The collapse of public waterworks

IT is more than a truism that in Nigeria, there is water everywhere, but very little to drink. The country is so richly endowed with water resources that a number of its 36 states have aquatic names: examples include Delta, Cross River, Rivers, Benue, Osun, Ogun and Niger. The country has 215 cubic kilometres of available surface water per year. By contrast, South Africa, Africa’s second-largest economy, is said to have only about 49 cubic kilometres a year. Unfortunately, however, Nigeria’s vast water resources are not serving Nigerians in any meaningful sense. Access to clean and safe water is, for most Nigerians, a phenomenon inhabiting the realm of desire. And there is no greater evidence of the blindness of the country’s political class than the fact that politicians running for various posts do not even mention the provision of water as a campaign pledge.

To say the least, recent reports in the media indicate that the water situation in the country is dire. According to the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Adamu, access to public water supply declined from 32 per cent in 1990 to less than 7 per cent in 2015, with marginal improvements since then.  Although in the 2020 budget alone, N39 billion was approved for the Federal Ministry of Water Resources, the provision of clean water remains a pipe dream. The minister was quoted as retorting that his ministry was not directly responsible for the provision of potable water to the citizens, a responsibility which he said was that of state and local governments. But has the ministry justified its own existence?

Indeed, the generations of Nigerians that ever fetched water from public taps are fast disappearing. Quite a majority of the country’s youths are not even aware of the existence of waterworks. Waterworks simply do not form part of their mental frame or script. The situation across the states is scary. Nigeria’s economic capital, Lagos State, the Centre of Excellence, has been unable to produce adequate water for its vast population even though it is surrounded by water. Less than 30 per cent of its over 20 million residents have access to public water: the majority depend on private boreholes, wells and packaged table water. According to media reports, the state produces only 210 million gallons of water on a daily basis even though its actual need is 540 million gallons. The authorities attribute this to the damage done to the facilities of the Lagos State Water Corporation by construction projects. Sixty per cent of Kano’s large population reportedly have no access to potable water, and only 10,000 Enugu residents reportedly enjoy potable water. According to reports, there has been no potable water supply in Abia State since 2007.

To be sure, the water situation in the country accurately reflects the collapse of governance. There would be no poor infrastructure for the collection, treatment and distribution of water if the country had visionary administrators in place at various levels of government. Indeed, if a government cannot provide security and water, what then can it do? Just what are the various ministries of Water Resources gulping humongous public funds year after year in the 36 states of the country doing? Indeed, how can anyone parade governance and city circles, proudly donning the tag of Commissioner for Water Resources when the ministry over which (s)he superintends produces no water for anybody? Just how do those in government think in this clime? There was certainly a time when nearly everyone in this country depended on public waterworks for their daily needs. Nowadays, every homeowner is busy digging boreholes, a phenomenon which continually destabilizes the stability of the earth’s crust, and may cause earthquakes in the near future.

Even without the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the country’s various governments ought to have done some serious thinking about the water situation. Now, health authorities recommend that people use running water to wash their hands with soap as part of the measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. But where is the running water?

Drawing from the repertoire of Yoruba orality, the late Afrobeat king, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, waxed a track saying that water has no enemy. As he said in Nigerian Pidgin: “Water, e no get enemy.” Sadly, there is a sense in which this truism does not apply to governance in the country today. Potable water may have no foes but its supply does governments across the country.


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