By Samuel Malik
Three years after the multi-billion naira Greater Makurdi Waterworks in Benue State was commissioned by President Goodluck Jonathan, residents of the state capital still rely heavily on water vendors for their daily water supply.
Since the advent of democracy in 1999, Benue State has sought to free itself from the tag of the proverbial state that sits by the riverside, yet washes its hands with spittle. The state derives its name from River Benue which practically surrounds it but the government has failed woefully in tapping this resource to meet the water needs of the residents.
In 2001, then governor of the state, George Akume, awarded a $26.4 million contract to Biwater Company for the construction of Greater Makurdi Waterworks, a water treatment facility with a capacity of 45,000 cubic meters per day. However, by the time he finished his two-term tenure in 2003, with more than $6.2 million spent on the project, not much progress had been recorded.
It was as a result that Gabriel Suswam, the incumbent governor, decided to do something and in 2008, one year after succeeding Akume, the first contract was revoked and another one signed with Gilmor Nigeria Limited.
President Goodluck Jonathan commissioned the $42 million 50, 000 cubic metres daily capacity waterworks, with a potential to be extended to 100, 000 cubic metres, in March 2013, raising hope that the more than 600, 000- residents of the state capital would finally be able to get potable water, something they had grappled with for decades.
However, the state government’s failure to factor into the contract how the water would reach the people meant that they cannot benefit from the project, despite its completion and capacity to completely meet the town’s water demand for the next 35 years.
The piping work for the waterworks is not in place, something the state government admitted was an “oversight” on its part for not including it in the construction contract. With the cost for reticulation more than double the amount the construction cost, the government is reluctant, even unable, to foot the bill.
“The reticulation commensurate to that (new waterworks) is not in place and the network that has already been on the ground is the one of 1978,” Michael Dzungu, general manager of Benue State Water Board, told the icirnigeria.org.
“The bill for the reticulation was too high. The state government spent about N6.2 billion to construct that and they were demanding for another N14 billion to do the reticulation.
“Unless the normal reticulation commensurate to that waterworks is put in place, the water shortage in Makurdi will continue,” he lamented.
In the meantime, the state government decided to use the old piping system for the new waterworks but this can only serve a fraction of the population. Erratic power supply even makes this difficult.
In addition, most of the old pipes are out-dated, rusty and broken. This explains why water sprouts in different parts of the town anytime water is pumped.
Today, majority of residents in Makurdi depend on water vendors for clean water. Thus, it is common to see water tankers in almost every part of the state capital.
Curiously, the tankers get their water from the waterworks, serving as distribution channels to get water to customers.
“We buy the water from waterworks at N2, 500 per tanker and sell to customers between N6, 000 and N8, 000,” Idi, a member of the Water Tankers Drivers Association in the state, said.
The tanker drivers also suffer from the frequent power outages that plague the whole country. Without electricity, water cannot be pumped, meaning they cannot make sales.
“At times we only make one trip, especially when there is no electricity for the waterworks to pump water, and sometimes when there is light, we are told the current is either too high or too low to power the equipment,” Idi explained.
As they are usually in high demand, the tanker drivers can make up to three trips on a good day, depending on the distance to the location to which they have to deliver the water. Customers can also meet them at the waterworks to book for deliveries. When they agree on price, sometimes negotiating can take longer, they get the address and deliver immediately or when they get the water. In some cases, they deliver the following day.
Residents also fetch from the waterworks but unlike tanker drivers and other water vendors, they do not pay.
Joseph, a senior civil servant in the state who did not give his other name, goes to the waterworks at least twice a week. “I come here when I am free because the water scarcity is hitting us hard. The major problem we have is electricity. When there is electricity and water is pumped, it gets to my house, which is not too far from here,” he told our reporter at the waterworks.
Abah Omale, 30, graduated from the university more than five years ago and having failed to secure a job, he decided to go into the business of selling water.
“I got tired of applying for job and with the water scarcity in Makurdi, I thought there could be an opportunity for me,” Omale said.
That decision was a masterstroke. Five years after he went into the business, he has become a major source of clean water for many people, after the waterworks.
People come with their vehicles from different parts of the town to buy water from the soft-spoken Omale while he also has 20 pushcarts rented out to water vendors at N500 weekly each. This excludes the N70 the vendors pay to feel a 10-jerrycan pushcart of 20 litres.
Though there are other competitors in the same neighbourhood, Omale has successfully cemented himself as customers’ favourite. People from the neighbourhood do not pay when they fetch from his taps, something he says gives him joy.
“That is the benefit they enjoy for having such a business close to them and I am satisfied that I am able to meet their water needs,” he said, adding that his relationship with customers could be responsible for the high patronage he enjoys.
“I think it has to do with how I treat my customers and the fact that I have been consisted in doing this for five years.”
He operates every day of the week from morning to night and while he is not willing to disclose how much he makes but, he confirms that business is not bad.
By our estimation, during dry season when water demand is very high, Omale would be making well over N200, 000 monthly, although he spends a lot on diesel and services of equipment.
For other Makurdi residents who cannot afford the N6, 000 or N8, 000 a full water tanker costs or the N200 a pushcart of water costs, they are left with the hope that a miracle happens for the reticulation to be done.
With no concrete plan of funding the piping, Dzungu, the state water board boss, is hoping that the incoming government of Samuel Ortom would scale the hurdle that has been there for ovre 16 years.
“By May 29 when the new government is put in place, that is one of the first things we will write down and put,” Dzungu says, before adding how he thinks the state can go about funding the project.
“The funds may be sourced from the federal government and then the state will also contribute her counterpart contribution and then go into the reticulation,” he suggested.