Nigeria: Less Than 10% Nigerian Households Have Access to Potable Water - Unicef Chief

Zaid Jurji is the Chief of Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) for UNICEF Nigeria. In this exclusive interview with 'PREMIUM TIMES' Nike Adebowale, he talks about the WASH project, funding and the problem of open defecation in Nigeria.

PT: WASH is one of the projects the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) does in Nigeria. Can you tell us about what initiated the project?

Jurji: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak on Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). I have been the Chief of WASH in Nigeria for the past one year. This is one of the most critical sectors that affects everything else. It affects education, health which is one of the rights of the people, including children among other aspects.

I would not call UNICEF's presence here a support to a project or a kind of cooperation, it is much bigger and wider. Project issue is something that has a starting point and an end point. UNICEF has been in the country for more than 20 years and have been working in different areas. Our presence is needed in Nigeria and our role is based on the need within the country.

I will be speaking about the indicators of the campaign when it comes to the coverage of WASH. There is a big gap in that aspect. Now we have been talking about meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030. By the year 2030, every person in Nigeria and other countries in the world should have access to safe drinking water and safe sanitation.

Again, it is not a project, it is a contribution to that big sector. UNICEF works strongly with the Federal Ministry of Water Resources and also with ministries at the state level. Our role is supportive, the bigger role is for the federal ministries and state ministries. UNICEF and other development partners are here to support them fulfil their objectives.

PT: Goal 6 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2030 states "Ensure water and sanitation for all." How far has UNICEF gone in helping Nigeria meet the 2030 target?

Jurji: The biggest responsibility arena is within the country, UNICEF's role is only supportive. UNICEF works more in the rural area as opposed to the urban areas. UNICEF and the Federal Ministry of Water Resources have signed a document called Partnership for Expanded Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (PEWASH), which aims at meeting the SDGs under No. 6 by the year 2030.

Having a plan is one thing and bringing in the resources and having the commitment towards the fulfillment of the plan is something else and something that is bigger. I think you know that not long time ago, UNICEF with the National Bureau of Statistics undertook a Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), and this survey revealed the latest figure when it comes to water and sanitation. So when it comes to water coverage, the coverage is at about two-thirds of the population only. That means, only two-thirds of the population have access to safe drinking water sources.

Having access to sources is one thing but then the quality of the water that is been used by people for drinking purposes at the household level is different, because the source is somewhere in nature. It could be at the backyard of the house or in a vicinity people will have to go collect water from. From that point, the quality of water could be compromised as a result of so many factors. One of them is open defecation which we all know about.

Open defecation will pollute a safe drinking source. Once a defecation is done haphazardly around the source, it could easily get inside and contaminate the water sources. Another factor is construction of latrines wherever they are available. If they are controlled properly, like with the siting of the latrine, it could end up that sewage migrates from the pit into the water source and contaminate it. Now this is one thing.

During its journey from the source to the household, water is carried in pots, utensils and in cans. If these are not clean enough, even if the water was suitable for drinking, it becomes unsuitable. Now the water will have to be stored in the house and it is the same with the storage facility. Sometimes, hands get in touch with the water and if they are not clean, it could get water contaminated. So when we talk about two-thirds of the population having access to safe water source, when it comes to the households, this figure drops to less than 10 per cent. This is really alarming and worrying.

There are so many things that can be done by the people in the community to ensure they have safe drinking water. They should always wash their hands to prevent any possible contamination and also keep water storage very clean. Water taken from an unprotected source could be filtered using a piece of cloth or boiling water, which helps to kill all the pathogens. There are also tablets used to disinfect water and make it suitable for drinking purposes. All these techniques will have to be followed to render the water safe for drinking. So therefore, we need to work harder in that direction.

PT: How supportive will you say the Nigerian government has been towards achieving the target?

Jurji: A project or a programme is only a small component when compared with the overall need of the population. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, with a population close to 200 million people. And when we say one third of the population needs to be served with sources that are suitable for drinking, we are talking about more than 60 million people. Of course, there will be an increase in that population and that figure will grow. So the previous UNICEF programme in the country, which has spanned over a period of four years, UNICEF was able to reach about five million people with safe drinking water sources. This is not enough.

