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Saturday, September 23, 2023

Nnimmo Bassey: Why, how to reclaim our water

Activist, Nnimmo Bassey, in a presentation on Tuesday August 11 at the Lagos Water Summit organised by the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA.FoEN) frowns at moves to privatise water, saying that attempts to deny anyone the right to water is manifestation of an inexcusable disconnect from nature 

Water is a Right

L-R: Priscila Achakpa , ED Women Environment Programme; Godwin Ojo , ED Environmental Rights Action; Shayda Naficy of Corporate Accountability International; and Nnimmo Bassey, ED Health of Mother Earth Foundation ...at the Lagos Water Forum
L-R: Godwin Ojo , ED Environmental Rights Action; Shayda Naficy of Corporate Accountability International; and Nnimmo Bassey, ED Health of Mother Earth Foundation …at the Lagos Water Forum

Undeniably, water is an essential right without which no other right can be enjoyed. This is so because water is the basis of life. Every human person needs water in sufficient quantities to live and do so in dignity.

By its resolution 64/292 of 28 July 2010 the General Assembly of the United Nations recognised that the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.

At the time the resolution was passed some watchers had hoped that it would pass by consensus, however at the end of the day the resolution had to be put to the vote. Some countries abstained from voting while others rejected the notion of water as a human right. Little wonder that today, this right remains more of a notion than a reality. And this is why this summit should be a clarion call for all citizens of the world to rise up and insist on having and enjoying this most violated of the rights.

The enjoyment of this right is made difficult by a number of factors. One of the major reasons is the drive by neoliberal forces to control the common good. This is being pushed on the plank that government cannot mobilise sufficient funds to ensure adequate water for all. The fact that it is illogical to think that the private sector is better placed to mobilise funds than government has not stopped the peddling of this falsehood. The private sector obtains loans from banks at higher interest rates than governments do and they invest the funds so obtained in ways that assure them of high rates of returns. Private finance is not cheap.

Another factor that tends to promote the handing over of water supplies to private interests is the strong push that has come from the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries since the 1990s. Additional avenues for moving public finance to the private sector is through the Global Infrastructure Facility and, for Africa, through New Partnership for Africa’s Development’s (NEPAD) Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA). All these promote private provision of otherwise public services. In one of its documents, PIDA urges African Heads of State and governments to serve “as champions of these projects. Heads of State and Government must set the tone, keep the momentum alive and provide critical national leadership by working together and showing an unwavering commitment to integrated policies, projects and goals. They should create an enabling environment for the private sector and they should ensure that priority commitments filter down through top executing agencies and ministries.” Turning Presidents into facilitators of these business arrangements is presented as “removing barriers to progress.” How more manipulative can anyone get?

These have been strengthened by heavy doses of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) that limit government’s investment in social services. The remarkable failure of the privatisation of water in several countries of the world has led to what has been termed the remunicipalisation of water services. This reversal of previous private deals have occurred in Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Tanzania, Mali, France, Indonesia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to name a few. Indeed Europe has recorded the largest number of privatisation reversals. Yet the pressure to privatise water services remains unrelenting.

Avoidable deaths and diseases continue to wrack the portions of the world where citizens do not have adequate and safe water and sanitation. This situation will prevail unless citizens of the world confront the roadblocks and realise that the claiming of their right to water and sanitation is an essential political project.

Some powerful nations have been the most hesitant to endorse water as a human right. The United States of America (2007) in a submission to the UN Commissioner for Human Rights said The United States does not share the view that a “right to water” – in any of the above formulations – exists under international human rights law. This view is informed by a review of the relevant instruments of international human rights law. Such a review demonstrates that there is no internationally agreed “right to water.” Neither the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) nor the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) mentions water at all.

In that communication, the USA recognised various types of water rights – including rights held “by individuals, private entities or governments.”

Canada recognised the right to water only in 2012 in the run up to the Rio+20 conference of that year. Countries like the United Kingdom kicked against the inclusion of “sanitation” along with water and insisted that the right should be restricted to that of access. It is also interesting to note that some African countries abstained from voting when the resolution was put to vote in 2010.

Policy frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are set to place emphasis on access to water rather than the right to water. The 6th goal of the SDGs is the only one that explicitly focuses on water. Note how it is framed, “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” This is obviously constructed to pave the way for business as usual to prevail. In a situation where water supply has become a business and not a public good, it is clear that vested interests will determine who has access to water and at what cost. These vested interests are also in the driving seat of public policy and ply the myth that public institutions cannot be run efficiently or sustainably. When politicians say they would reduce the size of government what they are actually saying is that they would increase the slice of the public good that must be turned over to the control of vested interests or, in a more regular parlance, the private sector.


