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“Let us shut down those boreholes because they have a capacity for long term environmental damage to our state, and our people.” Those were the words of Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, at Iponri, a suburb of Lagos metropolis, some three years ago.

One would have loved to ask: why would anyone want to shut down Nigeria's new-found factory? After-all, it had been projected that less than 30% of Nigeria’s 170 million population have access to potable drinking water. So, why should we have to shut down the only other source of water supply that entire families have access to in the absence of government intervention in the supply of drinking water across the nation?

About a decade ago, it was the responsibility of the State government to provide this essential commodity of life through its Water Resources Corporation. At that time, practically every State in the country had a Water Board. The Water Board provided services in piped and bulk water supply, particularly in the State capitals and in the cities. Key indicators of the success of those days were that the water coverage was 100%. Water production level stood at 7 lpdc. Water consumption was the same 7 lpdc. This meant that all the water generated by the Water Corporation was completely consumed, possibly because the monthly bill to households was as little as one pound a month. Collection of Water Rate stood at approximately 83%. The people of Nigeria felt good with those standards. Life was smooth.

Then, suddenly, everything changed, definitely not for the better of the majority, but for the worse. Over the years, the negligence or failure of government became a mandatory awakening for Nigerians to resort to private provision of water for their domestic use through the installation of boreholes.

This alternative source of water supply especially for domestic use appeared to have swept many Nigerian families off their feet. In some sense, if you don’t have borehole water in your house in Nigeria today, you have not yet arrived, as Nigerians would love to say. Everybody who is “somebody” in town must own a borehole.

I was in Nigeria last December on vacation. And the first shock that I had was to find so many people in my town going blind as soon as they clocked sixty. I just wondered. Only a few decades ago, when there were few cars or no cars at-all, my people would walk or cycle miles to fetch just a bucket of water. That practice still prevails in many parts of Africa today. Young men and women would always be seen in the streams or rivers nearest to their homes in the evenings, bathing and splashing water on each other. Some would come purposely to wash their family clothes. At the end of their romance with the stream, they would fill their pitchers with water and go home.

At that time, no one heard that a 70-year old man had any form of blindness, not to talk of a sixty year old.

But the situation has definitely changed, if my observations in Nigeria are any signs to go by. I saw it. And I knew it. I felt that the reason could be because people now use their own boreholes and drill their own water, and that most times, this borehole water is not chemically treated in the way it should be treated. And I asked myself, just as I am asking the government, could that have been the reason blindness has set into our rural system and attacked our people like a plague of locusts? Could the sudden proliferation of boreholes in the country have been behind this cruel blindness that has continued to harvest on our people? Do state governments across the country actually have legislations on water supply at state level, and if so, what are the stipulations? How is government monitoring owners of boreholes to ensure that they are in compliance with the health and safety regulations and laws of Parliament so that the possible hazard from drinking borehole water is minimised? Why have Public Water Corporations failed Nigerians across the country? Why has government continued to be less responsible for the provision of qualitative water for the citizens of Nigeria?

Nigeria inherited the institution called Water Corporation from the British when the country became independent in 1960. And for the first two decades following the country’s independence, the government provided potable water to communities which had Water Boards. The taps were flowing in every home, especially in the state capitals and in the cities. Even at the local level, government made much effort to provide treated drinking water for the people of Nigeria. By the 1980s, the situation began to change. Increased population, coupled with poor planning and official corruption, took a swipe on the professional dexterity of Water Corporations across the country. In unison, State Water Corporations were killed and buried.

The government’s failure heralded the era of “Do It Yourself” (DIY) in the water sector. Nigerians were forced to resort to the use of boreholes for the domestic consumption of water for families. That was how they found themselves in the mess which meant that Nigerians could no longer open the taps in their homes and drink purified water, like in the good old days.

With the failure or negligence of the government to provide clean drinking water for most Nigerian families, a lot of people have now come to accept borehole as a better, if not the only, alternative for the provision of drinking water. Yet, it is doubtful if the borehole water supplied by the individual is likely to be as healthy as the government supplied water that is subjected to many tests and verifications.

Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos state expressed concern about the proliferation of boreholes in his state some three years ago when he suggested that they are likely to constitute environmental problems in the long run.