The level of cooperation with the federal and state ministries has been excellent but we need more than that because we have a bigger target to achieve. Meeting the SDGs is the ultimate objective and for that, there are other measures that will have to be taken by the government.

First of all, meeting WASH objectives, we need to make WASH a priority in the national agenda. Budgetary allocation will have to be increased at the state level and also at the federal level. The state will have to show that this sector is important and for that, more resources are been invested. The budget will have to flow freely through the different institutions or sectors that we have.

The budget at the end will have to be divided into two parts. One part will cover capital investment to construct new water systems and sanitation systems in areas that have not been served before. The other part will be to cover the operations and maintenance of the existing systems. A system that is put in place is important, but to make sure that the system is functional at regular basis, is what matters at the end. Otherwise, it is like buying a car and if you don't take it to the mechanic to fix some parts, change the oil and others, it will develop a fault. Same goes to the water system, if you do not maintain those that have been put in place, all the capital investment will disappear. But if you maintain it, with a relatively small budget, you will keep it alive and it will continue to deliver the services they are meant to deliver.

When it comes to maintenance and operations, this is an area we need to pay a bigger attention to. This is because it is an area that has far been neglected. In operations and maintenance, the state and the federal government have a role to play and other roles that have to be played by the community. Communities will have to pay for services, like a tariff. A tariff system is important to ensure that this recurrent operations and maintenance happens on day to day basis. So that at the end, they can get the water they need at the household level suitable for drinking. It is a responsibility for everyone - the community, state and federal government so at the end, we can fulfill this bigger objective.

PT: You have been the chief of WASH, UNICEF Nigeria, for a year now. What are the major challenges so far?

Jurji: The implementation of a programme in Nigeria comes with lots of problems, it is just like doing everything else. There must be one problem or the other. However, these problems are not major because at the end, we have been able to overcome them all. There might have been some delays, we wished we could have moved faster in the implementation. Because we get grants and grants are usually tied to a specific time span. Though we might be able to extend, but by extension we lose the opportunity of getting extra resources. This is however a minor point. The bigger problem is being able to meet the SDGs by 2030, and of course, this is not UNICEF's problem but a problem for the entirety of Nigeria. And since we are partners, we do feel for that.

As I mentioned earlier, WASH will need to become top on the national agenda. It needs to be treated as a priority. Making sure that this sector gets the attention it deserves, which is translated into increased allocation is very important. There should be a procedure to follow to ensure the flow of resources is done smoothly and that we do not only focus on capital investment but rather on the operations and maintenance parts, the current expenses, so that we keep previous investments alive and we make sure the services delivered to the people are of good quality.

PT - Open defecation has been a major challenge in Nigeria. With about 46 million people still practicing open defecation, what is UNICEF doing to help stop this menace in the country? And what is the progress report?

Jurji: The Federal Ministry of Water Resources has recognised that this is a big problem. In 2016, the ministry and UNICEF signed a document for a programme, which is a road map to render the country open defecation free by the year 2025. So it is a commitment and now we are planning to launch a campaign.

The campaign has a set of objectives. First of all, we want to make sure there is an appreciation that open defecation is a big problem within the country. You know, on the stage that the country decided that polio was an emergency, they formed a commission that was directly linked to the President and they launched a campaign and now, Nigeria is free from polio from the past 19 to 20 months, and hopefully, the country should be declared polio free in some months or years to come. This will be agreed between the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Federal Ministry of Health.

Why can't something similar be done for sanitation and to eradicate open defecation? So the campaign is a communication campaign which is aimed at two segments of the population. First is the decision makers. We want the issue of open defecation to become a priority for the decision makers to start to appreciate that this is a national priority that needs to be addressed. When this is acknowledged, sufficient budgetary allocation will be made available at the federal level, and those budgetary allocation should be used to incentivise states to come up with their plans on how to eradicate open defecation. For instance, if a states sets plans and promises to implement such plans to eradicate open defecation, whatever they put should be funds coming from the federal government.