Shrinking Sources plus the scourge of Extractivism, Pollution and Destruction

The world is facing a water crisis and by 2025 all African countries will be vulnerable with regard to water supply and many would already be water stressed by that time. With climate change, increased flooding, droughts and desertification the hope of securing ample fresh water supply continues to recede. Lake Chad used to be one of Africa’s largest lakes. Lake Chad sits at the intersection of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. The lake has diminished in size to less than 10% of what it was by 1960. The lake shrunk from 22,772 square kilometres in size to 15,4000 square kilometres between 1966 and 1973. Satellite images showed that the size stood at 2,276 square kilometres by 182 and at a mere 1,756 square kilometres by 1994. The presence of invasive species over about 50 per cent of what is left of the lake further compounds the problem. This has led to the displacement of fisher folks and pastoralists that depended on it for their livelihood activities. Although the management of the river systems that recharge the lake may be a contributory factor to it shrinkage, it is estimated that climate change contributes to the current deplorable situation.

Meanwhile our water bodies are infernally polluted and in some places in our country Nigeria, men and beasts depend on the same water sources.

While our nations groan from the pains of lack of potable water, the extractive industries, large drinks companies, companies providing water and sanitation services to estates and towns, as well as the financial institutions investing in these businesses are the ones drawing up the solutions to the crisis.

Talking of the unconscionable harm done to our fresh water systems, we only need to look at what the situation is in the Niger Delta. To avoid being accused of exaggeration, we only need to consider what the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) came up with in its report on the assessment of the Ogoni environment. UNEP reported that water bodies tested in Ogoniland are polluted with hydrocarbons and other toxic chemicals. Indeed at 41 sites the hydrocarbon pollution had reached ground water at high levels. At Nisisioken Ogale, in Eleme LGA an 8 cm layer of refined oil was floating on the ground water that serves community water wells. The ground water at this community also has benzene, a known carcinogen at levels 900 times above World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. UNEP recommended that emergency actions should be taken in the short term to provide the people with alternative and safe water. The Rivers State government provided a few truckloads of water for a short period of time and then stopped.

Four years after, the people are still drinking, bathing and processing foods in visibly polluted rivers and creeks. Perhaps the decision by the present government to undertake the clean-up of Ogoniland may bring about a change in the situation. But the clean-up of the waters of Ogoniland would take 25 years, after the land had been cleaned over a period of five years, according to UNEP estimates. We are talking of a 30 years project here. If that were true, by the end of President Buhari’s first term in office, the clean-up would not have touched the waters in any substantial way. Again we see that unless the provision of water and the clean-up of polluted ones are taken up as consistent political projects we may be in for nasty surprises with the run of subsequent governments.

If cleaning up Ogoni where oil extraction was stopped in 1993 would take this long, what would be the time frame for cleaning other parts of the Niger Delta where oil spills and gas flares are still a daily reality? It is the realisation of this horror that has probably got the people of Egi Land in Rivers State to request that the President gets UNEP to carry out a forensic environmental audit in their territory which they claim has been despoiled by Total.

The same can be said of the toxic water ponds of Zamfara and Niger States communities were children died from lead poisoning emanating from artisanal mining. The abandoned tin mines of Jos equally provide cause to worry over the quality of water that our fellow citizens make use of. The case of poor water supply in poorer parts of Lagos is of epic dimensions.

A people that value their water would not sit back to watch polluters go unchallenged. When they resist pollution they are saying that water is more valuable than crude oil, iron ore, coal, gold or any other pollutant. Klein (2014) put it this way – So often these battles seem to come to this stark choice: water vs. gas. Water vs. oil. Water vs. coal. In fact, what has emerged in the movement against extraction is less an anti-fossil fuels movement than a pro-water movement.[10] She goes on to write that whether the project is one of deep sea drilling, fracking, mining, pipelines, big rigs or export terminals, people are terrified about what would happen to their water systems.


Rights versus Capital

My recent article on the situation of water supply in Lagos elicited an interesting rejoinder from the Managing Director (MD) of Lagos State Water Corporation (LSWC). The key point of his rebuttal was that Public Private Partnership (PPP) is not the same thing as privatization or selling off of public assets. His article came up with interesting information about ongoing projects and some statistics. For example, we have the official statistics that only 7 million people in Lagos would have water while 15 million would go without if the existing water supply facilities worked at full stream and with uninterrupted power supply. Now that the installations are not working at 100% and electricity is epileptic how many Lagosians enjoy public water supply? The figure we have is a paltry 10%. This is woeful for an upcoming megacity.

Nationally, official statistics inform that more than half of Nigeria’s population have no access to clean water and more than two thirds have no access to sanitation. Citizens depend on “pure water,” wells, ponds, boreholes, water carts and water trucks for water supply. Reasons for embarking on water supply projects are not difficult to find. However, the main arguments from LSWC, as expected, were those the officials may have used in their project justification dossiers.

The Water Corporation boss stated, “On the contrary, the much maligned Public Private Partnership (PPP) only seeks to “partner” with the private sector for accelerated development of water infrastructure to meet our current water demand in Lagos State, which presently stands at 660 million gallons per day (MGD) for a population of 22 million.

“This is not “Privatisation” where assets are sold off to the Private sector.
The need to engage Private capital in water supply for urgent supply capacity expansion cannot be over-emphasised.”

