El Niño, bringing more heat and less rain, has been blamed for the late onset of the wet season in West Africa this year. However, budgetary cuts due to the current crash in the price of crude have reduced public expenditure on water supply in Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State of Nigeria. The result is water stress in the country’s third largest metropolis, and grave implications for health and hygiene for three million people.
By Kolawole Talabi
In 1997, when Sifawu Fatoke left her home in Ibadan for a year working in Europe she had to ensure her household of three children, four relatives and one middle-aged guardian were prepared for her absence. So, she started digging a well. Since the previous year, the supply of potable water from the Water Corporation of Oyo State (WCOS) had become too erratic.
Once her major source of water, aside the heavy rains which usually fell between early April and late November every year, the unstable water supply from WCOS had made Sifawu turn to another source — a community well sited about 50 metres from her residence. But there was a problem with getting clean water from this particular deep well.
“The community well had been dug by the local council for the entire neighbourhood,” Sifawu recalled.
“But the man who was placed in charge of the project had used his influence to ensure the well had been dug in front of his property. He would later make illegal demands on the rest of the community, dictating when and how much water each household could get per day.”
Frustrated by the inconvenience of having to fetch water so far from her house and by her neighbour’s unscrupulous behaviour, Sifawu began to enquire how much it would cost to dig a well on her own property.
After a few weeks, 13 rims of cast concrete, each 3-foot deep, were fitted into a circular pit dug within her compound. The project cost her 40,000 naira, a sizable amount at that time but she did not mind the expense. All she wanted was clean water for her family while she was away.
Whilst the United States has its ongoing public water crisis in Flint, Nigeria’s version of public water gone awry is Ibadan. Unlike Flint, a small town in the state of Michigan, Ibadan is Nigeria’s largest city by area. It ranks third in population; only Lagos on the Atlantic coast and Kano by the fringes of the Sahara desert have more people.
Founded in 1829, the sprawling municipality of Ibadan sits delicately on seven hilly ridges between the verdant expanse of dense tropical rainforest to the south and the relatively drier savannah that dominates the country’s northern hinterland.
The city’s ubiquitous hills hint at the region’s geology. Much of Ibadan is underlain by impervious basement complex formations, the hardest kind of rocks. Little wonder inner-city districts are named Oke Ado, Oke Are, Oke Bola and Oke Padi — Oke means hill in Yoruba.
The municipality is among the earliest beneficiaries of public water supply in Nigeria, says the Water Supply and Sanitation Interim Strategy Note. In the early days of colonial rule, public water schemes were maintained by selling water with almost no financial support from the local administration.
By the middle of the 20th century, the newly created regions took over the development and management of water projects in their respective jurisdictions.
Unwilling to relinquish control, the regional governments continued to operate their water supply even as Nigeria attained independence.
Later, in 1966, the old Western region took the lead when it established Nigeria’s first water corporation. Afterwards, the various States of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory began to set up their own public water boards or corporations.
The irony is that, with the entrance of state control, public water supplies gradually became erratic and in some cases moribund. In the early 1970s, the Ibadan Municipal Government invested heavily in public water projects.
Major pipelines were laid and the Asejire waterworks was commissioned. Successive administrations, mostly military regimes, were unable to build upon those achievements due to corruption. By the 1990s, taps across the city were beginning to run dry.
Despite the huge potential of the Asejire and Eleyele waterworks, these reservoirs have been largely underused. With a capacity of 186 million litres per day, Asejire can conveniently meet the domestic water needs of the estimated three million people of Ibadan.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the minimum water requirement for short-term survival for individuals per day is 20 litres. This figure doubles if personal hygiene needs — bathing and washing clothes are included.
Although the metropolitan population has increased in the last four decades, poor city planning is by far the biggest challenge facing the provision of potable water to the city. The Ogunpa River which could have provided the residents with fresh supplies of clean water is heavily polluted with domestic refuse.
As the city expanded, the river’s catchment areas were cleared to build roads and houses. Rainwater should have seeped through the soil to recharge the underground water system, but is now mostly lost as surface run-off, increasing the risk of floods in low-lying areas.
Worse still, an ill-planned channelization project in 2003 turned the river bed into a concrete alley. The channel quickly became an improvised dumpsite for human waste. The government claims that extensive renovation works have been carried out on the Asejire Reservoir, yet only a negligible fraction of Ibadan’s three million residents are connected to the public water mains.
