Nigeria's Water Bill Could Criminalize Drinking Water For Millions

An environmental law passed this month in Lagos is a "death sentence," activists warn.
Lagos, Africa's most populous city, is in the midst of a major water crisis.
Lagos, Africa's most populous city, is in the midst of a major water crisis.

It’s a bitter irony not lost on its residents: Lagos, Nigeria, is surrounded by an abundance of water, but millions of inhabitants in Africa’s most populous city can’t drink it.

The coastal city that’s bordered by a lagoon is in the throes of a water crisis. Only 1 in 10 people have access to water that the state utility provides. The rest — some 19 million residents — rely on informal water sources, either drilling their own boreholes to drink from or fetching water from lakes or rivers. Those that can afford it pay exorbitant amounts to local “mai ruwa,” or water vendors, who peddle their wares in often-unsanitary jerry cans, or bottles and cellophane sachets.

Yet, activists say, the Lagos House of Assembly passed legislation last month that could threaten even this last-resort source of drinking water — an imperfect, but critical lifeline for most Lagosians.

Opponents of the Lagos Environment Bill say politicians did not follow due legislative process before it was signed into law on March 1 ― and its final language has still not been made available to the public two weeks after the fact. It could criminalize the private extraction of water, including the drilling of boreholes and purchasing water from private sellers, activists warn.

“One of our rights as citizens is to live, to have good water to drink, good environment,” said Agnes Sessi, president of the African Women Water, Hygiene and Sanitation Network, this month in reaction to the new law. “If government has failed to provide water for us, they do not have the right to take away our efforts to provide for ourselves. Do they want us to die?”

The government has said the law primarily targets commercial users, but activists who saw a draft of the bill before it was passed argue the regulation uses such broad language that it could threaten the basic human rights of millions of private citizens too. 

Akinbode Oluwafemi, deputy executive director for Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, told The Huffington Post that the law could mean most of Lagos was breaking the law.

“If I came to your house to take water from your property, the law would criminalize me and you,” Oluwafem said over Skype last week.

“The state is not providing water and they’re also not allowing people to fend for themselves to survive.” 

A child drinks water in central Lagos. Around <a href="
A child drinks water in central Lagos. Around 700,000 children under the age of 5 die every year in Nigeria. Water-related diseases including malaria and diarrhea are a leading cause of death.

‘Conspiracy against the people’

The United Nations issued a strong-worded statement last month condemning the water bill.

“When the State fails to provide adequate access to drinking water, no one should be criminalized or fined for fetching water from lakes, rivers, or any other natural sources,” said Léo Heller, U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation, on Feb. 27. “The government is taking a step too far by imposing fines of the equivalent of $310 on ordinary individuals fetching water for survival, when the minimum wage stands at approximately $60.”

Environmentalists, human rights groups and other activists have been protestings in Nigeria over the bill, which opponents say is a clear signal of the government’s intention to privatize the city’s water — at the expense of its citizens.

“Before this happened, we were hearing rumors that private companies were refusing to come in and do a contract with the city so long as people continued to have access to informal sources of water,” said Jesse Bragg, spokesman at the nonprofit Corporate Accountability International, from Boston, Massachusetts, last week. 

Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria’s Oluwafemi said in February that the law is “a conspiracy against the people.”  

“We believe the added pressure which this law imposes on Lagos citizens could be a guise to introduce Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) in the water sector which Lagosians roundly condemned,” he said. “We are again rejecting the push towards PPPs through the back door as this law portends.”

Activists have also lambasted the bill for being unconstitutional and abruptly passed. House members had been in the midst of a six-week recess when they suddenly reconvened to discuss the bill in February, according to Nigeria’s Premium Times.

Oluwafemi said rights groups and the public had little to no time to react to the bill’s introduction. A 190-page draft of the document was only made available to some civil society groups the day before a public hearing for the bill, he said. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. There were no proper public hearings, they didn’t wait for public submissions and the next thing we know, the law was passed.” 

Recurrent drought has led to water shortages across Africa. In parts of East Africa, it's now <a href="https://www.huffpost.c
Recurrent drought has led to water shortages across Africa. In parts of East Africa, it's now threatening the lives of millions of people and animals.

Government ‘secrecy’

Immediately after its passage, the lawmakers went on recess again, and were not due to return until March 28.

“What is the logic behind members of the House passing this obnoxious law and then going on recess immediately as if they are absconding?” said Francis Abayomi, executive director of the Peace and Development Project in Nigeria, in a statement. 