In the second part of his article, Mr Holloway informs, “The Right to water of the poor segment of the society will be ensured through tariff approval by the Government that allows only efficient cost input and provision of subsidies.”

The point of difficulty for the Lagos State Water Corporation can be appreciated. The government’s plan to provide subsidies in order to ensure access to safe water when the PPP makes it possible highlights the conflict between rights and capital, between rights and the market. With all good intentions this will boil down to a matter of access for those that can afford the water, even with subsidies, rather than water as a right for all. A dual commitment to rights and to the market is akin to worshiping God and mammon. This sort of commitment makes it difficult to enforce rights while at the same time blunting the prospects of accountability. Moreover, the possibility of private investors bringing up price increases along the line cannot be denied and this could eventually mean more subsidies, or, put another way, more public funds transferred to private investors.

We cannot avoid the conclusion that the Build Own and Transfer (BOT) system being sold to the public by the Lagos Water Board is a cost-recovery method that can deprive poor communities of their basic right to an adequate provision of water. In citing South Africa as a shining example of where PPP has worked we note that (Metha 2006) cautions that by 1996 total recovery became official government policy, meaning that though they started with subsidies the idea subsided after a time. Indeed water fights in a place like Soweto by citizens deprived of water on account of water pricing went as far as South Africa’s Constitutional Court in October 2009. One of the thorny issues arose from the fact that with water as a human right it was an infringement of that right for water supply to be metered and such supplies cut off when allocated free quotas were exhausted. The court ruled that every account holder should have 42 litres of water for free each day.

In any case, the fact that water is supplied through PPP in Cross River State, Nigeria, or anywhere else (as highlighted by the MD of the LSWC) does not make it the most democratic manner by which to secure human rights. While we understand the budgetary difficulties in providing public service, for Lagos State, this question remains: will the market deliver human rights?

We keep in mind that in Europe the average quantity gets as high as 200-300 litres per person a day while in countries like Mozambique, for example, the amount is a mere 10 litres. The minimum quantity recommended by the World Health Organisation for a drinking, washing of cloths, food preparation and personal hygiene is 50-100 litres of water per person per day. The WHO also recommends that a water source should not be more than 1000m away and collection time should not exceed 30 minutes. Our reality across much of Nigeria, and indeed Africa, is one of punishing daily search for water of dubious quality by women and children.


Land Grabs, Water Grabs and Cementification

Land grabbing in Africa has reached at such a scale that it can better be described as a continent grab. Most of the lands are grabbed for agricultural purposes with the products exported to out of Africa. This grabbing translates into water thieving because once the foreign interests secure ownership of lands they also assume ownership of the water resources in such lands.

Locally, the degradation of wetlands through sand filling or so-called land reclamation is a major threat to the security of our resources, aquatic lives and other dependent species. Our coastal cities such as Lagos have been afflicted by the addiction to cementification. No better example could be found for the enclosure and erasure of a public beach (commons) and waterfront than the notorious example of the piece of property called Eko Atlantic. The push against the ocean, lagoon and wetlands definitely attract negative feedbacks through floods, properties with early obsolescence and general loss of biodiversity. Some may be delayed, but we can be sure of a day of reckoning.


Water is Life

Before the UN declared the right to water as a human right in 2010, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa had already done so. Although the African charter is part and parcel of our laws we recommend that the right to water should be unambiguously inserted in the Nigerian constitution. This is essential because our 1999 Constitution (as amended) does not have sufficient emphasis and provisions on basic human rights.

The privatisation of water under any guise must be rejected. Whether through direct enclosure by way of taking over public water supply or through bottling water for sale to the public as promoted by the hugely discredited structural adjustment programmes of international financial institutions, the response must be an unwavering NO. The same must be our response to the pollution of our rivers, creeks, lagoons and streams by extractive and other industrial companies. The criminal dumping of untreated or insufficiently treated produced water into our water ways in the oil fields of the Niger Delta must be halted and the polluters held to account.

In several countries the public sector has successfully provided water for their citizens. Indeed, 90% of global water infrastructure investment is provided by public finance. Some analysts have also said that PPPs are used to conceal public burrowing and this raises critical issues of transparency.

We would recommend that rather than engage in PPPs Nigerian governments could look to Public-Public Partnerships (PUPs). Through these partnerships best practices can be learned and areas of inefficiencies and wastages cut off.

We must also demand that the water sources our peoples depend on must not be treated as though they were dumpsites for all sorts of toxic waste including untreated urban sewage.

We also recommend that, as a matter of urgency, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) as well as National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAG), should conduct a thorough testing of water sold in the country either in bottles or in plastic sachets – including those made by the big water grabbers and the artisanal ones. It is time for citizens to know the quality of what they pay for to ensure that they are not unwittingly purchasing ill health and death with their hard earned resources.

Water is nature’s gift to the Earth. By water, nature nurtures all living beings. Attempts to privatise water or to deny anyone the right to water is manifestation of an inexcusable disconnect from nature. When governments realise that a healthy citizenry living in dignity is the best form of security, no expense would be spared to secure the enjoyment of the right to water by everyone.

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