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Story Publication logo October 13, 2011

Many Leaks Yearning for Plugs in Nigeria's Water Sector


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Abandoned water and sanitation projects deprive the people of Nigeria of a basic human right: access...

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A water vendor in Makurdi, Nigeria fills his cans with water from the polluted Benue River. Image by Ameto Akpe. Nigeria, 2011.

Next to air, water is no doubt the most essential element to human life as the body cannot usually survive longer than several days without. Not only is water essential to every single cell and organ in the body, it makes up two-thirds of the weight of the human body.

Given its importance, the need to ensure that every individual gets access to safe water through the municipal water systems cannot be overemphasized. However the reasons why improving access to safe water and adequate sanitation services in Nigeria remains painfully slow are wide ranging, complex and complicated by corruption that pervades every sector of the economy.

Critically, issues with poor operation and maintenance, inept institutions, insufficient technical capacity and persistent implementation failure are tied into the fact that the financial management structure in the water and sanitation sector is largely described as opaque while uncoordinated water policies facilitate replication of efforts; weakening intersectoral harmonization as every tier of government pursues its own water agenda. These failures have dramatic consequences for lives, livelihoods and development.

Although relatively new minister of water resources, Sarah Ochekpe, assures of the dawn of a new era with increased transparency and an end to a culture of wasted investments; this news is received with restrained public interest because apart from a history with our leaders that teach rhetoric rarely translates to reality, elements that seem to guarantee failure remains in the system.

As you read this, thousands of Nigerians (mostly children) lie sick, bodies ravaged by cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery; even as an estimated 194,000 Nigerian children under the age of 5 (not to mention teenagers and adults) die annually from these preventable water and sanitation related diseases. The statistics are grim; 70 million Nigerians exist without access to safe drinking water, 102 million don't have access to improved sanitary services, 33milion (about the population of Canada) still defecate in the open.

According to a desk study by the Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP) Nigeria loses N455 billion ($3 billion) annually due to poor sanitation. There is almost no state in Nigeria without abandoned water projects or one whose construction has gone on forever, creating a veritable opening for fraud, assuring the continued suffering of many.

For example, in Nassarawa state, reports document that the immediate past governor awarded contracts running into billions of naira to either start fresh water projects or rehabilitate existing ones across several localities. However, in Nassarawa-Eggon (site for a N2.4 billion water project), only 'zinc sheets are there to fence the project site where equipment have been overgrown with thick grass' the contactor Saplast is noted to have been paid close to N400 million. In Lafia, the state capital, 'millions of naira was sunk into the rehabilitation between 2008 and 2010,' but the first test run in December 2010 in front of state officials saw the collapse of the three million gallon overhead tank. These sorts of scenario play out again and again meanwhile millions of residents continue to face the persistent hard ship water scarcity brings.

An estimated $500 million of budgeted funds is annually sunk into the water sector though government claims $2.05 billion is the annual figure needed in investments to attain the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets. However experts insist that the sector's problems are less about availability of funds and more about mismanagement of resources and poor utilization of available finances.

Joe Lambongang, WaterAid Nigeria Country Representative, explains, "We know that Nigeria is not a resource poor country, less than 2 percent of Nigeria's GDP is financed by donor funds, which is the exact opposite in other developing countries. The challenge in this environment we operate in has to do with judicious utilization of resources. There is a need to strengthen the role of civil society as a monitoring and independent organization to double check what is set aside for spending within the sector."

Ramon Reigada, Second Secretary to the European Union delegation in Nigeria, adds, "It is well known that the public financial management in Nigeria should be improved and the water sector is not an exception to this. So even if the funds are available and the administration and public service willing to spend it, it is not easy to keep running water schemes for a long time if you do not have the proper financial planning capacity."

The Nigerian water sector is managed by the three tiers of government; this monopoly minus a culture of accountability and transparency produces a circumstance which promotes the incompetence and bias so prevalent in the sub-sector.

A senior official within the federal ministry of water resources hierarchy informs that nobody really knows how much of budgeted funds truly end up in the system for there is no clear tracking mechanism for budgeted funds or expenditure.

