The Lagos Water Crisis: Any Role for the Private Sector?

Lagos is suffering from severe water shortage due to profit-oriented politics. Akinbode Oluwafemi points out the conflicts and problems around the privatisation of the water sector and offers alternative solutions for one of the world’s most populous cities.

Lagos, which is Nigeria’s commercial heartbeat, is facing acute water supply challenges. The current lack of access to safe and affordable water could be traced to a multiplicity of factors, some of which include corruption, policy somersaults, antiquated infrastructure, low budgetary provisions, bad management and low government attention to the water sector among many others.

The city’s daily water demand is far beyond the production by the municipal utility Lagos Water Corporation (LWC). The utility does not even deliver half of the needed amount of 540 million gallons water per day, leaving Lagos with a huge shortage of about 320 million gallons.

The city currently has three major waterworks and 48 others classified as either mini or macro waterworks. Most of them are comatose, dysfunctional or at best operating far below installed capacities. Lagos has a network of 180 km transmission mains and 2.215 km distribution mains of which some are as old as 108 years.

Water and sanitation are not only critical elements in public health but also in bolstering sustainable development and economic growth. However, systemic neglect and bent deals by successive managers of the Lagos infrastructure have put the sector in dire straits. And even though Lagos’s previous and current governments have exploited the repair of the water infrastructure as a major campaign rhetoric, access is getting worse.

The Governmental Privatisation of the Water Sector

That Lagos is experiencing water shortage itself is a paradox. The city is surrounded by water, for one thing by the sea for another by a lagoon, and it prides itself to be the “City of Aquatic Splendour”. So, there is water everywhere, but the taps are dry. Why the Lagos water crisis seems intractable even with the government’s current efforts is traceable to policies that were pre-conceived to promote a single silver bullet solution: Privatisation or Public Private Partnerships (PPP) of the water sector.

The main compass invented by the Lagos government for navigating its way out of the water shortage is the much-flaunted Lagos Water Supply Master Plan (2010-2020). That compass is defective and begging for recalibration because it merely celebrated what it called “Vectors that drive investment in water” which include population, availability of water resources, and willingness to pay to arrive at PPP as the only solution to the water problem. The people were only referenced to salivate the profit expectations of the ‘would be investing’ corporations, yet not in the essence of providing critical life-dependent services.

The masterplan is unambiguous that PPP investments in the water sector are made not in accordance with people’s needs but to consolidate profit and exert corporate control. As such, the current scramble for Lagos by water giants is driven by the greed to extract humongous profit from the acute shortage in the city. Such thinking has no room for the right to water and sustainable management of water resources. Rather, access and the right to affordable, clean water are directed to fall into the abyss to pave way for all kinds of abuses and profiteering. With the PPP option, investments simply are going to be directed at rich neighbourhoods which causes disadvantages for a huge part of the Lagos poor.

And to open the door for water companies, democratic processes were even compromised. Policies were secretly adopted, and laws hurriedly passed to promote PPP. Even the supposed sector regulator, the Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission (LSWRC), was primarily set up to promote PPP. None of the agencies in the Lagos water sector has formal mechanisms for meaningful public participation, such as water board, citizens’ utility board, participatory budgeting, or social dialogue process. Till date, there is also no formal channel for citizens to meaningfully participate in water policy development and implementation. There is no prescribed engagement at the local community levels to galvanise inputs from the very poor who will be the most affected by those policies and neither are they consulted for evaluation of policy implementation.

The environment was simply being primed for full corporate takeover. But the corporate onslaught received its major blow in 2017, when another draft law aimed at criminalising the informal water sector was defeated through civil actions led by CSOs and local communities. Currently over 80 per cent of Lagos residents depend on the informal water sector for their domestic water needs.

The whole idea of full commodification of water through PPPs as being promoted by the Lagos government is failure- bound. Given the pattern of corruption in privatisation cases from around the world, there is no doubt that the PPP push will have negative impact on Lagosians. From Ghana, Gabon, Cameroon, Tanzania, India, Philippines, France to the United States, PPP in the water sector have led to unaffordable rates, violation of workers’ rights, and inadequate investment among a whole host of other issues that threaten the human right to water.

People over profits!

Lagos itself has had a fair dose of failed PPP projects in Public Service delivery like the Lekki Toll Gate PPP concession and the catastrophic failure of the Lagos State-Visionscape PPP deal in the waste disposal sector.

It is dangerous to entrust a critical life essential such as clean water to profit-hungry corporations. Solving the Lagos water problem requires a fundamental paradigm shift: A shift from commodification to full recognition of water as a basic human right; a shift from festering corporate capture of government institutions to transparency and accountable management of our collective resources.

There should be clear boundaries between corporations’ profit motives and the protection of the right to clean water. To ensure this, the government has to impose taxes on corporation profits that stem from the excess consumption of water for their lucrative operations. That would be a way to make them pay proportionate to their consumptions and profits. Such taxes can be dedicated to renewing and extending the public water infrastructure through a Lagos Water Trust Fund under a public trust.

Besides, the government must block all leakages, wastes, and shady deals, which have become emblems of public institutions in Nigeria. Increased budgetary allocation is the key but most importantly, Lagosians should be allowed to freely contribute to the development that suits their purpose. The Lagos government needs to promote active community engagement rather than the current culture of official arrogance, secrecy and obfuscation of facts concerning the water sector. Such participation should include a revision of the Lagos water laws to integrate inputs from local communities, labour organisations and the civil society. There should be inclusive participation of all Lagosian in efforts at finding lasting solutions to the seemingly intractable water crisis.

Akinbode Matthew Oluwafemi

Akinbode Matthew Oluwafemi

Akinbode Matthew Oluwafemi is a social justice campaigner with over two decades experience in journalism, development, public relations and social marketing. He is currently the Deputy Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigera (ERA/FoEN), Nigeria's foremost environmental rights advocacy group. Oluwafemi heads ERA/FoEN's Tobacco Control and the Water Campaign. He has been involved in variouscapacities in tobacco control initiatives in the African region. Akinbode iswinner of theBloomberg Award forGlobal Tobacco Control. Before joining ERA/FoEN, Oluwafemi was a journalist with The Guardian, Nigeria's leading national newspaper. As a journalist, he participated actively in the press freedom struggles during the despotic rule of the late General Sani Abacha. In the past few years he has channeled energy at building the "Our water, Our Right Coalition" which is challenging water privatisation in Lagos and across Nigeria.
Akinbode Matthew Oluwafemi

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