Edited by Ajibola AMZAT
ON April 14, 2016, Nestle Nigeria assembled a team of geological experts, businessmen and politicians to witness the commissioning of a N5.6 billion water factory in Manderegi, an agrarian community in Abaji local government area of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The factory is celebrated as the most modern water plant in Sub-Saharan Africa.
At the event, Nestle Nigeria promised to provide free access to potable water for not fewer than 1,000 residents of the community and improve technical competencies locally by establishing a technical training centre for the youths in Abaji.
Broken Promises, Deferred Hope
Two years after the water plant started full-scale operations, residents of Manderegi and its environs continue to struggle with chronic water shortages as the stream that serves as an alternative source of water supply is contaminated with wastewater directly pumped from the Nestle’s water factory. Also, the channels for the release of the wastewater from the factory has created a gully erosion, that has caused serious ecological danger destroying farmlands and access roads in the community.
In contrast, a promotional video on Nestle Nigeria’s website shows a water fountain built by the company in the outskirts of the community that purportedly provides potable water to 1,000 residents of Manderegi community which, according to Nestle Nigeria, had made the residents abandon the local stream and gain access to clean drinking water.
When The ICIR visited the site of the water fountain, there were only four taps, which were expected to supply water to 1,000 residents of the community.
The advert also claims to have provided 111 jobs for the local community and embarked on Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) to help teachers in the local council area raise awareness on proper hydration and conservation in children which reached 25 schools, 100 teachers and 2,500 pupils in 2017.
In the video, the community chief, Alhaji Seidu Garba, thanked Nestle for siting the water plant in his community.
“We thank God for Nestle that came here to Manderegi, I am very glad,” he said before the video ended.
Time has proved Garba wrong.
Two years later, his tone has changed as expectations that the water processing plant would change the fortunes of the community for the better were dashed.
Recounting the details of the water crises faced by the community, Garba told The ICIR that, since Nestle Nigeria set up the multi-billion naira water factory in Manderegi, the community regularly has suffered scarcity of water.
And any announcement made by the company to ease the water problem in the community is a promotional stunt to build their public reputation.
“Nestle officials approached me and said they wanted to extend water supply from their factory to their gates so that people in the village could have access to clean water for their needs. They said though they didn’t have the capacity to take the water into the village, they promised me that after one year they would ensure that a borehole is built inside the community to ease the burden of the people,” he said.
It was later we realised that the water project located at the outskirts of the village was not built to solve our water problem but to serve as a tool of propaganda, he added.
“We didn’t know it was a ploy by Nestle to supply water to their customers. Today is Monday if you go there you will see tanker drivers with vehicles there, they didn’t build it for us. They control the taps from their factory and they turn it off when the crowd is much, leaving us frustrated, and without water.
Early this year, Nestle commissioned another borehole project in the primary school that will serve the school and the community but till today there is no water from that borehole,” he said.
Nestle Nigeria constructed a metal container for the village chief which serves as his “office” where he receives guests. In front of the container is a tap head that hardly produces water. When Nestle Nigeria inaugurated the second borehole project in the primary school inside the community in January, people’s hope was raised, but the four taps through which the water should pass remain dry till date.
“Now we have resorted to fetching water from the stream to get our daily needs of water. I leave them (Nestle) to God. Check the distance from this place to Nestle (water factory) just to fetch water, do you know how many kilometres that is,” he queried The ICIR.
Nestle has renovated a section of the LGEA primary school, Manderegi including the school toilet, but the restroom has been under lock and key because the borehole that is to serve the toilet is non-functional.
And despite the claim by Nestle Nigeria, the Headteacher of the school, Muhammed Sarki, told The ICIR that there has never been a water sensitization exercise carried out by Nestle for teachers in the school.
“To the best of my knowledge, no training has ever been conducted for teachers in this school by Nestle to teach water sensitisation for teachers and pupils. As for the borehole, currently, it is not working because one of the machines got spoilt that is why we don’t have water. When it is restored then there will be water,” he told The ICIR.
Like the school, the Primary Health Center, Manderegi, also does not have water despite the vast, underground water table in this community.
Umar Saidu, the head of the clinic who was transferred to the centre four months ago, told The ICIR that water is a big challenge because the clinic spends about ₦350 weekly to pay women in the community to supply water from the stream or from the water taps at Nestle’s gate.
That is how the health centre has been able to prevent the outbreak of water-borne diseases at the clinic.
