to 30 percent of water points are likely to fail within the very first year after installation.”
However, it also notes that “If water points and schemes are more carefully attended to during the design, implementation, and operational stages, it is possible to drastically reduce failure rates.”
Spotlighting key issues and solutions to the water challenge in the Nigerian State, it further states, “A key challenge in rural water supply is information asymmetry with regard to the quality of services provided by drilling contractors and monitored by MDAs. The need for specialized skills to construct boreholes means that neither water users nor government actors are easily able to discern whether a newly constructed borehole is providing high-quality water or whether the water supply will be sustained long-term.
This means that government regulation of borehole construction is often difficult and ineffective, and service users in rural areas are unable to hold contractors or the state accountable. Where government monitoring of rural water takes place, the data collected provide information on the number of water points constructed, rather than on the quality of service provided.
This means that important information on water provision is not collected, and hence state expenditure on rural water is made according to the number of water points constructed rather than the actual quality of the service provided. Moreover, rural citizens have little power or influence over politicians and public provision, and politicians are not elected on the quality of water services.
In addition, while the construction of new water points may be perceived by citizens as a visible improvement to their locality, improvements to water quality and water point maintenance are less visible to users. As such, these improvements are more difficult to achieve and there is little for local politicians to gain in addressing such systemic problems.
Instead, local politicians have more to gain financially, or in reputation, from the construction of additional water points. This may contribute to the pattern of “build, neglect, and rebuild.”
Therefore, it stands to reason that effective policies should be enacted to guide contractors whose services are engaged to build water points in rural areas regarding both the quality of work done, and the likelihood of ensuring sustainability.
One way sustainability can be achieved is by borrowing a leaf from the ‘modus operandi’ (mode of operation) of an international organization known as CharityWater. Its founder, Scott Harrison says that its mission “is to bring clean water to everyone on the planet.”
CharityWater focuses on helping disadvantaged individuals in rural communities and impoverished parts of the globe that have no access to a basic or limited water supply, to get clean water free from contamination.
To ensure both accountability and sustainability, the organization developed and installed remote water sensors on each of the thousands of manual powered (manpower) boreholes they installed in these remote communities. “That way we know that the project continued to work overtime,” Scott said.
He continues, “We also made sure that each project was led by locals in each community so that they will both feel a sense of responsibility towards the project and own it.”
“Water and Sanitation creates an enabling environment so that all aspects of development can take place.” He concludes.
Similarly, Nigeria can move past the ever-spinning cycle of “build, neglect, and rebuild”, when focus is given to quality over quantity. Those who are contracted to build water points in rural areas should be mandated to install remote sensors on them to aid maintenance and ensure sustainability.
According to the 2000 Water Supply and Sanitation Services (WSS) policy, financing urban and rural water is shared between tiers of government; in practice, federal, state, and local governments, as well as NGOs, communities, and development partners play a role.
Therefore, communities should be aware of their roles in contributing at the very least, to owning and protecting the boreholes from vandalism, or mishandling. As this will be in their own interests, so that these infrastructures do not become dysfunctional.
The Afifia community can mirror the efforts of their counterparts in Ikpariyong by adopting stringent measures to end open defecation in their community and sustain it. Thus, reducing sanitation related diseases that continues to plague their existence.
A right of every human
Mabel a young single mother who lives with her mother and one-year old baby in a small mud room in a corner of the village hopes for better living conditions. Her hopes at best would be a fairy tale given how unrealistic and unattainable they appear to be.
Despite how unattainable her dreams may appear, her wish that she and her baby and her aged mother have access to safe drinking water is not too much to ask for.
On 28 July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.
Patience, Mabel and all the natives of Afifia and Ikpariyong communities as well as every single human alive have the unequalled right to a basic water supply. That right should not be a dream that can only be hoped for at best and available to individuals in Nigeria’s urban.
Care should be taken to focus on rural communities that lack these basic infrastructures as they seem to be out of the map, and thus out of focus. Efforts should also be made to sustain projects that are installed in these rural areas as maintenance is key so that these infrastructures do not become moribund over the course of time.
Proactive measures and policies will help to flatten the curve and see to an increase in the percentage of individuals in rural Nigeria that have access to basic water supply which is currently at 38%. Above all, the killer diseases that threatens the existence of our children under five who could become captains of industries and leaders of our Nation’s future, will have been eliminated.
Iwunze is a WASH, Solutions and Data Photojournalist