While inaugurating the one-million-gallon-per-day capacity World Bank assisted Mini Waterworks at Iponri, a Lagos suburb, Fashola said emphatically that the residents of Lagos state would be better off utilising water from the State’s Water Resources Corporation than sinking more boreholes in their various houses. He assured the people of Lagos State that the Water Corporation would soon address the environmental risks the increasing number of boreholes is likely to cause in the years ahead.

Advising the residents of Lagos on the need to connect their homes with water from the State Water Corporation wherever they can connect, he said his government would continue to build waterworks to bring water close to various homes in the state.

Fashola was not the only public figure who made the observation. Even before him, the Group Managing Director of Lagos State Water Corporation Mr Shayo Holloway had brought the matter to the fore when he alerted the government that borehole drilling was inducing landslide in the state. Holloway also confirmed that water from shallow boreholes was salty and dangerous for human consumption because it could cause typhoid fever, hypertension and high blood pressure. He said that domestic boreholes were affecting water production because they pollute the water when it is abandoned or when refuse is dumped into it.

Moreover, UNESCO warns against the domestic use of borehole water as an alternative form of water supply for family use. The organisation continues to advise governments across the globe to discourage their people from the use of groundwater. But while some governments complied with the advice and made visible efforts to provide more purified and more centralised water for its people, Nigeria appeared to have continued celebrating the proliferation of boreholes.

A United Nations report observed that guinea worm and river blindness are endemic water-borne diseases in certain parts of Nigeria. UNICEF emphasised the need for water and environmental sanitation after realising that the occurrence of diarrhoea, a major child-killer in Nigeria, could reduce by 15 percent if water quality is improved. Improving the quality of available water would lower the incidence of diarrhoea by 22 percent. Combined with improved hygiene, the incidence could further drop by close to 35 percent while safe disposal of faeces would lower it by 40%”

Be that as it may, some notable Nigerians feel that the failure of State Water Corporations is beginning to hit the headlines in the social media because the fact that there is no access to potable water among a majority of Nigerians who are unable to install boreholes in their homes is affecting the entire nation. Even the policy makers appear to support the practice of constructing boreholes presumably because they too believe that the public water system has failed everywhere in the country and state governments seem to have turned a blind eye on the possibility of resuscitating the Water Boards.

The point is that drilling and sinking of boreholes by individuals has definitely exposed many Nigerians to untold hazards. In fact, government should by now be declaring an emergency in the water sector, judging from the emotional way most Nigerians look at the critical situation today. One aggrieved Nigerian was so concerned he said the people who raised alarm over the health and environmental dangers posed by the proliferation of boreholes in the country should bury their heads in shame. “We have a society where people provide their own electricity, their own roads, their own houses and their own water. All that the government does is to find more sinister ways to encourage corruption. It is a saddening situation that the Ministry of Water Resources exists for no reason. Salaries are paid to so-called workers. But the Water Boards are not working.”

Another citizen said: “Borehole could lead to landmines, earthquakes or tremor in the foreseeable future. It is easily contaminated by leaky contaminants, heavy metals and micro organisms. When pollutants spill, leak or are inadvertently dumped on the soil surface, they easily seep through the soil and pollute the aquifer – the layer of rock or clay holding groundwater. More vulnerable are boreholes in areas of mining and oil drilling activities. Worse still, Nigerians are not known to purify water from boreholes before consumption. Cases of toxicity arising from drinking untreated water from boreholes are rife, so, you can see that the failure of governance is responsible for what we have today.”

A Public Health expert was the opinion that Nigerians should blame themselves for being too docile to challenge a government that has clearly fallen away from its focus. “It is the duty of Nigerians to point to and challenge the government whenever things are not working properly the way they should. That is democracy. So, why must we always blame government? We have to blame ourselves for not challenging the government to fix all the moribund water schemes. The point is that the people failed to challenge the government because their families are comfortable with using dangerous borehole water for domestic purposes.”

The Buhari-led government should try and fix this change as a matter of expediency. Then, Nigerians will be reassured that the new government has started somewhere that touches the soul of every Nigerian.

Mr Asinugo is a London-based journalist

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Emeka Asinugo and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by Emeka Asinugo