FG could avoid a water bill perceived as resource annexation, anti-federal, says Ezeji

Joachim Ezeji


• Goal should be poverty alleviation

Dr. Joachim Ezeji founded Rural Africa Water Development Project; an NGO that assists millions of household to access safely managed drinking water. He spoke to CHINEDUM UWAEGBULAM on issues ranging from water, sanitation and hygiene services as well as the Water Resources bill.

Despite established evidence that good hygiene practice is the first line of defence in the prevention of infectious diseases, about 60 million people in Nigeria lack access to clean water supply services and another 150 million lack basic hand washing facilities. How can we correct this emergency?
Yes, there is a looming disaster, but do we really acknowledge the fact that we are now in an emergency situation. As a risk management expert, I can state without equivocation that risky behaviours have long permeated Nigerian livelihoods.

This substantially complicates Nigeria’s poverty-reduction efforts. Shocks are frequent, costs are high, coping capacity is mostly inadequate, especially for the poor and near poor, and uninsured risks hold and push people back into poverty.

Unfortunately, reliable data on hygiene behaviour are limited in the country, thus access to hand washing facilities is a useful proxy for overall hygiene practices. With just 18 per cent of rural households having access to a basic hand washing facility, Nigeria is below the sub-Saharan African average of 15.4 per cent. Understanding individuals’ behaviours and the triggers that influence them is essential to designing strategies to deter poor hygiene practices.

Simple acts of regular hand washing with soap under running water have proven effective as barrier to faecal – oral transmission, including COVID -19. But achieving universal access to WASH services is contingent upon their availability over the long-term. And for Nigeria, the challenge is that nearly 30 per cent of water points and schemes fail within their first year of operation and 15 per cent of completed works are considered unsatisfactory in quality.

This therefore aligns with the substantial needs for improved water, sanitation and hygiene services in Nigeria. Despite significant revenues from the oil sector, Nigeria made only modest progress against the water and sanitation Millennium Development Goals (MDG) between 2,000 and 2015. The national percentage of people gaining access to improved water supply rose 24per cent from 2000-2012 and only four per cent of the national population gained access to improved sanitation over the same period.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) is essential for slowing down the spread of many diseases based on its effectiveness as a barrier to its transmission. For example, frequent and proper hand washing with soap under running water is one of the most important measures that can be used to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus (SWA, 2020).

Reliable water and sanitation services in both private and public spaces, including schools, offices, markets, health care facilities (HCF) and households are critical to maintain hygiene, including hand hygiene, laundering, cleaning and disinfection etc. Ensuring services such as running water is continuously available is critical to the desired triumph over such diseases.

Given the broad public exposure occasioned by the ubiquitous culture of a handshaking and touching of surfaces in the course of day – to- day living, it is imperative that regular hand washing be practiced. This is fully consistent with the public health practice foundation of emphasizing disease prevention. Also, the control or containment of known risks to public health is one of the most powerful ways to improve public health security since these threats constitute the vast majority of events with a potential to cause public health emergencies which fall within the scope of the International Health Regulations of the World Health Organization.

However, access and availability of soap and water are crucial determinants for hand washing with soap. Access to soap is not a major problem as research has shown that 95per cent of households have soap in one-way or the other. To some, the problem is how to prioritize the use of soap for hand washing. Soap availability is complemented with the dedication to provide water at the facility for hand washing practice to be sustained.

Even with the access and availability of soap and water, enabling products are key determinants of the rate of hand washing practice. The enabling products include various “external factors that influence individuals’ opportunity to perform a behaviour.

Statistics shows that only five per cent of healthcare institutions in Nigeria have access to WASH facilities. What steps must also be taken to ensure inclusive, equitable WASH facilities?
I will propose that this challenge be addressed through changes in both behaviour and infrastructure through partnership between the government, private sector and NGOs. This approach becomes appropriate based on the increasing realisation that governments in developing countries such as Nigeria cannot provide adequate water and sanitation services to all.

Both formal and informal private providers as well as civil society organisations have important roles to play, hence there is need to design an appropriate framework, that should be promoted using fact-based policy collaboration through both the mass and social media. Such a partnership can be facilitated using tools like a Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) with civil society groups and contracts with the private sector, as a means of making substantial improvements to services in the Health Care Facilities (HCFs). To make this effective and efficient, there is need to allocate responsibilities based on comparative advantages of each partner, as part of contracts or MoUs, with suitable degrees of flexibility.

For example, while the contracts could cover infrastructure provision and repairs, MoUs can cover hygiene education. Finally, I make bold to state that hand hygiene will only improve, if healthcare workers are motivated to change their behaviour and when adequate infrastructure (taps with running water and soap) are available.