House members have defended the bill and insisted that all due process was followed.

“There is a process for legislative proceedings, there is a process to pass a bill into law, and I want to say that to all intents and purposes the processes were fully and duly complied with by the Lagos State House of Assembly in the consideration and passage of the environmental bill to law,” Tunde Braimoh, the House committee chairman on information, strategy and security, told the Premium Times this month.

Braimoh has also said that at least one of the controversial sections of the bill ― the criminalization of the sinking of boreholes in residential areas ― was removed from the final version that passed into law. However, as the Times reported on Thursday, the measure was “still inaccessible to the public” more than two weeks after Gov. Akinwunmi Ambode signed it into law, meaning its final language and provisions ― and its potential consequences ― have yet to be reviewed by anyone outside the government.  

Activist groups said the secrecy surrounding the bill was “very disturbing,” and in a Thursday statement called for the government to “stop hiding” the details of the new law. 

I am shell-shocked,” the Peace and Development Project’s Abayomi said this week. 

Water shortages, fueled in part by recurrent drought and violence, has been decimating Nigeria for years. 

The charity WaterAid has said the water crisis had killed more people across the country than the militant group Boko Haram. While the terrorist group had claimed more than 4,000 lives in 2014, the nonprofit said a lack of running water had killed more than 70,000. Water has long been a source of tension in Lagos, it added.

A child squats by an open sewer in central Lagos. A&nbsp;<a href="
A child squats by an open sewer in central Lagos. A 2016 WaterAid report finds almost 70 percent of Nigeria's urban population does not have access to safe, private toilets and 1 in 4 people practice open defecation.

Taps running dry

As the metropolis ballooned in size over recent decades, growing from an estimated 1.4 million people in 1970 to more than 21 million today, Lagos’ public water system has struggled to keep pace. Pipes, many of them decades old, have rotted through and taps now often run dry.

The two major water treatment plants in the city have fallen into disrepair; workers there have complained of non-functioning pumps, poor power supply and production rates well under capacity. And that only applies to the 10 percent of households in the city that actually receive piped water from the state. For everyone else, finding any means to attain water — unsanitary or not — is an everyday battle.  

In Lagos, 60 percent of Nigerians earn less than $1 a day, yet the country is now home to almost 16,000 millionaires, most of them in Lagos. And the discrepancy is acutely felt when it comes to water, according to Bragg.

Some poorer communities don’t have access to clean water themselves but have pipes running over-ground through their neighborhoods to the more wealthy ones. “The contrast is stark,” he said. “They can’t get water, but there’s water literally passing right by them.” 

Buying water from private vendors is a common practice and Lagos residents have called the service a “saving grace,” but it can be inaccessible for the poorest Lagosians. The average family may needs to buy seven or eight jerry cans of water daily, which could cost $50 or more a month, according to a 2016 report from the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria. In Nigeria, the average middle class family income is between $230 and $300 monthly.

The more severe the water shortage, the brisker the business for some water sellers. Abubakar Audu, a long-time mai ruwa, told local paper Eko Trust last year that he sets his price “depending on how desperate the customer is” and whether or not there’s light (blackouts are an everyday occurrence in the city).  

With proper sanitation practically non-existent across Lagos and most residents drinking water from untreated and unreliable sources, the city’s water problems have had a dire impact on public health. Water-borne diseases including cholera, dysentery, as well as typhoid and malaria fever, are a concern. In February last year, 25 children under the age of 6 died in one Lagos community after drinking pathogen-infected water. 

Water vendors are ubiquitous in Lagos and have been called a "saving grace" by water-strapped residents. But where these vend
Water vendors are ubiquitous in Lagos and have been called a "saving grace" by water-strapped residents. But where these vendors get their water from is sometimes suspect.

Battle for water

Long-term exposure to toxins is also a concern. A 2012 investigation found high concentrations of heavy metals like lead and cadmium at levels far above World Health Organization standards in borehole water samples extracted in Lagos.

The city’s government has precipitated the water crisis in Lagos by years of inaction, according to activists.

For decades, the state has “neglected to invest into the infrastructure,” said Corporate Accountability International’s Bragg. Instead, it has chosen to prioritize the possible privatization of Lagos’ water utility through public-private partnerships — a plan that has repeatedly failed, he added.