This forces most people to depend on wells, boreholes and water vendors for their daily supply of water. In the course of this reporting, not one person I spoke to had access to the city’s water supply. Two doctors, four homeowners, one academic, and even a retired civil servant all decried the lack of portable water in their respective neighbours.
The 2015 estimates for capital expenditure on water resources in the Oyo State budgetary allocation totalled 2.2 billion naira — that’s 82% less than what was spent in the previous fiscal year. These subventions are yet to yield significant results.
Rising demand, falling supply
Since Sifawu dug her well 19 years ago, two boreholes and four deep wells have sprung up in her neighbourhood in the Ring Road district of the city. She says her taps have been completely dry for over a decade now.
In fact, Mr. Owolabi, an ex-commissioner, who served during the first term of the current Oyo State governor — Abiola Ajimobi, also had to drill a borehole when he moved into his residence in the same neighbourhood about three years ago.
The former cabinet member now supplies his neighbours with fresh supplies pumped from his own borehole on a daily basis.
Nonetheless, access to clean water is still a challenge for low-income tenants who lack direct access to deep wells on the same street where Sifawu lives. Out of the 12 houses in her neighbourhood, only six have a reliable source of water. Sifawu now jealously guards her well from intruders.
Recently, a hostel opened across her residence to provide accommodation for members of the National Youth Service Corps, Nigeria’s mandatory civil service draft for university graduates.
“Despite knowing that the water level had dropped due to the dry season, those corpers would not desist from coming here to draw water before dawn,” Sifawu lamented when I spoke to her in mid-April. “By the time they are done, the well has become too silty and the water is unusable for cooking for the rest of the day. I have told them not to come here again!”
She reasoned that if the rains had come earlier this year, the water table in her well would not have dropped so low. In fact, she claimed she had never experienced such a low level since she dug the well.
She added that while three wells in her neighbourhood had dried up due to the prolonged dry season, hers is one of the few that still supplied water.
She seemed satisfied that she had insisted that three additional rims of concrete be added to deepen the well, instead of stopping at ten rims when the diggers struck water at 30 feet.
As more and more boreholes are drilled, the water table drops. The direct result is that new boreholes must be drilled deeper to reach the water table.
“In 1998 when I returned from Germany after my studies, you would generally hit water at a depth of 120 feet for boreholes,” explains Moshood Tijani, a professor of geology at the University of Ibadan.
“These days, especially in some parts [of Ibadan], you would need to go to depths of 180 feet before you get to the water table.”
Ibadan receives, on average, 1,420 millimetres of precipitation each year. Most of this comes as rainfall during the wet season, a period in which the city witnesses record showers — 29 days of precipitation between June and July.
These showers usually end as run off and the water finds its way into rivers and reservoirs such as the Asejire.
Still, some of the rains goes through the soil and becomes underground water, thus recharging the water table. This is the water source upon which Sifawu and most residents of Ibadan depend.
This year the rains came rather late as predicted by experts. The March to June 2016 Predictions for West Africa by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says “below average precipitation is very likely over southwestern Nigeria.”
Water means health
“El Niño-induced weather extremes have especially affected…health and water, sanitation and hygiene,” said UN Under-Secretary-General, Stephen O’Brien in a speech in Geneva, Switzerland on April 26. “There are very worrying increases in acute malnutrition among children under five as well as water- and vector-borne diseases.”
Bolaji Durodola, a medical officer at Oni Memorial Children’s Hospital in Ibadan, agrees: “Diarrhoea is usually associated with poor hygiene practices.” In the last nine months, the pediatric hospital where Durodola practices, witnessed nearly 70 cases of gastroenteritis, mostly in children under the age of five.
Diarrhoea is, in actuality, a disease of the poor. It is estimated that 1.7 billion people suffer from it each year with just over half a million deaths in children in 2015 alone. Most of these deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and especially in Nigeria where 57 million people lack access to safe water. It begins when water which contains germs is ingested through drinking, and in some cases, via recreational sports such as outdoor swimming.
Urban streams are oftentimes polluted with human waste; so when children swim in such dirty water, they become exposed to the germs that can cause diarrhoea.
Rotavirus is the commonest germ that causes diarrhoea in children. This virus infects the cells lining the intestines and destroys them. The damage caused to these cells reduces the capacity of the intestines to absorb water, hence the watery stools observed in patients.
