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‘State governments should increase investment in water utilities’

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Dubgari Abisabo is the President, Nigerian Water Supply Association (NWSA), a body comprising water agencies in all 36 states and Federal Capital Territory. He spoke to Property & Environment Editor, CHINEDUM UWAEGBULAM on the challenges facing the agencies and how to transform urban water supply and sanitation utilities in Nigeria.

The available statistics in Nigeria indicate regression in the urban water services to pipe-borne water regressed from to seven per cent in 2015 due to high rate of urbanisation, failing infrastructure, institutional weaknesses and low investment. What are the utilities doing in that regard?
Indeed, despite all the investments made in the water sector by governments and development partners, regression has been reported in the percentage of urban dwellers that have access to public pipe-borne water in Nigeria, from 32 per cent in the 1992 to seven per cent in 2015.
As rightly put, this is due to high rate urbanisation, deterioration of water infrastructure, poor governance, and investment, which is not keeping pace with population expansion.

This situation led the Minister of Water Resources, Adamu Suleiman to launch a wakeup call to draw the attention of Nigeria to the ugly trend in urban water supply and the need for the declaration of a state of emergency in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector in Nigeria. In support of this concern, President Muhammadu Buhari declared a state of emergency in the WASH sector in the country in November 2018.

The President who gave a matching order to all State Governments to implement the action plan also launched a National Action Plan. The Nigerian Water Supply Association (NWSA) is monitoring the states to identify the states that are working towards the achievement of the programme objectives.

The Federal Government has also secured the intervention of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is working and providing technical assistance in six states in Nigeria in order to order to improve access to safely managed water in urban communities in the benefiting states. This is currently going on in Imo, Sokoto, Taraba, Abia, Niger and Delta states under the USAID funded Effective Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Services (E-WASH) programme.

The approach under the E-WASH programme is a departure from the past when funds were released to the benefiting water utility while the benefactor only monitors from a distance. This time around, the E-WASH staff are embedded within the utilities to ensure proper transfer of knowledge and skills to ensure continuity at the end of the project. The technical assistance is focusing on corporate governance and legal reforms, financial and operational viability, advocacy and capacity building for all stakeholders of the utilities. The involvement of the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) is also fantastic because it will help the customers to demand the right level of services. At the end of the project, it is expected that all the E-WASH states will be corporatized with full autonomy.

The NWSA believes that E-WASH will be a success story that will be replicated in all the states of the federation.

The current dwindling oil prices and internally generated revenues have impacted heavily on water corporations; most of them are in comatose. What should be done to effective and efficient governance?
On the dilapidated position of water infrastructure in the country, I will call on the state’s government to increase investment in the sector in order to upgrade them to a functional state. Secondly, after the upgrade, they should embark on reforms that will lead to corporatization of the utilities. The benefits of this are many.

The utility will operate under-regulated environment, operate and charge a justified tariff regime that will keep it afloat as well as ensure available resources to sustain a high level of services. The utility will become autonomous and be responsible for all its income and expenditures, thus relieving the government of the high costs of providing water supply services.
The management of utilities on their part should embrace reforms in their mindset, in maintenance culture, accountability, professionalism, and commitment to service delivery. With the right approach, it is possible to turn the tide and start making a profit. There is a lot of money in the water industry. But first, the government must invest, and the utility staff must invest as well.

Do you think that the private sector should be involved in water services? If yes, what enabling regulations are necessary for their participation?
For any water utility to succeed, it must collaborate with the private sector. This comes in different forms and shapes. Firstly, in the area of providing goods and services and secondly, in the provision of water supply services itself.

Due to the capital-intensive nature of water supply operation, it is sometimes difficult for utilities to have sufficient cash to meet their obligations, which most of the time is urgent. Supply of such goods as pipes, chemicals, fuel, and lubricants could be contracted to the private sector. There are also some special services such as training and special installations that could be accessed through the private sector.
At times, the provision of water supply to certain areas may not be economically sensible due to logistics requirements. Such service can be outsourced to the private sector so that the utilities can focus on more important areas.

Some of our laws such as the water or WASH sector law is obtainable in some states or existing national laws will suffice in most cases. However, where water supply services are to be outsourced, the water sector regulatory commission or agency has a strong role to play.
Civil society groups are already protesting attempts to foist the public-private partnership (PPP) model of water privatization on the people.

What are the best options for state governments under the PPP scheme?
If you look at the concept of public-private partnership, it is a good one because the government does not have sufficient funds to cater to the water industry. The gap that is there is very tremendous, especially between the service that is being rendered and the level of services required. The main challenge is funding, and they also issue of approach by the management as the private sector approach is normally based on profit-making. They’re always commercial in their approach to the management of water activities. On the other hand, if it is left in the hands of the government, there is that civil service approach to running water businesses.

But if the government licenses people and allows them to operate, and that lackadaisical attitude won’t be there. We can also blend the government’s authority with the private sector participation to achieve better performance. I know the apprehension of civil society is based on the high rate of failures. But the successes of the projects are determined by the approach adopted in executing them.

For instance, in Taraba, the public sector supply is operating on N150 per one cubic meter of water, which is about 1,000 liters, which is about five drums. But people who are marketing the water sell for N200 per drum and residents are ready to pay. When it is subsided, people are not ready to pay the N150 to the government coffers. They are willing to pay N200 per drum but not ready to pay N150 for 1000 liters. But ready to pay more than that through the private vendors. To ensure better management of water resources, the government needs to create awareness and why the citizens must accept the PPP model. If, it succeeds, eventually, it will become cheaper in the long run.

According to reports, none of the 37 urban water utilities in Nigeria are providing uninterrupted water supply and only three per cent of urban dwellers have direct access to a piped water supply. What are the problems with State Water Agencies (SWAs) in Nigeria?
The attitude officials and people towards government utility agencies are the major problems. There is also a knowledge gap; a lot of the utilities need to retrain their staff on non- revenue water. For instance, if the utilities generate about 100, 000 cubic metres, what ends up in the homes is in the region of 40,000 meters. About 60,000 is wasted and lost in leakages. We are trying to provide leeway on that and ensure minimal wastages in utilities. The agencies are working in cross-purposes and the public is not in-tune with them. The public needs to be carried along so that they will know that it cost a lot of money to produce water. If they understand that, they need to pay their water rates for the people producing this water to have funds to buy the necessary raw materials, they will meet their obligations.

Another major issue is that power supply to the utilities is erratic, which demands the use of generators to keep the plants running. The Federal government should improve electricity supply to the agencies to enable them provide water supply to Nigerians.

There is also the apathy of residents in the payment of their bills and the challenge of old as well as obsolete equipment. Some of the pipe networks were laid in the 1960s and they need a lot of money to replace them. If there are reforms in the utilities that will help them to make a profit and everybody will be happy.


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