The Water Resources Bill 2020 has become topical and pit civil society groups against the government. What are the issues? What’s your position?
I can state clearly that that the problem of water resources in Nigeria is not one of economics but politics, and, also, not one of physical shortage but governance. The generic problem of water in Nigeria is one of matching demand with supply, of ensuring that there is water of a suitable quality at the right location and the right time, and at a cost that people can afford and are willing to pay. The difficulty in accomplishing this is partly institutional and certainly includes problems of governance. However, some of the problems of governance themselves have an economic explanation.

Water resources stakeholders are aware of the story of the Water Resources Bill. In 2017, a comprehensive national water resources bill was proposed to centralise water resources management through the creation of a national council and establish a regulatory framework for water resources; however, this bill was not approved.

The difficulties in approving this bill may linger based on the festering clamour for restructuring of the country and a return to true federalism by the various ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. It is incumbent on the Federal Government, in sync with the ethos of good governance to respond to the raging clamour, instead of trying to ignore it, or pushing through a nationally divisive water bill that is generally perceived as resource annexation and anti-federalism.

You may note that the National Water Policy, which was originally drafted in 2004 and ultimately approved in 2016, is the umbrella policy guiding water resources management. The policy designates that all water is a national asset and that planning, and development of water shall take place through an integrated water resources management framework using eight hydrological areas as the basic units.

Nigeria’s federal system divides water governance responsibilities between federal, state, and local institutions. Water resources management is generally administered through the Federal Ministry of Water Resources and River Basin Development Authorities, whereas service delivery provisions and domestic water supplies are managed through state water agencies and local government authorities. However, an unfortunate one for that matter, governance of water resources has been undermined by lack of coordination between institutions, inadequate funding, inefficiency, and lack of capacity.

I do not think that the Water Resources bill adequately addresses these weaknesses, hence the need for more dialogue and discussion with a broad group of stakeholders.

Personally for me, the goal of the Water Resources bill should be poverty alleviation. The bill should focus on the income opportunities of the poor, the strategies needed to support these opportunities using water resources, and the resources needed to finance pro-poor investments.

Without this, Nigeria will not reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of eradicating poverty by 2030. A pro-poor agenda means generating more formal jobs while working to increase the incomes of smallholder farmers and informal workers in secondary towns and strengthening their capacity to manage risks.

There are worries on the levels of access to water, sanitation and hygiene services in rural communities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. What are the ways to reach out to this deprived population?
Despite increasing urbanisation, slightly more than half of all Nigerians reside in rural areas. Thus, addressing the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic will be largely contingent upon Nigeria’s ability to improve and sustain access to safely managed WASH services in rural communities. Most rural households have access to at least limited water; however, one third continues to rely on unimproved or surface water.

Less than half of all rural households have access to improved sanitation and one third continues to practice open defecation. Access to hygiene facilities is split almost evenly with one third of all households having access to basic or limited sanitation and one third lacking access to a hygiene facility. Access to WASH services in rural areas is constrained by geographic area, wealth and education. While the relationship between access and wealth and education follow commonly. .established trends, with access to higher service levels related to greater wealth and education, spatial patterns are more nuanced and differ between water and sanitation.

Access to hygiene facilities generally follows trends in access to water.

Therefore, achieving universal access to WASH services to meet the needs of the deprived population is contingent upon their sustainability. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, nearly 30 per cent of water points and water schemes fail within their first year of operation and 15 per cent of completed works are considered of unsatisfactory quality.

Furthermore, large swathes of the rural population continue to rely on unimproved sanitation due largely to limited access to the funds needed to build improved latrines or, in some hydro geological conditions, to the excessive cost and technical complexity of their construction. Nigeria’s WASH sector is heavily underfunded, and the government needs to invest more while spending more efficiently.

Water experts say the current health crisis globally, especially in Nigeria provides an opportunity to re-think and restructure system resilience in the WASH sector. How is this possible? What are the modalities to achieve it?
The sustainability of WASH systems requires that we enhance their resilience to a range of risks posed by a number of factors. Excellence in managing such risks is essential, not only for operation and maintenance, but also to the wellbeing and prosperity of the people it serves and the preservation of nature in order to sustain ecosystem services. WASH system here includes the people responsible for operation and maintenance, the infrastructure, the users, the policy makers and many others.

Based on my field experience, I can clearly argue that WASH management could be a complex and challenging task, especially, in a society like ours where extreme behaviors and events are intense and frequent.

As key stakeholders in the WASH system, we all should become veterans of risks by dissipating, more than ever before technical competence, watershed/ecosystem awareness, social engagement skills and conceptual ability.

The latter includes an understanding of how the complexities of the upstream and downstream environment impacts on the WASH system’s internal environment and operations. The diffusive nature of risk makes every risk a potential high impact risk and the understanding of this, is the key to a resilient WASH system services.

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