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Story Publication logo December 2, 2023

A Nigerian Community Where Tap Water Smells Like Gasoline



This project explores the health and environmental consequences for residents in Baruwa.


A water vendor, mairuwa, pushes his cart around Baruwa in Lagos, Nigeria. This is the only source of potable water for a community of over 150,000 people for two decades. Image courtesy of Premium Times.

According to Baruwa community head Khalid Baruwa, the water contamination in Baruwa, Lagos, has caused many residents of the small community to relocate to neighbouring areas.

I rented a one-bedroom apartment in a Lagos community in July 2021 but moved out two months later. Like many residents of Baruwa, the colour and smell of water flowing from the taps in my apartment caused my abrupt relocation.

The rent I paid was a weak contender against the petrol-contaminated water filling the community pipes. Apart from the fear of bathing, cooking with, or even drinking the water, I had unsettling thoughts of the apartment going up in flames someday. All of this was enough for me to run as far from Baruwa as possible.

My daily struggle to purchase safe drinking and cooking water is a shared anxiety among Baruwa residents, many of whom have been consuming contaminated water for almost 30 years.

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How Baruwa inherited petrol-contaminated water

Once a remote area with inexpensive housing that attracted many Lagosians, who could not afford expensive city rent in the 80s, Baruwa is a community of small business owners and civil servants in the Alimosho area of Lagos.

Residents of Baruwa speculate that refined petrol transported via pipes from the Mosinmi Oil Depot to the Ejigbo Oil Facility seeps through the pipes to contaminate fresh water. A report from the Environmental Justice Atlas estimates that over 180 wells in Baruwa are contaminated by petroleum products: gasoline, kerosene, diesel and other residues. PREMIUM TIMES spoke to a retired civil servant and local shop owner, Busola Dada, who confirmed that the water from her wells is so thick with fuel that “people around Baruwa now come to my (her) wells to get fuel.” The issue of water contamination in the area dates back to the 90s, as confirmed by the community head, Khalid Baruwa. 

Mrs Dada is one of the residents who reached out to government agencies to investigate the incidents of pipeline leaks. During our interview, she detailed how “most times the authorities come, collect samples, put up a show and go away.”

“The government came to install the pipelines, now they are leaking, so they should fix it. It’s not even economical for them as they should monitor the number of precious barrels of oil that are lost daily,” Mrs Dada said. She added that the government encourages waste by not fixing the leaks as a large volume of petroleum products is wasted daily.

An average of 26,267.83 oil barrels are spilt into rivers in 2023.

A bucket of contaminated water from one of the wells in Baruwa. Image courtesy of Premium Times. Nigeria.
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Oil thieves and vandalism

NNPC Limited did not respond to questions sent to it via calls, messages and a Freedom of Information request. However, an official of the company told PREMIUM TIMES that vandalism is the major cause of pollution in the community.

When the official, who asked not to be named as they had no authorisation to talk to journalists, was asked about the old and rusty pipelines that the oil leaks emanate from, the official said NNPC Limited provided alternative water supply to the community to ameliorate the effects of the contamination. However, the water provided also got polluted as there was no treatment plan in place, the official said declining further comments on the topic.

The NNPC Limited has in the past blamed pipeline leakages on vandals and oil thieves. Last year, Bala Wunti, the general manager of the National Petroleum Investment Management Services, a subsidiary of the NNPC Limited, said the NNPC Limited loses $700 million monthly to activities of vandals and oil thieves.

Margaret Obadina, a Baruwa resident, holds a conversation with James Oyewole on the protracted contamination. Image courtesy of Premium Times. Nigeria.

Impacts of water contamination on children

Although I have said my farewells to Baruwa, I cannot get Baruwa and its water struggle out of my mind.

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As a journalist, I have returned to take water samples for testing at a Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency laboratory, to draw attention to the pollution in the area. The test results confirmed the water had a petroleum smell.

Laboratory results. Image courtesy of Premium Times.

The Department of Microbiology’s Bimbo Adekanmbi, from the University of Ibadan, said the hydrocarbon content in the water is responsible for the skin infection that is a common complaint among families living in Baruwa. “Skin infection is certainly caused by the petrol contamination in the waters of this community,” he said.

He said the normal state of drinking water should be between 6.5 and 8.5 PH but the test results show that the water was acidic at 5.99 PH.

Skin and eye infections (trachoma) are only two of the many negative impacts of consuming or using contaminated water. In a 2021 Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: National Outcome Routine Mapping (NORM) report, it was found that diarrhoea prevalence remains high in Nigeria, with 74 per cent of the household members who suffered diarrhoea being children under five. About 33 per cent of all hospital records in 2021 were diarrhoea cases among children under five. WASHNORM quoted a 2019 UNICEF report which linked 370,000 child deaths in Nigeria to water contamination. “Diarrhea is the second leading cause of death in children under five years old.”

One of the several wells abandoned due to petroleum contamination in Baruwa. Image courtesy of Premium Times. Nigeria.

Women, people over 50 years, and children are the most vulnerable and affected groups when it comes to water contamination and its effects on quality of life and well-being.

Water contamination affects school enrolment, retainment, performance and completion among children. The WASHNORM report documented that for the girl child, lack of access to clean water directly exposes the child to violence and abuse. “Most children in schools have to travel quite a distance to access water facilities or utilise private latrines when these are not provided in schools, thereby exposing them to risks and violence. Post menarchal girls experience indignity in the management of their menstrual hygiene which in most cases affect attendance and completion,” the report said.

Lack of clean water impacts health, wellbeing, learning opportunities and productivity for communities across Nigeria. This is why the case of Baruwa feels personal because a significant amount of diarrhoea cases can be prevented by access to safe drinking water, in addition to improved sanitation and hygiene.

Water Treatment Practices

Baruwa’s water contamination crisis mirrors the challenge of resident’s access to safe drinking water. According to a UNICEF report, about one-third of Nigerians drink from contaminated water sources.

The stress of contaminated water means residents need to budget for hospital visits. They need to budget for buying clean water and might need to travel long distances to access clean water, risking safety and wasting time.

In Akoka, Bariga local council in Lagos, over 600 residents have had their potable water polluted with oil coming from underground tanks in the area.  

The graph below represents residents’ responses (in Lagos) to the question of what treatment measures households are applying, to ensure that they are consuming clean water. In their 2021 report, WASHNORM found that 43 per cent of households in Lagos mainly add bleach, chlorine or water guard. About 67 per cent add alum, while 38.8 per cent boil water.

The graph below shows the number of people (81.7 per cent – 96 per cent) who do not do anything to make their water safer to drink.

The wall of a building has changed colour due to the effects of the polluted water. Image courtesy of Premium Times. Nigeria.

What is the way forward?

There have been numerous journalistic and scientific reports done on the water crisis in Barowa, in an attempt to draw the attention of government officials and other key stakeholders such as NNPC Limited. Locals have either opted to relocate, explore ‘basic’ treatment practices, queue in hospitals or bury their children. This report aims to publish a two-part series, and publicly expose the injustice faced by the children, women and the community of Baruwa in hopes that someday soon, Baruwa will have access to safe drinking, cooking and bathing water. In the words of Khalid Baruwa, “All the residents need and ask for is water free of contamination” and providing this would bring the relief the community has been anticipating for nearly 30 years.

A Mairuwa cart. Image courtesy of Premium Times. Nigeria.


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