He said, "Nobody has been tracking what is being spent. We don't even have data of exactly what is being spent. The $500 million going into the sector is based on estimates. Most of the states don't have water policies; their laws are outdated, how do you then invest in such when there is no direction? We don't have a national regulatory agency; there is no state in the federation that has a regulating agency for water."

Funds flow down monthly via the states to the local government from the federation account. Notably, the bulk of local government revenue is sourced through this means with the local governments having little control over it. Funds released to the local governments come from the joint account of the states/LGAs. The state governors control the joint account where the funds are kept; releasing them at their own discretion instead of based on the requisite vertical and horizontal criteria that exist.

"Sometimes the political leaders are looking to invest where they have support. It's not about who needs the services but where they have support," notes Idrissa Doucore, Director General of the Regional Centre for Drinking Water and Sanitation (CREPA.)

Independent studies show that the budget process at the local level is lopsided and often not respected, with cases where such processes simply do not exist at all. Mirroring a trend present in many states, Water Aid's report on 'effective financing of local governments to provide water and sanitation services' reveals that in Enugu state, for example, as of April 2007, the budgets for 2006 had yet to be approved at the state level, while all the funds allocated to different sectors had already been spent.

Clearly this "makes a mockery of the budgeting process and the budgeting calendar. Auditing by the state is carried out irregularly, and sanctions for mismanagement are rarely imposed." There is evidence of monthly payments to all tiers of government since 2003 and percentage meant for the local governments is usually transferred from the federation account to state accounts. However, there is no tangible evidence that the state transfers the same percentage to the local governments even as they remain without adequate capacity in financial management and planning.

Reigada notes, "We have noticed that the local government authorities (LGAs) are the weakest link in the whole institutional setup in Nigeria but they are the ones in direct link with the communities at the state level. It's extremely difficult, they are LGAs with many communities and we know that they do not have the money."

Teun Bastemeijer, Director of the Water Integrity Network (WIN), speaking on the sidelines of the recently concluded World Water Week in Stockholm, noted that as long as an express political control on water or sanitation operators exists, disappointment is almost always certain. In the same vein, Ravi Narayanan, Chairman WIN adds that there is currently a general recognition that on water and sanitation issues it is not just a question of investment but more about good governance.

Bastemeijer explains, "If there is political influence on a water or sanitation operator in a direct way, failure is almost guaranteed. In Nigeria it's not easy to work on these issues on a federal level, I think in certain states the endemic corruption is such that people in some states say our water sector is a hundred and fifty percent corrupt. Poor governance is an important factor that should be addressed from now and with top urgency because this is what is happening. It is very important to consider and to highlight that the damage of corruption issue goes well beyond the 40 or 50 percent financial losses on investment.

"Its governance that actually delivers and the absence of good governance is almost like the absence of resources or worse. Corruption is a sort of cancer which eats at the heart of governance. Monopoly situations are often the crucible for these kinds of things because there is no other way in which people can fulfill their basic needs. Sometimes water supply is a monopoly, so if you don't have a strong regulator who is independently looking out for the interests of people then you have all sorts of things in contracts, in supplying, who turns the tap off when, at what hours; little things like that," Narayanan adds.

As it stands today, Nigeria along with entire sub Saharan region will not meet the MDG targets set for reducing the number of those without access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation by 2015. Even as most of the water and sanitation projects provided lack the basic apparatus that would ensure sustainability, so far there is a 2 percent increase in water coverage based on studies.

The consensus is this is not a healthy enough pace particularly in the area of sanitation delivery where Nigeria is moving backwards instead of improving. More so even though there is recorded increase in coverage more people are without access to water today compared to 1990 as interventions doesn't seem to take into cognizance the ever increasing population of the country even as the sector as a whole in no way tops the agenda of the government.

Reigada notes "It's appalling that a country with this wealth has such a huge percentage of its population without access to safe water or proper sanitation practices. It is a worrying situation that has to be tackled. Unfortunately water supply and sanitation isn't always at the top of the agenda for politicians unless there is a big crisis that gives them some prominence."

Lambongang adds, "It's unfortunate, Nigeria that should be setting the pace is not doing enough. We need a lot more improvement in investment especially in the area of sanitation. Generally investment in water sanitation and hygiene has to be more than doubled, in the area of sanitation it has to even be quadrupled."

Even if this happens, the many identified leaks in the system would obviously not allow the desired change to be effected.


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