Water, Water Everywhere Around Lagos, But Not A Drop To Drink


The title of this review is paraphrased from lines in the poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

By Chido Onumah

Favour, 15, and her four siblings live with their parents in a two-room apartment in Bariga, a suburb formerly under Somolu Local Government Area of Lagos State, but now a Local Council Development Area (LCDA) of its own.

Like in other places, the taps in the building have gone dry for years, and so is the public tap down the street erected by the government to meet the water needs of the people in the area.

So they are forced to buy water from mai ruwa, the ubiquitous water vendors who have become a permanent feature of life serving the needs of the people in virtually every community in the State.

But most of the time the family can’t afford the vendors, so she and her brother, Tomi, 13, would pick up the jerry cans to go search for water for the use of the household before they go to school. To get enough water every morning, they have to do three trips each. And when they return from school, after homework, the other major preoccupation is to go look for water.

Almost on a daily basis, they live with the stress of pounding the streets with adults and early teens like themselves who are routinely roused from sleep before dawn by their parents to go and fetch water, not just for drinking and cooking, but also for other domestic needs for which the commodity is required.

This is the depressing spectacle that is common in the coastal city of Lagos, a dreamy landscape of over 21 million residents

Snuggled in the caressing coolness of the lagoon and the Gulf of Guinea, Lagos is the fabled city of water; water everywhere, yet in a disarming twist of cruel irony, its residents, especially low-income earners that form the bulk of the population, have no access to water.

Thank God for mai ruwa. What would have happened without the intervention of this itinerant group of resilient economic hustlers whose main source of water supply are the boreholes and water tankers?

Of course, this acute water shortage has severe consequences, including compromised sanitation and the impoverishment of Lagosians.

It is this embarrassing dilemma bedeviling the city that the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria seeks to address in its latest audacious report entitled, Lagos Water Crisis: Alternative Roadmap for Efficient Water Sector.

A tour de force of no mean reckoning, the 56-page report (including references) is at once an eye-opener—a sobering, reflective and penetrating excursion into the stark profile of public water utility in Africa’s most populous city. T

hankfully, while it paints an ugly picture of this sector, this document also offers a ray of hope.

The content page has seven sub-headings and kicks off with the executive summary that outlines the aim of the report, which includes charting a pathway out of the Lagos water problem, highlighting the impact and reasons why the current water system is not working, offering blueprints from around the world that would suit the Lagos situation and making concrete proposals that can be exploited in the interim, as well as continuously by the Lagos State government and the Lagos State Water Corporation.

According to the report, Lagos is responsible for more than 60 percent of industrial and commercial activities in Nigeria. The Lagos State Water Supply Master plan estimates daily water demand in the city at 540 million gallons per day (MGD) and production by the Lagos State Water Corporation at 210 MGD.

It says, however, that the Corporation’s website lists total production capacity at only 163 MGD. By 2020, water demand is expected to reach 733 GMD.

The report opens a rare insight into the health and economic implications of the Lagos water crisis. It notes that since water and sanitation are crucial factors in public health, the impact of water crisis on public health is grave.

“Indeed, it puts the State’s booming population at risk of diseases like cholera, dysentery, diarrhea and salmonellosis, in addition to escalating cases of typhoid and malaria fever,” the report observes gravely.

Quoting Dr. Jide Idris, Lagos State Commissioner for Health, it recalls that in February 2016, 25 children in Otodo Gbame, in Ikate Eti-Osa Local Government Area of the state died after drinking the community’s pathogen-infected water.

Unfortunately, many houses are currently serviced by boreholes. The dangers of drinking such water, it says, include long-term exposure to toxins. Also quoting a 2012 report published in Resources and Environment, the report says some borehole water samples examined in Lagos contained high concentration of the heavy metals lead and cadmium at levels above the World Health Organisation (WHO) maximum acceptable concentration (MAC). It warns that only adequate water treatment could help control heavy metal exposure.

On the economic consequences of water shortage, the report notes that the high cost of sourcing water has made Lagos residents poorer.

It notes, “The average family could use up to seven or eight jerrycans daily, which translates to N10,000 to N17,000 monthly in a nation where the middle class average family income is N75,000-N100,000. This high price threatens the availability of water, which improves the quality of life and makes citizens healthier for economic activities and development.”

Faced with such high human and economic cost as a result of water crisis, it is pertinent to examine how Lagos found itself in this awkward position.

For starters, the report observes that the root of Lagos water crisis is not traceable to a single cause, but to a number of causes which includes, first and foremost, the fact that for decades expansion of the public water system has not corresponded with the rapid growth of the metropolis.

Other reasons include ageing and insufficient water infrastructure, decades of policies that did not work, failure to ensure meaningful public participation, poor labour practices, regulatory failures, and, of course, inadequate budget allocation.

For example, though the governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode, described the State’s 2016 budget as the “people’s budget,” it falls short on water, with only N17.6billion or 2.7 percent for the State’s Water Corporation.

In spite of this, the report notes that with the right financial and social policies, Lagos can fund the water structure required to ensure all Lagosians have affordable access to safe water.

If there’s one significant achievement of this report it is the fact that it brings to the fore the problem of access to water as a human rights issue. It clearly underscores this notion through interviews with a cross section of Lagos residents that show that the public desires a system that sustains their right to water and allows the people to participate in making decisions about their water needs.

However, to fulfill the human right to water, the report says governments must ensure water is available, physically accessible, affordable, safe, and acceptable in odour, colour and other qualities. The concept of water privatization being canvassed in some quarters is unanimously rejected by all individuals and groups featured in the interviews.

The report examines public water successes, citing examples and models from around the world, which Lagos could draw from if it is committed to re-inventing its public water system. It reminds those who are angling for the privatization of water that the most prominent examples of efficiency are located in the public sector, not the private sector.

“For example, public operator Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) increased coverage from 20% to 90% in less than 20 years,” the report says.

Pointing the way forward for Lagos, the report offers Governor Ambode and the State House of Assembly a set of policy guidelines which, if followed with the appropriate political will, could transform the Lagos water system “from a source of disease, conflict and suffering into a model for all the world to emulate.”

Well-researched and brilliantly rendered, ERA/FoEN has through this report once again demonstrated its capacity to intervene and proffer solutions in critical areas of life, especially as it affects the environment.



    Unlike the Lagos water, the language of this report is accessible, and is made more captivating by graphic illustrations that accentuate as much as the word the quality of the entire package.

    This is not a document that should be left to gather dust on the shelves of public libraries (where they exist) or government offices. It is a report that state governors across the country should permanently hold on to if they are serious about solving the water crisis in their states.

    Perhaps as a way of driving home the importance of water, it is just as fitting that the authors summoned the immortal words of Leonardo Da Vinci to wrap up this excellent report: “Water is the driving force of all nature.”

    Onumah is the Coordinator of the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL).


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