Lagos is Africa's most populous city, and it is bordered by large bodies of water. But somehow, ironically, 70% of the 21 million people who live in Lagos lack access to drinkable water — a lot of residents get water from private water hawkers and water trucks, rainwater or polluted rivers and streams. And the state wants to fix that by bringing in private companies to fix the crumbling water infrastructure.
That makes sense, in theory: the government can offload the huge costs of repairing the water systems onto private companies with deeper pockets and technical know-how.
Private water hawkers in Lagos (Photo: The Cable NG)
But according to a Buzzfeed News report, the company at the top of the Lagos state government's list for the contract is Veolia, the company whose alleged “botched” role in the cities of Flint and Pittsburgh exposed residents to dangerously high lead levels in water.
Veolia, the world’s largest water company, is under investigation in at least three different countries, including Michigan, USA, which filed a complaint against the company for its role in overlooking contaminants in Flint’s pipes and making the situation worse. Veolia, of course, denies the allegations.
Veolia is being considered by the LASG, alongside three other companies for the contract, which would hand over almost two-thirds of the city’s water system to the winning bidder. The others on the list aren't much better: the Spanish multinational giant, Abengoa, was behind a disastrous privatization attempt in Bolivia that sparked months of protests before being scrapped, and Metito, has links via its largest shareholder, Mitsubishi, to investments in the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens Indigenous communities in the United States.
When the Lagos contract might be awarded is anyone’s guess, and information on the process isn’t publicly available, which is typical since we are not big on transparency or any other great policies.
Lagos Water Corporation (Photo: Pulse.ng)
It's not just the potential health risks that make this a wholly bad idea. Private companies who undertake these kinds of projects for governments go on to make profits from tolls and levies put on the infrastructure they've built (see: Lekki-Ikoyi link brigde); and in this case, drinkable water is now up for grabs to the highest bidder rather than democratically accountable officials. People have a right to clean water. Citizens have protested the privatisation of water several times — in 2016, and again in 2017 — and they're still protesting it!
According to Satya Conway-Rhodes, managing director of US-based Mayors Innovation Project, which helps cities find sustainable water solutions:
"With a private company, there’s no direct line of accountability. You’re just basically hoping the company will be a good actor and do what they say they’ll do. That’s not a good way to run anything — just based on hope.
Although companies claim that they have access to more capital and can bring in the money that’s needed to fix [utility] systems, the truth is there’s no free lunch. They’re not going to spend money on these systems out of the goodness of their heart."
With these kinds of developments, it's safe to imagine that one day every last drop of water will be controlled by profit-hungry private companies who seldom have any direct line of accountability, and who are definitely not carrying out these projects altruistically.
Lagos residents protesting privatisation of water in 2016 (Photo: Guardian NG)
Philip Jakpor, project manager at Friends of the Earth Nigeria — the local branch of the global environmental group — told BuzzFeed News:
"Rather than looking at water from the human-right perspective, the government is looking at 21 million residents and the revenue they can generate.
The reason they’re not compelled to do the right thing is because a lot of decisions so far have been taken in the dark."
Lagos is the latest African city to struggle with water scarcity. Earlier this year, Cape Town was on the brink of becoming the first major city in the world to run out of water.
If Veoila has a history of poisoning black communities in the US, why is the government okay with the risk of them also poisoning the largest African city on the continent? Isn't the job of an elected government to protect its citizens?
70% of the 21 million people who live in Lagos lack access to drinkable water even though the state is surrounded by water (Photo: Guardian NG)
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