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Nigeria Rushes To Privatize Water Supply

by Sam Olukoya

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(IPS) LAGOS -- In Agege, a suburb of Nigeria's commercial hub, Lagos, Augusta Uyi-Evbuomwam has become indispensable.

From dawn until dusk, people carrying buckets and jerry cans queue to buy water from her borehole. Uyi-Evbuomwam claims she dare not close shop for even a day, as the entire neighborhood would be left without water.

"It is more than a business, it is a service. People are begging me to sell water to them," she says.

This tale is repeated elsewhere in Lagos, Nigeria's largest metropolis, where clean water is in short supply. More than half of the city's 15 million people lack access to potable water. Residents like Kehinde Oyida, a housewife with a family of seven, walk long distances to obtain daily supplies.

"We have to search for water, because it is very important. We need it for drinking and for cooking," she says.

Rapid population growth only promises to exacerbate these water shortages. According to the United Nations, the city's population will jump to 24 million during the next decade, making Lagos the third largest city in the world.

Of course, money is a big part of the problem. State authorities will need about two billion dollars to supply water to the city's population by 2015 a sum they say is unaffordable.

Global leaders have made 2015 the deadline for halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water. The target forms part of the Millennium Development Goals, agreed on by heads of state and government in 2000 in a bid to improve living standards around the world.

As a result of budgetary constraints, Lagos state officials have turned to the private sector to supply water to Lagos' inhabitants. A law that allows both local and foreign firms to invest in water services was passed in November last year.

"It is important that we look for alternative sources to be able to augment what the government is doing. That is one of the reasons why we are bringing private sector operators on board," says Coker, adding "The infrastructural development needs are huge."

But critics of the plan fear it might end up benefiting investors at the expense of consumers especially those in destitute areas.

And, ironically, putting more facilities in place to supply water appears on occasion to worsen matters.

"We have to speed up infrastructural development because as we increase, so the population increases. We have an institutional problem in the sense that as our infrastructures improve they also attract more people, so it is a circle that keeps growing," says Olumuyiwa Coker, group managing director of the Lagos Water Corporation. This government agency is responsible for providing water to Lagos dwellers.

"For the poorest in the society...when you ask the private investor to deal with them, it can't work. The private investor is there to make his own money; it is for profit," says Emmanuel Adeyemo, an analyst at the Country Water Partnership. This is the Nigerian affiliate of the Global Water Partnership, an agency based in Sweden.

"If you want to get water to the poorest in any society, if you treat it as an economic good, ultimately you will not get it across to them because they don't have the power to pay," he adds.

Coker maintains that prices will be kept within reason.

"One of the basic tenets of what we are doing, essentially, is to be able to improve our service delivery within affordable means," he says. "Tariffs are a crucial issue so we must make sure that we are able to bring people on board and at the same time keep tariffs at a reasonable and affordable level."

It remains to be seen how the private investors that government is intent on courting will co-exist with borehole operators, estimated to number in the thousands. For her part, Uyi-Evbuomwam isn't especially concerned.

"There can be no competition with large water companies. Government policies can look nice on paper, but I don't think they can bring water to the doorsteps of the people," she says.

"We are playing a major role in providing water in Lagos. Water consumption is increasing every day. Water scarcity in Lagos will be better addressed if borehole operators are encouraged to provide water," Uyi-Evbuomwam adds.

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Albion Monitor January 14, 2005 (

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