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Story Publication logo June 13, 2012

Nigeria's Population Boom, Poor Planning Skew Water Delivery

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

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Vendors fetch water from a water point in Gishiri, a new development in the city of Abuja. It is one of the only two water sources in the entire area. Image by Ameto Akpe. Nigeria, 2012.

"There is no water in Abuja," Chinyere, a resident, laments. "There is no light (electricity) but more importantly there is no water and this makes life hard."

Abuja is a planned city, located in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). This territory was conceptualized and created by the federal government in the mid-1970s to be a "functional, model city" and a replacement for Lagos, the nation's former capital, which was suffering decay, congestion and excessive pressure on infrastructure.

While the city of Abuja is one of affluence with dreams of becoming the "jewel of Africa," access to a basic amenity like water is a daily challenge to most residents.

Findings show that between 2008 and 2010, little progress was made in providing safe drinking water through taps and boreholes to most communities in the FCT. A 2010 government survey shows that only seven percent of households in the FCT have access to safe drinking water from the tap while 43 percent depend on rivers and streams and 27 percent depend on boreholes. Officials say that as thousands of people like Chinyere relocate to Abuja, the FCT water utility will struggle to meet the water demands of the rapidly increasing population.

Though well-to-do districts like Asokoro and Wuse enjoy a 24-hour tap water supply, several areas, including the very affluent Maitama district where the wealthiest individuals live, must adjust their routines to fit a system of water rationing put in place by the water board to help deal with the shortages.

The FCT has seen an unprecedented population growth in the last 10 to 15 years. In 2006, population growth rate was pegged at 9.3 percent, the highest rate in the country and way above what the city's planners envisaged. Recently, increased migration to the city has been spurred by terrorism attacks in the North, numerous incidences of kidnappings in the South, and the generally high unemployment rate in the country as millions of young graduates pour into the city in search of the very elusive promise of a "government job".

Jibril Ibrahim, the Director of the FCT water board, the agency solely responsible for the production and supply of water in the territory, admits that the authorities did not see this coming. He says this unexpected population growth has overwhelmed existing water infrastructure and ruined the careful plans for water service delivery in the territory.

"This is what has made nonsense of the design we have in the city," Ibrahim says. "Nobody believed that we were going to have this huge number of people and not even within this space of time."

Patience Achakpa, executive secretary for the Women's Environment Programme, believes that the government should have foreseen the potential attraction a city like Abuja presents to the urban migrant and should have put in place more efficient plans.

This lack of foresight means there is no pipe reticulation in many districts, particularly in peripheral areas. Even government housing projects are routinely built without being connected to the grid, simply lacking the crucial distribution network that would bring water to individual homes. Thus each household is forced to sink its own borehole, which in the long run has obvious implications on ground water.

Satellite towns like Lugbe, Karimu, Nnyaya and Gwagwalada, where the majority of migrants to Abuja settle, are particularly bad off, with many areas lacking clean water. These towns have fast become giant slums with no public space where pipes could be run. The indiscriminate sinking of boreholes without proper surveillance is common and, as a result, many boreholes are close to pit latrines and garbage dumps.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim doesn't anticipate a reprieve for these communities anytime soon. He says that funds are scarce and development will be gradual.

Achakpa warns, "Abuja is already becoming another Lagos. Government authorities and indeed the Abuja plan have not really taken cognizance of the fact that people need to be at the center of planning. If something fast is not done in the next five to ten years you would say I told you so."

A study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) supports Achakpa's argument. It states that the sustainable development agenda to improve well-being and preserve the quality of the environment cannot succeed without a core focus on population. If the population is not put at the core of the agenda, efforts to improve well-being and preserve the quality of the environment will fail.

In December 2011, Bala Mohammed, the minister of the FCT, said that the administration had perfected plans to stabilize the water supply. He promised that by April 2012 water would be supplied to "all the nooks and crannies" of the FCT. To date there is still no improvement in the FCT's water supply.

Mohammed's promises were partly based on water projects billed to start in the first quarter of 2012. Following this announcement, many residents expressed cynicism on the feasibility of this pledge given the many failed promises of the past and the problems that surround the territory's water projects. In 2008, the FCT administration awarded multi-billion naira (the Nigerian currency) contracts to expand and upgrade the water treatment facilities in the territory; however the projects were delayed and dogged with legal, financial, and technical challenges. They have still not been completed. The minister for Water Resources, Sarah Ochekpe, revealed that there have been challenges with contractors handling initial projects that would provide water to the territory.

Meanwhile, the consensus among experts is that there are not enough institutional and management efforts to provide sufficient clean tap water to the people. This implies serious problems for the future as the population will continue to grow.

Water, even at the most basic level of human sustainable development, strongly influences economic and social activity. Odiesa Isreal, a civil engineer, says that Abuja's strides to become a model city in the African continent may never truly be realized if the issue of safe and reliable water access is not dealt with in an integrated manner that reconciles growing demands with limited resources.

A version of this article was also featured in BusinessDay.

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