The World Health Organisation, WHO estimates a minimum daily entitlement of 20 litres of water per day for every individual to take care of basic hygiene needs including food hygiene, apart from laundry and bathing that require a large quantity of water. Most residents of Manderegi instead wake up every morning thinking about where to get water to meet their basic water needs.
Burden bearers of Manderegi
The Manderegi community has experienced a persistent water scarcity for over twenty years. Despite, several borehole projects launched by the federal government within this period, their usefulness has been short-lived.
Two solar-powered borehole projects built by the former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua administration in 2008, barely worked for a year before it stopped functioning.
Years later the people of Abaji continued to draw water from the stream until Nestle Nigeria came with a water project that promised to end the problem of water scarcity in the village.
Residents expected the Nestle water project would make potable water accessible because they would no longer travel long distances to get water.
But the reverse has been the case.
Aisha Ibrahim’s still engages in this daily ritual that has formed a part of her upbringing.
She has to wake up before the crack of dawn every day with her mother and siblings to walk for over one hour to the Manderegi stream to get water for their domestic activities for the day. It is a tough task for the eight-year-old whose exertion from the daily routine of fetching water affects her studies.
“I’m always late to school in the morning because before I get home from the stream and prepare for school, it would have been late,” she told The ICIR through an interpreter in her local dialect.
“At school, I feel sleepy in class because I have to get up very early in the morning to attend to my morning chores and it makes me tired but I try to stay awake and listen to my teachers. I would love to have a tap running close to my house so I don’t have to go very far to get water,” she said.
A 2016 study carried out by UNICEF in 24 countries in Sub- Saharan countries which includes Nigeria indicated that women and girls in these countries bear the burden of water collection which a round- trip takes averagely 33 minutes which could possibly affect the education of girls in the region and prevent their attending school altogether.
Sadiu Salihu, another girl resident in the village, told The ICIR that the physical exhaustion associated with the long-distance to get water is her main concern.
“I have to trek every morning and evening to get water from the stream with my friends and sibling. The road to the stream is rough and hilly, and with water on my head, I usually feel dizzy and exhausted,” the eighteen-year-old said.
She, however, explained that getting water from the stream is better for her because she prefers drinking from an unsafe stream than risk crossing the highway with water on her head, and become a victim of the road accident.
“The distance from this village to Nestle (water factory) is very far, and that means I would have to cross the major road with water on my head. Several women have died from crossing that road with water on their heads. To be on the safe side I would rather get my water from the stream which is safer,” she said.
She along with over 69 million Nigerians do not have access to potable drinking water and resort to getting water from compromised sources that put their health at risk according to 2018 data obtained from United Nations International Children Emergency Fund, UNICEF.
Sourcing water from a Contaminated Chalice
When The ICIR reporter visited the stream he noticed that the wastewater from the Nestle factory runs directly into the stream through pipes. Also, cow dung littered the surrounding of the stream increasing the chances of pollution.
A water sample obtained from the stream in Manderegi on 28th February tested at the National Institute of Science Laboratory Technology, Ibadan, shows significant pollution.
The tested sample indicated a high presence of pathogenic bacteria at 1.3 x 10-3 mg/L beyond the recommended World Health Organisation WHO, limits of 1.0 × 101 mg/L. Also, the total coliform count showed that it was 1.0 × 102 in excess against the WHO 0.00 limits prescribed by the global health body.
A high coliform count shows that bacteria associated with human and warm-blooded animal waste are present in the water. Diseases such as typhoid fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, and dysentery can be contracted from the water with a high coliform count. It is recommended that faecal coliform be absent from drinking water.
Femi Adediran, a registered chartered chemist and member of the Institute of Public Analysts of Nigeria, IPAN, told The ICIR about the contaminants to expect from a water processing plant.
“You could test for residual chlorine and if present, there is the possibility of having trihalomethanes (a by-product of chlorination if done in excess). There could also be increased turbidity/suspended solids from frequent backwashing and cleaning of the factory,” he said.
However, the pH of the sample was surprisingly low at 6.95 against the recommended WHO 7.0. The total suspended solids also showed a moderate 268mg/L and residual chlorine was absent from the sample.
The Biological Oxygen Demand, BOD, of the sample, revealed a high 12.88mg/L which is dangerous and reveals increased pollutants activity present in the water.
