FEATURE - Lagos residents thirst for better water supply
Author: Daniel Balint-Kurti
Ibrahim, an 18-year-old immigrant from Niger, manages to earn his meagre living of 500 naira ($3.60) a day because of the failure of the Lagos State Water Corporation (LSWC) to provide clean water to most of the city's 12 million-plus residents.
The difficulty huge cities like Lagos face in providing clean water was at the heart of the United Nations World Environment Day meeting in Beirut on Thursday.
World leaders say they aim to halve the number of people, now 1.1 billion, who lack access to safe drinking water.
The corruption and mismanagement that have dogged Nigeria since independence in 1960 have taken their toll on its public utilities. Now, the World Bank is encouraging the Lagos state government to bring in the private sector to manage its water, and has earmarked $260 million in loans for the purpose.
Experience shows this will not be easy. An attempt to bring in private sector operators stalled in 2001, after a shortlist of four European firms had been drawn up.
WATER BOARD CRIPPLED
Hassan Kida, a water expert at the World Bank in Nigeria, said Bank-sponsored projects aim to pave the way for private investment.
"If you go and visit treatment works, most of the machines and equipment have overstayed their lifespan and need to be replaced," he said.
Kida said that although the water is perfectly clean after treatment, problems emerge further down the line.
Water is rationed in most areas served by the water board. When it stops flowing, sewage leaks into the pipes, spreading diarrhoea and cholera. Pipes are broken into by people desperate for drinking water, making matters worse.
A World Bank report from 2001 showed the Lagos water board was earning only a tiny fraction of its potential revenue.
The report said the LSWC was producing only 56 percent of its 680 million litres per day capacity - due partly to an erratic power supply. Only 10 percent of the water produced by the company earned any revenue at all, with the rest not paid for, not charged for, or simply unaccounted for.
"The Lagos water corporation should get the private sector involved," said Georges Garbi, a consultant advising the LSWC. "This is the only way that the needed investment could be brought in to satisfy the present and future demand."
Although the Lagos state government and local authorities in Nigeria say they are ready to privatise, environmental groups fear such a policy would not benefit the poor.
"Access to water and sanitation...should not be regulated by the invisible hands of the free market and the interests of water multinationals," Helene Ballande of Friends of the Earth told Reuters during a G8 forum on water earlier this month.
But until some solution is found, Lagos residents will have to cope in their usual way, with the poor buying water by the bucket and private operators serving the wealthy.