Lagos, Nigeria, is surrounded by an abundance of water, but millions
of inhabitants in Africa’s most populous city can’t drink it. The state
is not providing water and they’re also not allowing people to fend for
themselves to survive.
Water shortages, fueled in part by recurrent drought and violence, has
been decimating Nigeria for years. The charity WaterAid has said the
water crisis had killed more people across the country than the militant
group Boko Haram. While the terrorist group had claimed more than 4,000
lives in 2014, the nonprofit said a lack
of running water had killed more than 70,000. Water has long been a source of tension in Lagos, it added.
The coastal city that’s bordered by a lagoon is in the throes of a water
crisis. Only1 in 10 people have access to water that the state utility
provides. The rest — some 19 million residents — rely on informal water
sources, eitherdrilling their own boreholes to drink from or fetching
water from lakes or rivers. Those that can afford it pay exorbitant
amounts to local “mai ruwa,” or water vendors, who peddle their wares in
often-unsanitary jerry cans, or bottles and cellophane sachets.
Yet, activists say, the Lagos House of Assembly passed legislation last
month that could threaten even this last-resort source of drinking water
— an imperfect, but critical lifeline for most Lagosians.
Opponents of the Lagos Environment Bill say politicians did not follow
due legislative process before it was signed into law on March 1 ― and
its final language has still not been made available to the public two
weeks after the fact. It could criminalize the private extraction of
water, including the drilling of boreholes and purchasing water from
private sellers, activists warn.
“One of our rights as citizens is to live, to have good water to drink,
good environment,” said Agnes Sessi, president of the African Women
Water, Hygiene and Sanitation Network, this month in reaction to the new
law. “If government has failed to provide water for us, they do not
have the right to take away our efforts to
provide for ourselves. Do they want us to die?” the United Nations
issued a strong-worded statement last month condemning the water bill.
“When the State fails to provide adequate access to drinking water, no
one should be criminalized or fined for fetching water from lakes,
rivers, or any other natural sources,” said Léo Heller, U.N. special
rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation, on Feb. 27. “The
government is taking a step too far by imposing fines of
the equivalent of $310 on ordinary individuals fetching water for survival, when the minimum wage stands at approximately $60.”
As the metropolis ballooned in size over recent decades, growing from an
estimated 1.4 million people in 1970 to more than 21 million today,
Lagos’ public water system has struggled to keep pace. Pipes, many of
them decades old, have rotted through and taps now often run dry.
The two major water treatment plants in the city have fallen into
disrepair; workers there have complained of non-functioning pumps, poor
power supply and production rates well under capacity. And that only
applies to the 10 percent of households in the city that actually
receive piped water from the state. For everyone else, finding any means
to attain water — unsanitary or not — is an everyday battle.
In Lagos, 60 percent of Nigerians earn less than $1 a day, yet the
country is now home to almost 16,000 millionaires, most of them in
Lagos. And the discrepancy is acutely felt when it comes to water,
according to Bragg.
Some poorer communities don’t have access to clean water themselves but
have pipes running over-ground through their neighborhoods to the more
wealthy ones. “The contrast is stark,” he said. “They can’t get water,
but there’s water literally passing right by them.”
Buying water from private vendors is a common practice and Lagos
residents have called the service a “saving grace,” but it can be
inaccessible for the poorest Lagosians. The average family may needs to
buy seven or eight jerry cans of water daily, which could cost $50 or
more a month, according to a 2016 report from the Environmental Rights
Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria. In Nigeria, the average middle
class family income is between $230 and $300 monthly.
The more severe the water shortage, the brisker the business for some
water sellers. Abubakar Audu, a long-time mai ruwa, told local paper Eko
Trust last year that he sets his price “depending on how desperate the
customer is” and whether or not there’s light (blackouts are an everyday
occurrence in the city).
With proper sanitation practically non-existent across Lagos and most
residents drinking water from untreated and unreliable sources, the
city’s water problems have had a dire impact on public health.
Water-borne diseases including cholera, dysentery, as well as typhoid
and malaria fever, are a concern. In February last year, 25
children under the age of 6 died in one Lagos community after drinking pathogen-infected water.
Long-term exposure to toxins is also a concern. A 2012 investigation
found high concentrations of heavy metals like lead and cadmium at
levels far above World Health Organization standards in borehole water
samples extracted in Lagos.
The city’s government has precipitated the water crisis in Lagos by years of inaction, according to activists.
For decades, the state has “neglected to invest into the
infrastructure,” said Corporate Accountability International’s Bragg.
Instead, it has chosen to prioritize the possible privatization of
Lagos’ water utility through public-private partnerships — a plan that
has repeatedly failed, he added.
“Lagos is very key to the African continent; it is the heart of
Nigeria,” he said. “If water privatization is successful in Lagos, it
could spread across Nigeria and across Africa. Quality will go down,
sanitation will be impacted and the poorest of the poor will not be able
to get adequate water.”