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Curious emergency on water and sanitation

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Buhari, President of Nigeria


President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration of a state of emergency on water and sanitation the other day is an eye opener that things are really bad in this (public health) sector and so require urgent solution. The evidence is everywhere in the country.

Declaration of a state of emergency at anytime, anywhere, evokes an urgent situation arising from natural disaster or tragedy that puts lives and property in danger. It is not often that a state of emergency is declared even in some ugly situations. But it is commonplace in the country as many declarations have been made on sectors and critical infrastructure including housing, electricity, education, corruption and others without any follow-ups.

It is thus clear to all that solution to such challenges is not on regular declaration of emergency on them but on actions initiated to provide solution.Not long ago, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo decried the high death rate of children from unsafe drinking water. Osinbajo expressed his disgust in Abuja at the unveiling of the National Water Policies and launching of the Partnership for Expanded Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (PEWASH), organised by the Federal Ministry of Water Resources.

Again, while inaugurating the National Action Plan for Revitalisation of Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Sector at the State House Conference Centre, President Buhari directed government at all levels to redouble their efforts and work towards meeting the nation’s water supply and sanitation needs. The Vice President ‘decried’ while the President ‘directed’ actions on water and sanitation without executive policy instrument to direct relevant agencies to deliver such services unfailingly.

The president said the declaration has become imperative to reduce the high prevalence of water-borne diseases, which has caused preventable deaths in different parts of the country. Buhari described the statistics on open defecation, access to pipe-born water and sanitation services in the country as “disturbing,” warning that henceforth, Federal Government’s support to state governments will be based on their commitment to implementing the National WASH Action Plan in their respective states and to end open defecation by 2025.

The president used the occasion to reiterate that the provision of potable water supply, adequate sanitation and hygiene are primarily the responsibilities of state and local governments. Sadly enough, those who are supposed to serve the people have, over the years, failed woefully in their responsibility.That common potable water, a basic necessity of life, is still lacking in 21st century Nigeria that has reaped stupendous wealth from oil since independence, is an indictment on the country’s leadership at all levels.

It is regrettable that this development underscores again failure of governance in the public health sector. This newspaper believes that the country should have moved beyond this level of rhetoric in water supply and sanitation. It should not be part of what leaders should be addressing publicly. Sadly, the people have been left behind in the comity of really developing and civilized nations despite heavy expenditure on MDGs (2000-2015) and now SDGs.

The issue of provision of potable water nationwide is one thing that has defied solution over the decades. Most cities and state capitals cannot boast of potable water supply. People suffer preventable debilitating diseases as a result. Thousands are dying every day and sadly, most ignorant people blame witches and wizards for such self-inflicted calamities. Therefore, the state of emergency is welcome. This is the time the authorities should accord the issue of water provision the high priority it deserves. A healthy populace is an asset to the nation.

Unfortunately, rather than improve, the gains made in the past are being lost. For instance, available data shows that access to piped water services which was 32 per cent in 1990 has declined to 7 per cent in 2015, while access to improved sanitation has also decreased from 38 per cent in 1990 to 29 per cent in 2015. It is still the same story till date.

Similarly, WASH services in the rural areas are unsustainable as 46 per cent of all water schemes are reportedly non-functional and the share of spending on WASH sector has declined from 0.70 per cent of GDP in 1990 to about 0.27 per cent in 2015, which is far below the 0.70 per cent benchmark for West Africa sub-region.

Since the 1970s, the country developed a blue print for national, state and even urban water supply that were apparently abandoned, which explains why we are in a mess.There was the national framework for achieving the UNICEF mandated International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation decade (1981-1990), under which the issue of water supply and sanitation would have been addressed but it never happened.

Under the programme, Nigeria, like every other nation should have a country plan of action. What did the country achieve during the period? What percentage of the population had access to potable water? As water is also one of the critical issues under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Nigeria failed to actualise the national cum global water supply objective under the programme.

All these simply show how the country has fumbled, having wasted all opportunities to tackle the water and sanitation problem. This is why public health programmes have not been successful because the foundation has been ruined, so the superstructure is bound to be unreliable.
Now that a state of emergency has been declared, what are the implications? What action plan is on the table and for how long? What targets have been set for states and local governments and how are they evaluated or monitored? How is the Federal Government going to support the states and local governments under the emergency? In a good political setting, this is an issue a local political party could use as core campaign issues to be addressed.

It is not just enough for the Federal Government to hinge its support on mere commitment by states to the programme. There should be clear-cut policy framework to guide action and funding, otherwise, nothing would be achieved. The National WASH Action Plan could serve that purpose.
Water is a public good. Without water, talking of sanitation doesn’t make sense. The Federal Government should not be acting as a lone ranger on this very important matter. The states should be carried along at every stage to realise the objective of this emergency regime.

More important, how are the states prepared to deliver themselves from this kind of reproach? Water and sanitation challenge should not be a federal affair. It is rather a federation issue. All states should address this shame without recourse to the centre most people now believe should devolve powers and responsibilities – such as water and sanitation.


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