The second one is aimed at the people themselves, those who still practice open defecation. We want to get into a stage by providing the necessary information to the people. We want them to start to appreciate that open defecation has a negative impact on their health, on the attendance of their kids to schools and on their economy. At the end, when people get sick because of disease as a result of open defecation, contamination of water, they will have to go see a doctor, which means expenditure. They will have to buy medicine, and also lose some of their time spent at work as a result of sickness. So we want them to get to a level of knowledge and change of attitude.

First, they will start to reject the idea of open defecation and they start to demand the construction of latrines, when they start to change their practices. So first, they get the knowledge to reject open defecation and then claim the need to have access to latrines and start to construct their latrines. Construction of latrines is something that should be done by the families themselves, it is their responsibility. So when they get to this level of knowledge, they start constructing their latrines.

We know construction of latrines will need some resources, which may not be available in such communities. But UNICEF is working on some tools to use so that people could have access to them within the communities. This can be done through Adashe. Adasheis a setup of solidarity where money is loaned to a family at a time, so they can construct a latrine. And the next month it goes to another family, and a third family and so on. So these are some of the things the campaign aims to achieve, though we are still in the planning stage we should be able to start in the next few months.

Our role is supportive, we cannot function on our own. So we are here to support the government of Nigeria. So far there are four LGAs that are Open Defecation Free in the country. These LGA are Dass in Bauchi State, Warji in Bauchi State, Obaliku in Cross River State and Yakur in Cross River State.

PT: Recently, you said Nigeria needs about $8.3 billion annually to fight open defecation in Nigeria, how much is the Nigerian government's contribution to this amount?

Jurji - From now till the year 2030, Nigeria needs about $8.3 billion annually until the year 2030 to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 6 water and sanitation by 2030. UNICEF is doing all its best to support Nigeria in achieving this goal. We have our plan, the Partnership for Expanded Water Sanitation and Hygiene (PEWASH), which is meant to address the needs of the rural communities only. The figure I gave is a comprehensive figure that was done on the basis of studies by the World Bank and it covers both urban and rural areas.

PT: How much has UNICEF spent so far as part of its support for the WASH project?

Jurji: Like I said, it's over 20 years UNICEF has been working in Nigeria, so I do not have access to that figure. But I can tell you of the past country programme, UNICEF has spent an average of $50 million annually for WASH, for the period of four years. That is a total of about $200million in the period of four years. However, it is still a token when compared to the $8.3billion needed annually.

Our work is supportive and it is meant to institutionalise proper WASH work. Our work is community-based, so what we do usually is to first trigger the community to see that open defecation is something they should get rid of. And once this is done, they know that this a condition for them to have access to water system. Once the construction of water system is done, a WASH committee is formed from the community themselves so that they take over the management of the water system once it is completed. They take responsibility for everything that has to do with maintaining a certain standard in hygiene and sanitation. Issues that have to do with hand washing, maintaining clean environment and ensuring that the latrines are properly maintained is part of their responsibility.

Also, I mentioned earlier about the quality of water, the source and the households. These, people will have to make sure the source is free from any contamination. Also, the manner in which water is being transported to households and how the water is stored. All this is to ensure the water remains potable for drinking. Usually, our approach is to do that for an LGA wide and we make sure everything is covered in that LGA. This is the concept of our work and within that, we get involved in capacity building of institutions at the state, LGA and community level, to make sure that things are done in the correct way.

The way they do planning, constriction, the way WASHCOM delivers its duties. We have guidelines, procedures and standards for that and we make sure the people involved adapt to that. Our presence is not only to expand services but to make sure that the right setup is there because this is what it takes for the system to continue.

The project is mostly based on a public private partnership concept. In the communities, the authorities provide the piece of land while UNICEF puts the water system in place and then the private sector will construct the latrine. The private sector is underused in the WASH sector in Nigeria, despite the fact that the private sector is quite strong and capable. When it comes to managing water system, the water board might not necessarily have the capacity around those systems. They might as well use the private sector to do that, while the role of the authority should be more of regulating the services. To ensure that the quality of services meet the set standard.

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