Emmanuel Akpabio is a water, sanitation and hygiene expert and is in charge of international cooperation at the University of Uyo where he earned a first-class degree in Geography and has subsequently acquired a doctorate in the same field. In this interview with Aniefiok Udonquak, he shared insights on the challenges facing the country as Nigeria marks her 63rd independence anniversary. He believed that poor access to water was at the core of the country’s public health challenges. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the country as it marks 63 years of nationhood, particularly in the areas of water, sanitation and hygiene?
Nigeria at 63 years of nationhood, most of the time we discuss politics, we discuss economy and we discuss environment, but we neglect core areas which touch on other segments such as water, sanitation and hygiene because these areas are at the core of development. If we use water up to 10 percent in the country, we would be having problems, because we have not used water in industrialisation and in municipal waste management, we have not used water in navigation and transportation, not to talk of per capita consumption. So, that tells you that water in terms of what we use it for either domestics or industrial or agriculture is important. So, if we were to touch water in the real sense, we would really know the value, but I am afraid, in the nearest future, this kind of thing will haunt us. Water is at the core of our development. Coming to think of sanitation and hygiene, if you don’t have water, enough to manage your sanitation, to manage your hygiene, you compromise public health both for individuals and families. Some of the common ailments and illnesses like cholera and others, which we tend to be superstitious about, spending so much money in hospitals, losing man-hour and productivity, is as a result of poor water sanitation and hygiene. So, at 63, Nigeria is exhibiting developing country syndrome of poor access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). The economy is not properly fed in terms of water, in terms of managing sanitation. So, if we say two billion people are living without access to improved water sources or improved sanitation and if you come to Africa, Africa fares the worst and of course, Nigeria is in Africa. The challenge we have is that we have not had a clear water masterplan, though we have had presidential initiatives on urban sanitation, etc, but the programmes do not outlive each regime. It is not systematically planned; it is the question of politics taking over. For instance, in urban water projects, some residents would have access to water, others would not have. Comprehensively, at the national level and coming down to the local centres, we have not fared well. The entirety is that of commitment. If you don’t have clear commitment, you may have policies, and we do not have our homegrown policies and programmes.
What in your opinion is responsible for this state of affairs in the water sector?
We may blame it on capacity and those who are in positions of authority. Are those in power with the capacity to drive change? If you say those that are governing us as leaders, you will realise also that they will take directives from international agencies and development partners which will insist that everyone must pay for water services. Let us make water a commodity so that everyone will pay for it, what happens to the poor who may not have the resources to pay for it. They will be struggling up and down the country. In the real sense, while trying to comply with the development and funding agencies directives, the local realities are often neglected.
So, your position is that water should be provided free of charge by the government?
In truth, western industrialised countries tried and did so to a point where the standard of living of the citizens became quite high and the people agreed to pay for water services but not in Nigeria. Many years ago, it was discovered in a certain area in London that a certain water tap was the cause of the avoidable deaths and the government went in sunk money and controlled the sewage system and the problem was solved permanently, then people were able to focus on productive ventures, no more going to hospitals to treat water borne illnesses.
Is there any difference between how water is managed in different parts of the country?
In the northern part of the country, there is serious scarcity of water and the scarcity value forces the citizens to appreciate water. Government values water in the north more than in the south. You can see that the ministry of water resources has always been the exclusive reserve of the northern politicians because they know the value of water. But in the south, we are living under the illusion that there is an abundance of water but where is it? Here, we only depend on rainfall agriculture and this explains why we cannot feed ourselves. If we were to irrigate farms in the dry season to feed ourselves, water will start to be scarce. Here, the government is not paying attention because it is not within the political configuration of those in power as it may not attract political value. But leaders should know that it has public health implications, with climate change and global warming, we can wake up and experience drought. The commitment to provide access to water services is not strong in the southern part of the country.
How does this play out in Akwa Ibom State?
I have noticed that the state government has created a special ministry of water resources, this is commendable. When I received European Union funding for public engagement for some ministries, Akwa Ibom was not there and it could not key into the funding programme for water resources. So, for the state government to create a separate ministry of water resources, it is a first step in the right direction.
Let us talk about the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) as an interventionist agency in the Niger Delta; how do you think it has fared in the area of water services management?
Well, the agency has tried its best in terms of providing boreholes where they are needed or not needed in clear justification of what it has to spend but in truth, water management goes beyond building boreholes. There should be interconnectedness with public health, how it is managed, the need for evaluation to ascertain which critical areas of the WASH mix is critical. Beyond building boreholes, the agency should also think of how to make productive use of water possible, it should reassess its strategy to get water in the productive line to attract small businesses.