The result of this frequent passage of watery stools is dehydration. When the body loses a lot of water (and salts), the blood pressure falls dangerously low. Fainting spells and a rapid but weak pulse often precedes death. Rehydration, via oral intake of water, sugar and salts, is the standard method of treating the disease.
Two years ago while I was reporting on public hygiene in the city, I had spoken to Achiaka Irabor, a family health physician, who is now head of the Total Quality Management department at Nigeria’s foremost medical institution — University College Hospital (UCH). Inside Irabor’s consulting room, a public health nurse who requested anonymity summarily narrated how three newborn infants from an orphanage had been rushed to the emergency unit of the hospital. The fourth child had been brought in dead.
They all suffered from gastroenteritis; a diarrhoeal disease that is common in areas where access to clean water and sanitation is either lacking or inadequate. Together with her team, the nurse had visited the orphanage and discovered that the facility’s location on a hill had put it at a disadvantage in terms of accessing clean underground water.
All efforts by the management of the orphanage to dig a well had proved abortive since they couldn’t reach the water table. Lacking funds to opt for the rather expensive alternative, a borehole, they turned to private vendors for their supply of water.
Irabor recounted how she regularly saw faecal matter in the water her family bought from private vendors. The vendors, she added, sourced directly from the Eleyele waterworks. According to UNICEF, one gram of faeces can contain up to 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs.
A tiny amount of faeces, when mishandled, is potent enough to kill many people. The risk therefore multiplies when sanitation is inadequate and in many poor communities, completely unavailable.
Thus, the hidden problem associated with overreliance on underground water is contamination from untreated sewage. Like most unplanned settlements, Ibadan lacks a central sewage system that collects human waste for treatment.
Most homeowners build septic tanks underneath their property, and from time to time, pump the raw sewage into holding trucks for onward disposal at undesignated locations, sometimes in streams and dumpsites. This usually results in algae bloom which can further reduce the quality of the rivers and streams.
Apart from the pollution of surface water such as river channels and their associated wetlands, there is also a higher tendency for leakages of sewage tanks into underground water.
“It is generally recommended that deep wells be sited 15 metres uphill from the location of a septic tank to reduce the risk of contamination,” explains Motunrayo Fagbola, a doctor who practices community health medicine at UCH.
Fagbola advises homeowners to test the quality of water obtained from underground sources for the quantity of certain chemicals.
“There are other properties of water that people do not consider when drilling for water. The general assumption is that water from a borehole does not need to be tested [because it is clean]. We tend to focus only on biological properties but high levels of fluorine in groundwater can cause fluorosis especially in children.”
Although Sifawu treats the water from her deep well from time to time with chlorine granules, she doesn’t use the water for drinking. She buys water from a borehole vendor, instead. In the first week of May, she called on her family doctor to complain about rashes on her body.
For as long as she could remember she has had skin irritations but she’s not certain if the water from her well is responsible for these skin problems. Yet she is on medication to ease the rash on her skin.
Kazeem Sanni, one of the relatives who still lives with Sifawu complained that he always has skin irritations whenever he bathes with water from the well.
“If I don’t boil the water to a high temperature, I will itch for at least 30 minutes after taking a bath,” Kazeem said.
“Even though the water is clean, I think something is wrong with it because I don’t itch whenever I visit my friends in Lagos and bathe with tepid water there. I can’t bathe with tepid water from our own well.”
Drawing from his experience while he was a doctoral student in Germany, Moshood Tijani recommends a return to the policy where public water is sold on a ‘pay-per-use’ basis because water has economic value. He argues that the socialist belief that water should be made available freely to the public is highly unsustainable and generally leads to wastages.
He went further by saying, “Privatising the water corporation is the only way of overcoming the longstanding problems associated with public water supply in Ibadan. We can also borrow a leaf from the Germans by constituting those privatized [water] corporations as non-profits.”
Now a grandmother, Sifawu is once again preparing to travel abroad this June, but this time around she has no dependents to worry about at home. Instead she’s visiting four of her grandchildren in North America.
She believes she won’t need to take her medication along on this trip. But as I watched her return it to the safety of her medicine box, it seemed she knows she would need it, again, when she returns home.
Kolawole Talabi works as an independent investigative journalist and he currently covers topics on the environment, science, culture and development.