Water is seen by many as the symbol of life due to its basic importance to human survival and happiness. However, history has shown that access to safe and clean water has forever been disproportionate, between the have and have-nots; what should be a ubiquitous commodity, like air, is scarce, especially in developing countries where the standard of living is still crawling in the mud. This inadequacy, obviously, has prompted the international community to consider ‘access to safe drinking water’ as one of the 10 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
To achieve universal access to safe drinking water, there has to be a responsible and efficient management of water resources and quality infrastructures must be put in place and maintained to ensure proper distillation and distribution. Assuredly, this will cost money. And this leads to how this money should be sourced. In solving this problem, three schools of thought have been developed. There are those who believe that the government should provide water to the public, as parts of its basic responsibilities. Here, taxation will cover up for the costs of running water services. Some others are of the opinion that private corporations should be entrusted with water resources, and charge the public appropriately for water usage. Toeing the middle line, the third school of thought argue that public-private partnership is the best way to run a viable water services. There are those who argue that this third option is simply a euphemism for privatisation of water resources.
In highly populated cities like Lagos, the problem posed by water scarcity is put under adequate spotlight. In an exhaustive article titled, ‘Privatisation of Water: An Historical perspective’, Naren Prassad wrote: “In colonial Lagos, the lack of financial support for developing water supply system led to the segregation between wealthy enclaves (colonial administrators and local elites) and the rest of the city. At the end of the colonial period in 1960, a mere 10 per cent of the households were connected to piped water supply and the rest depended on shared taps, standpipes, wells and unsafe creeks. This situation further deteriorated during the civil war and the successive authoritarian regimes. Industries in Lagos are now using around 20 per cent of their capital to providing basic services like water. Currently only five per cent of households are connected to water supply. Others still depend on wells, boreholes, water tankers, illegal connections, street vendors and open drains.”
Undoubtedly, as Prassad said, access to safe water in Lagos remains a big challenge. This has prompted the government to seek for international help in solving the problem. Now, the Lagos State Government is, allegedly, about to partner with the International Financial Corporation (IFC), the commercial arm of the World Bank, in an attempt to bring in private players into the sector. However, this move has not gone down well with the human rights community, who sees water as a human right that must be free of charges.
Recently, during a press conference in Lagos, the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria (ERA/FOEN), a non-governmental organisation, in partnership with the US-based Corporate Accountability International (CAI) urged the Lagos State government “to stop any form of water privatisation, including those under the public-private partnership model, and instead bolster real solutions that truly address people’s access to safe and clean water.”
The group, in a letter to the Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, noted that the solutions to water problems lie not in corporate management of public goods, but in collective investment in water infrastructure and democratic decision-making that prioritises the human right to water over all other objectives.
Akinbode cited the failed water projects conducted by the IFC in Manila, Philippines, and Nagpur, India, emphasising that the injection of private sweat into the business of water will only make the resource elitist and very difficult for the average man on the street to access. He argued that the social implications of water make it imperative for it not to be left in the hands of capitalists, who are bent on making profits at all costs.
The ERA/FOEN also accused the IFC of conducting corporate bidding processes, designing complex and lopsided water privatisation contracts, dictating arbitration terms, and becoming part-owner of water corporations that win the contracts it designs and recommends all while aggressively marketing the model to be replicated around the world. “Not only do these activities undermine democratic water governance,” argued the Group, “but they constitute an irreconcilable conflict of interest within the IFC’s activities in the water sector, an alarming pattern seen from Eastern Europe to India to Southeast Asia to Africa.”
However, the Minister of Water Resources, Sarah Ochekpe, has argued that privatisation of water simply highlights the inadequacy of government funding in the sector. She noted that commercialisation of water services will increase the revenue base of the sector for the maintenance of facilities and development of new ones.
Still, the stories of Manila and Nagpur tend to paint a gloomy picture of Public Private Partnership (PPP) as orchestrated by the IPC. In Manila, privatisation has made the water sector richer, but it has also led to the increase in bill collections and raised water rates more than fivefold, making drinking water unaffordable to many residents.
In Nagpur, according to a report by the CAI, privatisation has “failed to deliver the infrastructure improvements promised”, and led to “multiple project delays, inequitable water distribution, service shutdowns, allegations of corruption and illegal activity, ongoing protests by residents, and direct testimony from public officials declare this to have been anything but a success.”
The position of organisations like the ERA/FOEN and CAI is that “water is a fundamental right. As such, it should be managed by government as a public good, not delegated to corporate control.”
Meanwhile, the IPC and proponents of privatisation are of the opinion that government alone cannot bear the financial burden of ensuring universal access to safe water, especially in populated cities like Lagos.
Lagos is the heart of Nigeria, with a population of about 21 million people. Since 1979, the Lagos State Government has obtained loans from the World Bank, French Government, and other international donor agencies to fund water supply expansion schemes, such as the Iju, Adiyan, and Ishasi Waterworks, as well as expansion of distribution networks.
Interestingly, though, there has been no official statement from the Lagos State government about a privatisation deal with IPC.
And reacting to that, Akinbode charged the government to come out categorically and clarify issues. “We need a clear picture of what transpired between the Lagos State Government and IFC.”
He also noted that the fight against privatisation does not end with defeating the IPC. He said: “What we are trying to do is to send a strong signal against water privatisation in general. This is not just about the World Bank. The government must provide and maintain water infrastructures as a public service, if not, why are we paying taxes? Water provision is a human right issue and the government cannot pretend not to know it.”
A gender right activist, Betty Abah, also weighed in on the issue by reminding the government that women are largely affected by the scarcity of water because of their domestic responsibilities in running a home. “Lack of safe and clean water endangers women more,” she told THISDAY, “because in the home, usually, it is the responsibility of the woman to provide water for drinking, bathing, and cooking. So, we need to make water available so as to make life easier. Privatisation is not the answer. And until we speak strongly against it, they will go ahead and do it.”
A stakeholder at CAI, a US-based non-profit, Shayda Edwards explained that the drivers of water privatisation are only concerned about profit and not the equitable distribution of the natural resource. She pointed out that global corporations are seeking to take over ‘our water’ and that the World Bank stands to benefit if they are successful. “I think the global consensus is that the model does not work,” Shayda said. “It has not worked in Manila, it will not work in Lagos.”
She also gave strong assurances that her organisation is strongly committed to seeing that Lagos does not join cities like Manila and Nagpur, where privatisation has worsened the availability of safe water to the general populace.
It is however pertinent to note that Private Sector Participation (PSP) in water supply has a long history. According to Prassad, “private initiatives were pivotal in establishing modern water supply systems, which led to privately owned or operated systems. This started as a result of urban growth since the mid-1800s in most European countries and North America. England was the precursor of modern water supply systems, which later spread to Germany, elsewhere in Europe and to the United States. However, during the late 1800s, as a result of their unsatisfactory performance (inefficiency, high costs, and corruption) or due to public health concerns in many European countries, these services were returned to public or municipal ownership.
“Today, in the European, the provision of urban water supply is significantly different, ranging from no private sector participation (the Netherlands), to an amalgam of PSP (Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain) and PSP with no profit motive (Austria, Denmark and Sweden), to full privatisation with strong regulation (England and Wales).”