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The Lagos Water Challenge Take My Water, Take My Life

nnimmoNow that the tensions of the Nigerian general elections are settling, it is time to wash off the dust and move on to take actions for the safeguarding of lives. In the months leading up to the electioneering campaigns, and indeed for decades, the World Bank and the then government officials have been meeting and taking decisions set clearly on the worn and largely discredited track that sees water as a commodity for speculators and not as a human right.

As it turned out, the electorate of Lagos chose to vote for change at the Federal level while remaining steadfast on the platform of more of the same, or continuity, at home. And so, we have a government in place that seems to believe that the best ways for public service delivery is by privatisation and enclosure of the commons. However, we note that before this year’s election, the people of Lagos voted with their feet and voices on the streets of the city to express their rejection of any move to privatise water here under any guise.

The shocking statistics from this aspiring mega-city inform us that up to 90 percent of the residents of Lagos do not have daily access to clean and safe water. With that scenario, the prevalence of water-borne diseases in the city cannot come as a surprise. Nationally, more than half of Nigeria’s population have no access to clean water and more than two-thirds have no access to sanitation, according to official statistics. Our compatriots depend on wells, ponds, boreholes, water carts and water trucks for water supply. This calls for public investment in the sector, but government seems to have been hypnotised by the privatisation mantra repeatedly sung by the World Bank and its agencies such as the International Finance Corporation.

The story of privatization in Nigeria is in the same mould as that of any forced appropriation of the collective patrimony for private profit. We recall that in the dying days of military dictatorship in the country, the strategy was to allow essential public institutions of high value to stagger almost to the point of collapse and then privatization would step in without significant resistance since the institution would have been seen as ineffective. Sometimes it was the question of using public funds to bring a public institution or property to a very good state and then to auction them off to those who are well-connected to the corridors of power.

At a point, it was not surprising that governments were literally privatised or sold to the highest bidder. Under military regimes, governments were privatised and controlled by those with the biggest guns. Today, governments are often captured by corporate interests or by those with wads of cash or bags of rice or salt.

It is not surprising that a major contributor to the failure of the Lagos government to solve the water crisis has been the Lagos Water Corporation’s wrongheaded commitment to privatization. The government chooses the path of stubborn adherence to the false creed that holds that public utilities are best managed – as for profit entities as prescribed by the apostles of neoliberalism.

The so-called Public-Private Partnership (PPP) strenuously marketed by the government is simply a means of subjugating the public good to private control. In other words, if truth is to be told, PPP is simply a way of facilitating the enslavement of the public by private interests.

It is interesting how the ghost of the infamous and thoroughly discredited Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s/1990s is being resurrected in the fancy catchphrase of PPP. Indeed the phrase has so captured the imagination of our policy makers that to think otherwise is almost anathema to them.

Advocates of this scheme cite a supposed lack of government resources necessary for such public investment as the reason for soliciting the private sector’s ‘expertise’ and ‘capital.’ Are they listening to themselves? The claims must be taken with a hefty dose of salt because, as we have heard, the leading advocate of Public-private partnership for Lagos water, the Managing Director of the Lagos State Water Corporation (LSWC), Shayo Holloway, has stated, “We do not anticipate any capital expenditure element in the contracts.” If it is true that the partnership does not entail any capital expenditure, then we have reasons to be truly alarmed. Would there be no capital expenditure on the project? Of course there will be. As the water boss insists, the scheme is “a veritable strategy for accelerated infrastructure development using private capital.”

The question is where would the private capital ultimately come from? And the answer is not farfetched. The money to sweeten the PPP will ultimately be recouped from the pockets of the poorest of the poor. Apparently the thinking is that the already squeezed population can bear some more squeezing. That is what they are made for: To sacrifice, scrounge for water from dirty ponds and toxic lagoons, while the fat cats frolic in their overflowing Olympic-size swimming pools. Just think how effective the privatization of electricity has been in Nigeria and you would scream for everything to be privatized.