Since the 1980s, several foreign entities, including the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, donor governments and a variety of American and European banks and corporations have attempted to find ways to address the city’s myriad water problems. Nothing, however, has yet stuck.  

In 2015, negotiations between the IFC and the Lagos government regarding the funding of another PPP scheme broke down ― thanks in no small part to backlash from activists and community members. 

It was a “great victory” against privatization, said Corporate Accountability International at the time. 

Water privatization is a hotly debated issue worldwide. Groups including the IFC say that privatization through schemes like public-private partnerships can help improve the quality and quantity of basic infrastructure like water and its treatment. Others, however, say privatization of a basic human need like water is untenable. Corporate interests, opponents argue, end up being prioritized over the well-being of citizens and the environment.

“It is clear that PPPs in the water sector boost corporate profits at the expense of people,” Nathaneil Meyer, Corporate Accountability International’s water senior organizer, told the Guardian in 2015. “Privatization, including PPPs, just doesn’t work. Where near-universal access to water has been achieved, it has virtually always been through a public commitment to build and maintain infrastructure ... [Privatization] invariably results in raised prices, water shutoffs for those unable to pay and drastic workforce reductions.”

The Guardian reported at the time that water privatization was losing favor in many cities around the globe. Quoting a report by the Transnational Institute, Public Services International Research Unit and the Multinational Observatory, the newspaper wrote that 180 cities and communities in 35 countries, had chosen to “re-municipalize” their water systems in the past decade, terminating privatization agreements and returning water provision to public control. These included Buenos Aires, Argentina, Johannesburg, South Africa, Berlin, Germany, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“Despite more than three decades of relentless promotion of privatisation and PPPs by international financial institutions and national governments, it now appears that water remunicipalization is a policy option that is here to stay,” the report’s authors said in a statement. “Direct experience with common problems of private water management ― from lack of infrastructure investments, to tariff hikes to environmental hazards ― has persuaded communities and policy makers that the public sector is better placed to provide quality services to citizens and promote the human right to water.” 

Lagos residents buying water. Activists, unions, community leaders and members of the public have thus far been successful in
Lagos residents buying water. Activists, unions, community leaders and members of the public have thus far been successful in resisting the introduction of public-private partnerships to the city's water sector. 

‘I would rather die’ 

In Lagos ― where water privatization plans are often met with protests ― activists, unions, community leaders and members of the public have thus far been successful in resisting the introduction of public-private partnerships to the water sector. 

“This PPP will not work because we are ready to resist it,” said Okin Oseni, a Lagos resident, at a community meeting last year. “There is no job, no road, no security, and the government is thinking of privatizing the only water we have? I would rather die than allow that to happen.”

But now, activists say, the government is using the power of the law to force through their privatization plans. They believe the new environment bill was enacted to lay the groundwork for PPPs.

“The water privatization plans of the Lagos government which we have stood against and mobilized against till date is now being imposed on the people using the instrumentality of a law that was not properly debated, and fraught with anti-people sections,” Solomon Adelegan, national president of the Amalgamated Union of Public Corporations, Civil Service Technical and Recreation Service Employees, told the Premium Times. 

Heller, the U.N. special rapporteur, is now urging Lagos lawmakers to reconsider the bill and conduct “a proper and meaningful public consultation with all relevant stakeholders providing an adequate time for comments and opinions.”

“Legal measures by the government to regulate access to water are an important step to ensure that drinking water is safe,” said Heller in a statement. “However, when only 10 per cent of the population are connected to piped networks and the rest of the population rely on natural water sources for drinking water, a blanket prohibition of accessing natural water sources is not the way forward.” 

Heller has been pushing the Lagos government, along with activists, to increase funding for water and sanitation in the city. Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria said in its 2016 report that the water shortage could be better managed with increased budgetary allocation to the water sector (in some areas, say activists, all that’s needed is money for chemicals). Improved governance and less corruption would also help, as would increased public participation in the decision-making process, the report said.

The crisis in Lagos could have widely felt ramifications, the group’s Oluwafemi warned last week.

“Lagos is very key to the African continent; it is the heart of Nigeria,” he said. “If water privatization is successful in Lagos, it could spread across Nigeria and across Africa. Quality will go down, sanitation will be impacted and the poorest of the poor will not be able to get adequate water.”


Dominique Mosbergen is a reporter at The Huffington Post covering climate change, extreme weather and extinction. Send tips or feedback to or follow her on Twitter