Published January 2, 2012
There is a saying in Nigeria—“For many live by the riverside, but wash their hands with spittle.”
Nowhere is this truer than in Makurdi, a state capital in Nigeria, a country that accounts for about 8.6 percent of U.S. oil imports. Makurdi is situated on the banks of the mighty Benue River, but just a small fraction of its 600,000 residents has reliable access to safe drinking water. The rest have been waiting for almost three decades for their pipes to run.
Teased by the unfulfilled promises of one administration after another, they have watched millions of dollars squandered on projects that either never see the light of day or, being flawed and poorly planned, bring only short-lived relief. Now another promise is poised to become just a tease: a gleaming new waterworks is at the brink of completion, but there are not nearly enough pipes to bring the water to the people.
As they wait, households here are forced to use unreliable and unsafe sources of water like shallow wells, water vendors, small streams, and the Benue River itself. Waterborne disease is widespread. Knowing someone who died from dirty water is common.
Wadata, a slum neighborhood on the waterfront, is representative of the daily struggle for water in Makurdi. Residents wash, bathe and drink from the polluted Benue River, the same place where some defecate and dump garbage.
Samuel Ekema, a grain trader and Wadata resident, explains how things came to be as they are: “I came to Makurdi as of 1983. Then there used to be taps within this area, but then later those things went bad and they were not repaired or replaced. Because the taps were not running, boys started vandalizing the pipes. Some of the owners of houses started removing these things. If you go around now you will not see any of them.”
Local authorities put Makurdi’s water demand at 47,000 cubic meters per day, an amount easily supplied by the Benue. There is no shortage of explanations for why the water in the river does not make it in safe form to the people living on its banks. Such questions are perennial in Nigeria, a country that is at once flush with cash and desperately poor.
Civil society blames inefficient utilization of funds, poor governance and misplaced priorities for the water woes. Government voices say the failing is caused by lack of money, poor power supply and a population with a mindset that insists "water is free."
Whatever the explanation, the public sector has succeeded in supplying only a small percentage of the population with water. The Benue State Water Board, which is responsible for maintaining all state water resource facilities and providing affordable potable water, suffers from difficulties in management and operation.
The water supply system it oversees was built in the early seventies. Today, it is deteriorated and poorly utilized due to lack of maintenance and limited funds. In Makurdi, pipe-borne water is largely absent and where it is available, unreliable and of poor quality.
The town’s pipe network is old and rusty. Leaks sprout all over when water is pumped from the existing water treatment plant, which has a capacity of just 6,000 cubic meters per day. The board blames consumers who refuse to pay the flat monthly rate of 2,000 Naira (12.50 USD) for the lack of maintenance.
The Benue State Commissioner for Water Resources, John Ngbede, says that citizens, misled by politicians who use the promise of free water as a tool to canvass for votes, are overly dependent on the government to do all things for them for free.
Samuel Zaka, a homeowner in a well-off area of Makurdi disputes that characterization.
“We want public utilities,” he says. “If I have good water, there are fewer diseases; why will I not pay? Do I prefer paying hospital bills? No! So if government gives us water and there are proper bills, we will pay.”
Ngbede says that ”if you pay for such services, definitely this water will reach your house.” But asking around town, it is apparent that in Makurdi there is neither a clear system for water billing nor one that tracks revenue and grants from the national government. Hence, residents have no guarantee that paying the bill will result in actual service.
White elephant project?
Starting with the military regime in the 1980s, several attempts have been made to deal with the problems of water supply in Makurdi, but none have succeeded.
In 2001, the then Benue State Governor, George Akume, contracted a British firm called Biwater, to build a $26.4 million water treatment facility with a daily capacity of 45,000 cubic meters to be known as the Greater Makurdi Water Works. Seven years and over $6.2 million later, the project site sat empty. Nothing has been done to investigate what exactly happened to the money doled out for the project, and no one in government can give a clear answer as to why the process failed.
It is thus to the credit of the administration of Gabriel Suswam, who came into power in 2007, that work is actually being done and the vision to build a modern water treatment plant to service the needs of the residents of Makurdi is seemingly lurching to fruition.
On gaining office, Suswam spent over $2.3 million to rehabilitate the old Makurdi water treatment facility to reach its maximum capacity of 18,000 cubic meters of water per day. However, the benefit of this "rehabilitation" remains out of reach for most of the town as only those residents close to the state government house have water supply on a regular basis.
In 2008, Suswam re-awarded the contract for the Greater Makurdi Waterworks to an Israeli firm, Gilmor Nigeria Limited, for $42 million, but with the daily capacity more than doubled to 100,000 cubic meters.
While the waterworks is largely built, commissioning is now almost two years behind schedule. Both the government and Gilmor have been telling the public for the past 10 months that the project is 95 percent complete even as the planned commissioning has been pushed back at least half a dozen times.
Unfortunately, the waterworks is only half of the solution to Makurdi’s water problem. The other half is a system of pipes to deliver the water to the people—and that project is just a twinkle in the eye of a handful of contractors and bureaucrats.
Establishing a pipe network was not included with the initial contract to build the waterworks, so even if the water works is completed, the water it produces will not make it to all of Makurdi, even though there will be more than enough to go around.
Nat Apir, a former Coca-Cola Nigeria engineer and current chairman of the Nigeria Rally Movement, a political organization, recently completed a survey of water infrastructure across Benue State that he presented to the governor.
He found that just 35 percent of Makurdi is connected to the existing pipe network. While he applauds Gilmor’s work on the waterworks, he calls the situation with the pipe network “very, very appalling” and says “it’s like putting the cart before the horse.”
Ngbede, who is involved in the bidding process, describes not contracting the pipe network at the same time as the waterworks as “an oversight on our own part.” Pressed on when a contract might be awarded, he suggested sometime in the next 6 to 12 months and acknowledged it could be even longer. Sources close to the discussions say that the possibility of these contracts being awarded in the next 18 months ranges from slim to very improbable.
Ngbede offers some defense of his decision, arguing that they “could have factored the whole thing into the initial contract but if we had done that, the figures would have also gone very high. The message is for them [the people] to be patient; we are trying to make sure we do everything.”
More cynical observers suggest that the failure to include contracts for reticulation in the project from the start was a deliberate tactic to create more avenues to demand and siphon money from the state.
Until a new pipe network is installed, Ngbede plans to continue to utilize the existing, rotted one despite worries that it won’t be able to withstand the pressure from the new waterworks.
Apir, the engineer who conducted the water survey, says “the pipes that were laid in the sixties and in the seventies are already weak at the moment. The old water treatment plant generates about 6,000 cubic meters a day. When this is supplied to households you see leakages all over the town, on the streets, anytime water is pumped. Now you come in with a 50,000 cubic meter water supply system with high-powered pumps…we are going to be flooding this town.”
Ngbede insists that turning on the new system “is not going to be a catastrophe.” He says he wants to see the pipes burst before he fixes them.
Meanwhile, Makurdi residents continue to wait for water as they have been for the last three decades. One compares the situation to the savor of a freshly cooked meal. “We can perceive the aroma of the food,” he says, “but we know we will not be served. Every administration comes with promises yet they all leave us thirstier than the last. We can only hope this time will be different.”
Correction: January 20, 2012
An earlier version of this story misquoted John Ngbede as describing the decision to not include a pipe network in the water works contract as "a lapse in judgement." Ngbede actually said that it was "an oversight on our own part."
A version of the this article appeared in BusinessDay Newspaper in Nigeria.