According to Water Research Center, a water sample with BOD between 1 and 2 mg/L indicates very clean water, 3.0 to 5.0 mg/L indicates moderately clean water and greater than 5 mg/L indicates a nearby pollution source in the water.
However, the pollution of this stream has continued unabated for over two years without the intervention of environmental regulatory agencies mandated to regularly carry out inspections.
The landscape of Manderegi has changed visibly since Nestle set up their factory in 2016.
Unregulated discharge of effluents from the factory has created a gully erosion that rendered roads in the community inaccessible and destroyed farmlands.
The gully erosion starts from drainage outlets set up at the back of the factory spanning over an estimated distance of 100m into the community.
Mohammed Kabir, a deputy youth leader in the community told The ICIR that the roads destroyed were motorable two years ago but now residents in the community use people’s farm as access roads to get to their destinations. Passing through this alternative route may get worse during the rainy season.
“Two years ago this place (pointing to the eroded portion of the road) was a major road where we used to get to our farms but now we can’t walk on foot through this place because of the erosion. It was from day one when they started operations at this factory that they started pumping wastewater into our community, it started small until it escalated to this level with the rains approaching this year it is going to be worse,” he said.
Alhassan Abdullahi, is a certified graduate with a Nigerian Certificate in Education, NCE, from the Nassarawa College of Education, Akwanga but he is currently engaged in part-time farming.
He is sceptical that his source of livelihood might be affected by the erosion
“Farming is the main occupation for young people in this village but with our land slowly eroding away by Nestle activities I wonder what they expect us to do. When you apply for a job at their company they will tell you your skillset is not needed but they promised to open a training centre to train youths but I don’t know who they’ve trained in this village yet they’re destroying our farmland gradually,” he lamented.
The National Environmental Standards and Regulation Enforcement Agency (NESREA) is the agency saddled with the responsibility of regulating and monitoring the protection and sustainable development of the environment and its natural resources. It also imposes punitive measures on culprits.
Section 2 of the Environment Impact Assessment Act E12 of the 2004 NESREA Act stipulates that before private and public companies can carry out any activity, assessment of the potential impacts whether positive or negative, of the proposed project on the natural environment should be carried out first and observed.
Until the amendment of the NESREA Act in November 2018 which reviewed its existing regulations, increased strict penalties and permits the search of premises without a court warrant, the environmental body is no longer “toothless” according to a post on its Twitter handle.
Suleiman Oyofo, NESREA spokesperson told The ICIR in a phone interview that the reviewed regulations have strengthened the agency to respond to environmental issues and effectively monitor the activities of companies.
“Unlike before when we need a warrant before we can enforce compliance of the law, the amendment has made it easy for us to operate and given us leverage to impose stiffer penalties on defaulting public and private companies which is something we’ve not been able to do in a long time,” he said.
NESREA is still faced with the challenges of conducting routine checks and monitoring the activities of companies that flout environmental laws. The ICIR sought to know from Oyofo if the agency was aware of the environmental violations taking place in Manderegi by Nestle activities and their response mechanisms.
“No, we are not aware. The community will have to file a formal complaint to the Director-General of NESREA and then we can swing into action and take it up from there,” he stated.
Oluwafemi Ojo, the Human Resources Manager at Nestle Waters, Abaji declined to comment on the issue raised.
“You will have to give me a document to substantiate the claims you’ve made so I can send it to the corporate headquarters in Lagos for their response because I can’t speak on these issues. Or I can give you my email address to send your questions for me to forward it to the appropriate quarters,” he said.
The ICIR later sent the emails to Ojo and the Lagos corporate office requesting to know if the Environment Impact Assessment was conducted by Nestle before siting the factory in the community, but the mail was not replied as at the time of filing this report.
Calls placed to the public affairs manager, Victoria Uwadoka, was answered by a female operator who asked the reporter to call back after an hour. When the reporter called back an hour later he was told the spokesperson was unavailable.
An environmental activist with Environmental Rights Action, ERA, Olatunji Buhari, said a functional public water system is the best way to make potable water accessible to people.
Sustainable Development Goal six can only be achieved by creating innovative solutions to make water available for all, he added.
“The easiest way to make the prescribed 25 litres daily quota of water which is a right for every Nigerian, readily available is by making our public water systems work. The usual complaint from the government is that there is no money but we are saying use innovative taxations by compelling big companies that use more water pay more but you will be shocked that the taxes paid by these companies are no different from the costs of water that a three-bedroom flat pays,” he said.
Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.