Funke Adepoju: Why Lagos Regulates Usage of Underground Water

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The Executive Secretary of the Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission, Mrs Funke Adepoju, talks to select journalists, including Olaoluwakitan Babatunde, about the onerous task before her agency as well as the reforms Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu and the state Commissioner for Environment and Water Resources, Mr. Tunji Bello, have been pushing through the Commission

What does the Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission do?

The Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission basically is established by law, the Environment Management Protection Law 2017. It has the function to regulate the production, distribution, abstraction, supply and use of water to ensure that the players in the water sector enjoy financial viability and that the consumer is also protected. Basically, it is from an economic regulation point of view, that the service provider remains in business and that the consumer gets value for the service that they are paying for, and that is, ensuring that they get safe and hygienic water. We have the service providers in the formal sector, and then we have also service providers in the informal sector. The service providers in the formal sector are the Lagos State Water Corporation and the Office of Waste Water. You can’t have water without waste water, they go hand in hand. We consider them as formal because they are also agencies of government. We have the informal players: the beverage companies, the bottling companies, the table water producers, the sachet water producers and anybody that plays in the sector that deals with water or who have water as their basic raw material. Ours is to ensure that service is delivered, price is right, and there is reliability.

Are there challenges you face doing this?

Yes, there are challenges. The first thing I’m going to call a major challenge is the visibility of the Commission. A lot of people actually don’t know that there’s a regulatory commission. They automatically mistake us for Water Corporation or Water Board. What we are actually trying to do right now is to work on feasibility through advocacy, hoping that through the press, people will know more about what we do. And, the second one is that those who then understand, because there is also a profit undertone for those that are playing in the informal sector, we are not finding it too easy. For instance, we have an organization, whose raw material is about 95 percent water, and they don’t pay anything to government. That pitches us against those who profit from water. It’s a kind of monopoly. Water has that kind of tendency. They take in, they don’t want to give anything back for the development of the water infrastructure that will benefit the large populace whose natural resource they are taking free of charge.

It also takes us to the issue of ground water. Ground water is not an exclusive preserve of anybody. So, if you take a bottling company or a beverage company that takes about 10 million litres a day from ground water, they are depleting the aquifer. And it takes 50 years for it to be replenished and they are not paying anything back to government. That water is not charged. The assumption is that I dig my borehole myself, so why should I pay you? But water is a natural resource. Resources are never free.

Government needs to invest in water. Investment in water is not cheap. People tend to argue that I dug my borehole why should I pay you for the borehole? But that ground water is not infinite. Government must continue to plan to ensure that they can have adequate water supply. If you take Lagos for example, if a company takes 10 million litres a day, I want you to multiply it by 30, multiply it round the year, take an average of 300 days and look at the figure that is going to give you and it takes it for free, and you find its truck going all over the country, they are not giving it out free, they are selling.

Now, do you have the statistics of the volume of water these companies take?

Yes. We do. We have field inspectors that have been going round. Though we have a lot of challenges but we have to go after them. And what we are saying is very simple. Our principle is that, you have to pay a fair share of what you take back to government to enable government develop water infrastructure and integrated water resources management. It is not a tax. It’s just like land use charge. It’s just like you buying a plot of land and you want to build on it and somebody says, you need an approved building plan and you say ‘what do you mean, is it not my money I use in buying the land?’ It doesn’t happen like that. There’s what we call governance and our activities have to be guided by governance as it were. So, on the one hand, we have those who take the resource that is a common resource and use it for their own gain alone and nothing goes back.

Because of demand and supply gap, people just dig their borehole, which is fine but it goes beyond that. The government is now interested in who drills for you. My own personal example, and that’s where protecting the interest of the consumers comes in. We used to have a guy that drills borehole for us. The only thing he shows us is just about eight types of sand. (I’m sure we all have that experience) The last sand is kind of white and that’s the water. There’s no scientific test, there’s no water analysis, as long as the water is not colored, it is okay. But it’s not enough. They are not things we could see with the naked eyes. Even if you and I drink bottled water, it’s an assumption that it is safe, there’s so much of unwholesome practice going round. Who checks them? Nobody.

So, government is saying, the driller you must have license to operate in Lagos. Even the ground water is contaminated. The fact that it doesn’t give you any illness today doesn’t mean nothing has happened in your system in the process. It might be something that is kept there and must be triggered by something else in six, seven years down the line and it’s the water you are taking everytime.

High impact between public health and drinking water is not something a responsible government can look away from. We are saying, beginning from protecting the consumer, we need to go after people involved in these businesses; we need to set a standard and guidelines. Most of the boreholes are at very sensitive level; they are very close to surface water, very close to contamination. For the commercial user, which is what we are focused on right now, we are saying, you must have a permit. We need a data of what is where and what you are taking and for what use? Some people go to the extent of just putting alum and chlorine and do self-check. It’s a double edged thing. For those that are providing service, we are interested in the quality of service. For those that are consuming, we are interested in the quality of service that they get. We also regulate the price. During the lockdown, sachet water went from N150 to N250. All we need is for people to know that there is a regulatory commission; complaints that come here are protected. If it’s about public utility they can bring their complaint, we will mediate. You don’t know where some bottled water is coming from. We have people that cannot change. They know what the loopholes are, they know you can’t get them and they take advantage of it. Some bottled water have so many names. Some don’t have NAFDAC number, they take a label anywhere.

It’s our duty as a regulatory commission to tell you what is right, to tell you why we are doing this, to tell you that you have the back of government in such cases. Look at the ‘Mairuwa people’; the borehole that are being dug for them to fetch from, who checked those boreholes? We are looking at situation that such centres would have to subject their water to test. Like COVID-19, we need to emphasise the need for test of water that our people consume in Lagos, we would like to go for enforcement and that will start soon.

For some of these operators, their operations are out of Lagos but their market is in Lagos, how do you regulate such?

We are going to adopt a systematic approach to ensure they don’t give Lagosians unsafe water or beverage. We are going to ensure that they must have a kind of permit to sell their products in Lagos because they are consumed by Lagosians and we owe it a duty to Lagosians to ensure that what they are consuming is safe. Once you have the permit, though we cannot go to the state of operations, we might say submit your water for us for test.
want to come to this state with your product and it’s a regulated product, you must meet Lagos standard.

Are you seeing yourself duplicating what NAFDAC is doing?

No, we are not. NAFDAC is a federal agency. They have rights over food, drug control and regulation. They are enabled by law. Water regulatory commission is also enabled by law and our activities are covered by law, so we are not crossing each other’s territories. If NAFDAC gives you permit number, certifying you to produce certain food and beverage products, it’s not a problem but we are saying, the products that you want to sell, that you want to bottle, we need to give you a permit to say, that yes it is also good for consumption. So, NAFDAC is a level one and we are level two because it is State, and the laws of the state cover this.

What about the sachet water?

They have a very big association. They know what they are doing. They have been working with the commission. What we need to do further is to ensure that we bring them closer and let them see the reason why they have to do things better for those that are not doing it properly. The areas that we have issues are those that are operating in the military cantonment. But we believe their percentage is not within the majority. After sometime, we can begin to say that the following products do not have our permit, let the people decide. With the COVID- 19, water is the first line of defence and that’s why we have to pay more attention to the issue of water.