Lagos passes law making boreholes illegal amid water crisis

World Water Day march for clean water in Abuja, Nigeria. (WaterAid/flickr)

In the midst of a water crisis, the government of the Nigerian state Lagos made it illegal for people to fetch water. A bill passed last week bans the digging of new boreholes and criminalizes selling or transporting water. Nigerian activists condemned the rules saying that they prioritize efforts to privatize water in the city.

“It is disheartening to know that a law concocted by a few capitalists could be so easily passed within two weeks of a public hearing,” Betty Abah, head of the Center for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection, said in a statement. “Incredible! We will resist.”

She joined a coalition of civil society groups in condemning the Lagos State Environmental Bill. The law was the consolidation of eight separate laws concerning the environment. Hearings were held where civil society voiced their concerns. Little notice was given before its passage. Members of the House of Assembly cut short their recess to convene and pass the bill, then went back on break.

“We are too shocked at this clandestine passage by members of the House which was so hurriedly done that it smacks of disrespect for Lagos residents who are already victims of the Lagos government deliberate withholding of funding to the water sector to pave way for privatization,” Akinbode Oluwafemi, deputy executive director for Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, said in a statement. “The hasty convergence and recourse to recess by the lawmakers after passing this law is not only suspect, it is a conspiracy against the people.”

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation Léo Heller joined civil society groups in condemning the law.

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“Legal measures by the government to regulate access to water are an important step to ensure that drinking water is safe,” Heller said in a statement. “However, when only 10 percent 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.”

Water access is a long-standing issue in Lagos. Heller has worked for the past two years to monitor the ongoing crisis. Attempts to get information on the water and sanitation situation from the state government have failed, according to his office.

Millions of people do not have access to safe drinking water.  The existing infrastructure is in disrepair with two of the leading water treatment plants in need of upgrades in order to operate at full capacity. Civil society fought for years to improve access and prevent the privatization of water.

The International Finance Corporation, the finance arm of the World Bank, worked with the Lagos government to improve water access. It advised using public-private partnerships to help solve the problem. Civil society groups opposed the plans and talks between the IFC and the Lagos Water Corporation fell apart in 2015.

Campaigners considered it a victory against water privatization, but worried that new efforts would emerge. The new law is seen as one of those threats. Heller criticized the use of public-private partnerships in lieu of increasing government investments.

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“For more than a decade, the government has adopted a hard-line policy according to which the solution would seem to only attract private capital, notably via public-private partnerships. Numerous civil society groups have urged the government to guarantee their right to participate in these processes,” he said in December. “I believe that a participatory process is key to finding an adequate solution. But the alternatives proposed by civil society are not given meaningful consideration, while negotiations to initiate [partnerships]between public authorities and private investors have reportedly occurred in secret.”

A report released by Corporate Accountability International in consultation with civil society groups proposes an alternative solution to the water crisis. It calls on the state government to fulfill the right of access to clean water by rejecting privatization and working with civil society to develop a publicly funded plan.

Heller joined civil society groups in criticizing the Lagos state 2017 budget, in December. He called the House of Assembly’s proposal to address the crisis “unacceptable.”

“It is profoundly worrying how many millions of people are exposed to this level of vulnerability,” Heller said in a statement. “There is no question that the city’s water and sanitation sector has deteriorated to this point because of the way it has been managed for many years.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.