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Meeting the WASH MDG target in Nigeria

In this write up, Dr Michael Ojo, the new Country Representative for WaterAid in Nigeria urges the ‘Presidency and the Finance Ministry to give WASH the priority and funding it requires and deserves’.


Two weeks ago, the eyes of the water, sanitation and hygiene sector all over the world were focussed on Washington D.C. as more than 100 Ministers and delegates from over 50 countries, critical to the achievement of global targets on water and sanitation, came together at the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meeting (SWA-HLM).

I believe it’s fair to say that this is probably the most important coming together of world leaders, donors and developing countries in the sector. Under the auspices of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) these stakeholders discussed the water and sanitation crisis and what the response of countries lagging behind in providing adequate access for their populations should be.

Nigeria was there. We are one of the countries where this crisis is most critical. The statistics for Nigeria are frightening. In our country today, nearly 500 children under the age of 5 years die daily as a result of diarrhoea and other water related illnesses. Lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene is now the biggest killer of children in modern day Nigeria, killing more children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. This is not all. For the children that survive, the search for drinking water has blighted the lives of many.

Children and women bear the brunt of this lack of access. Many children miss out on school because they have to walk long distances and search large areas to source water for survival. Adults without access are drawn away from productive use of their time as they search for water instead. Without access to water, children and women are unable to ensure their health and hygiene and are unable to go to toilet and look after their menstrual hygiene in the comfort and privacy that many of us take for granted. Persons living with disabilities face even more additional difficulties.

Nigeria’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target is to supply 74% of the population with safe water by 2015 and 69% of the population with adequate sanitation.  Yet only 58% have water and 32% have sanitation meaning nearly 64 million people do not have access to safe drinking water with 103 not having access to sanitation.  At current rates of progress Nigeria will miss the water target by 18 years (2033) and is completely off track on its sanitation target, coverage having fallen from 37% in 1990 to 32% in 2008 (with the most current update showing even further decline to 31% for 2010).

Water is life!  Water and sanitation are essential for livelihoods!  As the popular Nigerian musician Fela Kuti sang, ‘Water has no enemy!’ It doesn’t take much to see how the availability or lack of water impacts on so many aspects of our lives. This was the key theme of the “Water Works” campaign that WaterAid in Nigeria has been running as part of a global effort to raise awareness and secure action from government and other agencies with responsibility for providing access to WASH services.

The key message of the “Water Works” campaign is that investment in taps and toilets is an investment in our children’s education, an investment in the nation’s health, and an investment in our economy. The cost to the Nigerian economy of poor sanitation is N455 billion annually or $3 billion per year. This represents a loss of 1.3% of national GDP. As you would expect, the highest proportion of this economic burden falls disproportionately on the poorest in our society.

To further get these messages across, WaterAid in Nigeria sponsored an art and essay competition among four state primary schools in Abuja as part of the activities to commemorate this year’s World Water Day. The children were tasked with painting a picture, writing an essay or penning a poem, depicting how water works for them. The winning entries and children were invited to an exhibition of their work when a compilation of the exhibits was presented to the Honourable Minister for Water Resources. Water Aid has been assured that this exhibit, representing the voice of Nigeria’s children – the demographic most heavily impacted by the crisis of lack of access to safe water and sanitation – will go to the SWA-HLM in Washington D.C. with the Nigerian delegation and be showcased.

More important than being showcased however, is the vital message that our children’s’ voices must be heard. And this brings me to the title of my piece.

One of the exhibits was a beautiful poem about the legend of Bayajidda. This ageless traditional folklore, like that of Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliet in the western world, has always been and continues to be taught in schools across Nigeria. Bayajidda was a prince who fled Baghdad and travelled across Africa with numerous warriors. He settled in Daura, a town in modern day northern Nigeria and it is here the story gets interesting from a WASH perspective. The people of Daura also suffered from a crisis of lack of access to safe water.

When Bayajidda arrived in Daura, he asked an old woman for water. She informed him that there was no water as they could only draw water from the well once a week when ‘Sarki’, the serpent guarding the well would allow them access. Bayajidda set out for the well where he killed and beheaded the serpent that had terrorised the people of the town and restricted their access to water. This feat ensured the people had daily access to the water in the well and for his heroics; Bayajidda bagged the hand of the local queen, Magajiya Daurama, in marriage.

Today’s ‘Sarki’ is the lack of investment in water and sanitation and the bottlenecks in the way of service delivery. The reward for today’s Bayajidda is more than half of a small kingdom or the hand of a queen in marriage. It is the life of the 275 children we could be saving in Nigeria every day by 2015 if we invest to reach our MDG targets on water and sanitation.

The Honourable Minister for Water Resources, Mrs Sarah Ochekpe has shown real leadership but the national budget for WASH is pitiful and falling – currently less than 0.1% of GDP and a far cry from the 0.5% the Government signed up to spending on sanitation alone as part of the eThekwini aspiration of 2008.

It is now time for the Presidency and the Finance Ministry to give WASH the priority and funding it requires and deserves. WaterAid will continue to push government alongside others who want to see an end to this WASH crisis in our lifetime. We will campaign to ensure that the Nigerian government keeps the commitments it made in Washington D.C.

We must make the investment required to secure the future of our children and secure the future of our nation. Our children are watching and waiting!


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