Water extraction has been a great means of extracting enormous profits from Lagos’ poorest residents. In the past, it was inconceivable that anyone could appropriate water bodies for private commercial use, but today that is common practice. Think about how ubiquitous water in plastic bottles have become. Some brands are even seen as status symbols and if tables at your event do not carry an array of those plastic bottles, then it signifies that you don’t have class. Those who must count their coins before expending them are condemned to drink water sold in plastic sachets and snidely tagged pure water even when everyone suspects that the water is anything but pure. Some exploiters of our aquifer even claim they are selling nutritious water with stories of added vitamins and all that!

These water miners in our cities are sucking up our aquifers often without any controlling water management plan or policy. It is a no-man’s land out there. With the collapse of public water supply across the nation anyone that can dig a hole till water spurts is welcome to do so. But one day our wells will run dry. And what shall we do then? When water stress becomes unbearable, how and whom will the PPP help?

We cannot ignore the fact that privatisation has failed repeatedly. Even those pushing for variants of privatisation, including their politician partners, know this fact. Happily those whose cups of water are being snatched are pushing back. This is seen in the growing trend around the world of citizens taking back their water and forcing an end to corporate water grab and control by getting their leaders to bring back water management under public institutions.

Examples of this growing trend in the fight for water as an uncompromising life support has been seen in Manila in Philippines, Nagpur in India and Jakarta in Indonesia. For example, a court in Jakarta recently ruled that the 18-year-old World Bank sponsored corporate water contract there violated the Indonesian constitution. In Manila, regulators continue to push for the curbing of corporations’ insatiable drive for outrageous profits. In Nagpur, while the water delivery system continues to consistently fail, water rates continue to skyrocket. Privatisation of water continues to fail as control by corporations lead to rate hikes, water shutoffs, worker layoffs and poor water quality. In addition, the pursuit of profit blocks off needed infrastructure expansion investments making the situation grow worse as the years roll by.

We cannot afford to see Lagos with its teeming population caught in the profit-driven PPP trap. The crucial need for accessible and safe water cannot be overemphasised. If managed with the public good rather than profit, Lagos can escape being under water stress. As the legendary reggae icon, Bob Marley, sang: In the abundance of water only the fool is thirsty. Lagosians are wise folks and the push for PPP is aimed at making them otherwise. They look up to the new administration to courageously take sides with them and make the massive investments needed to pull most of the people out of incredibly insanitary living conditions.
The people of Lagos, and indeed the entire Nigerian nation, deserve an environment in which water is clearly seen as a human right and where pollutions are curbed in order to allow Nature to maintain her cycles and thereby support the life of humans and other species. To deny any people the right to water is to deny them the right to life.

During a recent field trip to Kpeme community in Togo, this writer witnessed a most ghastly disregard of water as a public good that must be protected. A phosphate factory located in the community pumps toxic effluent directly into the Atlantic Ocean turning the water greenish-yellow rather than the usual blue. Fisher folks complain that up to 1.5 kilometres into the sea is polluted by this toxic discharge. And the spread along the coast goes as far as to the neighbouring Benin Republic and perhaps to Lagos, Nigeria. When a factory manager was asked what they were doing to curb the disaster, the response was a flippant you must break an egg to make an omelette. We understand this omelette to mean financial profit. This omelette discounts the health impacts on the people and on aquatic lives. This omelette sees the ocean as a waste dump and disregards the fact that it is a commons for all of humanity and the planet. It ignores the fact that the Ocean is both a source of life and a veritable support of livelihoods.
Lagos has an inescapable duty to show the nation and indeed the African continent that it is possible to build a public water supply system that prioritises the needs of the people and not the profits of corporations. Enthroning a multi-decade PPP may promise enhanced government revenue but it negates the tenets of a democracy that hears and heeds the demands of the people and operates in their best interests. Water is not a mere commodity to be grabbed, bottled or piped for profit. It is a prime gift of nature and true re-source democracy demands a spirit of stewardship that has no room for private enclosure of this public good.

-Arc. Nnimmo Bassey is Executive Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Benin City, Edo State.

By Nnimmo Bassey



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