Water Crisis in Lagos, the Battle Frontline for COVID-19

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With the figures of confirmed cases released since the outbreak of COVID-19, it is evident Lagos is the epicenter of the pandemic. While Lagos State government, in its characteristic manner, is leading the fight against the plague, water for washing hands and sanitation, which plays a critical role in the control of the spread of the disease is scarce, rarely available to most residents, thus weakening the strength of the onslaught. Kunle Aderinokun writes that the state government should, as a matter of urgency address the water issue, and it may have to prioritise investment in the water, which is one of the basic needs of man, with a view to containing this scourge and forestalling future and unforeseeable pandemic

Some describe the COVID-19 crisis as the worst pandemic to hit mankind in recent time, but some believe this is only a dress rehearsal and a wake-up call to prepare mankind for far worse pandemics to come. Bill Gates warned in a TED Talk in 2015 about a global catastrophe coming in the form of microbes (not nuclear missiles) and four years down the line, humanity is facing an extinction event of global proportions. “We’re not ready for the next epidemic… The greatest risk of global catastrophe looks like this [like a virus]”(…) not missiles, but microbes,” he said.

Gates claimed governments had invested “very little” in a system to contain the next pandemic and that a failure to prepare could make the next one “dramatically more devastating than Ebola.

If only the world had listened!

Today over 1.865million infections (as at 12th April 2020) have been recorded with over 115,132 dead. That’s is a four per cent death rate, four per cent shy of the Spanish Flu that killed over 50million people out of half a billion infections between 1918 to 1920.

The world is in reactive mode now, rather than proactive trying to catch up on testing and containment rather than treatment of a pandemic that has gone out of hand.

Countries round the globe have learnt a bitter lesson and will, no doubt, review their priorities going forward and prepare for worse pandemics ahead. Don’t forget Gates warns of microbes to come, not just one.

So what areas need redress in the case of Nigeria and especially Lagos, which had 1,764 out of 4,151 cases of Covid-19 infections in Nigeria as at Saturday, 9th of May 2020. That is about 43 per cent of Nigerians infected. That shows how Lagos must lead the way in preparing for future pandemics. Lagos clearly is the frontline of the war against epidemics!

Going by recent records, Lagos State received global applause for its success against Ebola in 2014 and right now is leading the way in the fight against COVID-19. Question is why is Lagos having the highest infection rate? Even though one should rather ask a more critical question: Why should Lagos (more than any place else) prepare itself? This is the million dollar question.

Population Density

Firstly, Lagos is the most densely populated city in Africa with over 20 million people living within 1,171 square kilometres, meaning there are over 14,000 people living per square kilometre making it the 6th most populous in the world, according to UN Habitat Data.

Lagos the Gateway

Secondly, by virtue of its position as the commercial capital of Nigeria and also berth for ocean going vessels and the nation’s busiest Airport, Lagos is the gateway to the world and as such in the frontline of vulnerability to global pandemics.

Sanitation

Lagos has improved its waste management over the years with the LAWMA Private Sector Partnership (PPP) model working well to rid Lagos of its solid waste.

However, its liquid waste still poses a major challenge with sewage being hauled by trucks from homes and dumped into the lagoon untreated. This waste in addition to salt water incursions have already contaminated the aquifer in the state reaching depths of 300meters based on recent surveys.

A research article in the African Journal of Sciences written by Oladapo et al in 2013, shows the level of contamination of the water aquifer in Lagos as shown in table below:

Salt water and contaminants have penetrated to aquifers as deep as 300meters in the Lagos area.

The Lagoon is already contaminated with sewage being dumped on a regular basis which in itself poses a major health risk. Microbes from homes and hazardous wastes from Industries and hospitals are dumped into the lagoon water and could mutate to something dangerous in the near future. This practice has to stop.

Water and Sanitation

According to Water Aid, a UK-based organisation, 55million people in Nigeria don’t have access to clean water, 116million people don’t have access to a toilet and 60,000 children under five die each year due to due to poor water and sanitation.

No real progress can be made in the fight against epidemics without a clear strategy on sanitation and water. The fight against COVID-19 is being contained by restriction of movements, however, in the event a future epidemic that is airborne or water borne breaks out, Lagos will be the epicenter and not Wuhan or Lombardy in Italy.

It is time to look deeper into sanitation and water in Lagos. Time for action.

Water and COVID-19

Today washing of hands is being touted as the most potent defense against COVID-19 in addition to using face masks and hand sanitisers. Notwithstanding, sanitisers and face masks have become scarce and prices have skyrocketed leaving the common man with the last resort, stay at home and wash your hands, wherein lies the biggest problem.

There is no water to wash hand! Pure water today sells for N150-N200 per bag as against N100 per bag before the crisis.

Water tankers and Mai Ruwa (water peddlers) have also upped their prices as Lagos residents have no other alternative. Existing water infrastructure covers only 40 per cent of the state, based on Lagos Water data leaving the balance 60 per cent to depend on water tankers and Mai Ruwa while those that can afford pure water pay exorbitant rates for it.

A recent internet-based survey paints a dire picture of the water situation in Lagos as majority of homes have to rely on boreholes for source of water and over 97 per cent consider only bottled or sachet water as safe for drinking.

Most of the respondents to this survey, therefore, use groundwater direct from a borehole as their main water source. However, many people used multiple sources of water, and differentiated between sources in terms of how appropriate they thought each was for various purposes, such as for drinking, cooking, bathing, washing laundry and dishes, flushing, cleaning toilets and bathrooms. Most of those surveyed, even those with private boreholes, use bottled or sachet water as their main drinking water source. Factors that were most important in their choice of which water source to use for drinking were quality, taste/appearance, reliability, and ease of access.

The proportion of users of each source using the water for drinking is shown in the table as extracted from the survey.

According to UNICEF, “Poor access to improved water and sanitation in Nigeria remains a major contributing factor to high morbidity and mortality rates among children under five. The use of contaminated drinking water and poor sanitary conditions result in increased vulnerability to water-borne diseases, including Diarrhea, which leads to deaths of more than 70,000 children under five annually.

“Seventy-three per cent of the Diarrhoeal and enteric disease burden is associated with poor access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and is disproportionately borne by poorer children.”

“Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 by 2030 requires extraordinary efforts. Based on World Bank estimates, Nigeria will be required to triple its budget or at least allocate 1.7 per cent of the current Gross Domestic Product to WASH.

The ambition is highest for rural sanitation where the gap for improved services is 64.1 per cent. Funding for the sub-sector is weak, and significant household contribution is needed to eliminate open defecation despite low family incomes.” UNICEF.

By 2030, there will be over 29million people living in Lagos, perhaps, there is no better time to ramp up the Sustainable Development Goals in Water for Lagos than now to forestall disaster. Time to invest in water and sanitation!