Water Issues: Potpourri

By Depo Adenle

This write-up gives a brief discussion of some of several major water issues in developing countries:  poor access to potable water, funding, planning, pollution/water quality, water scarcity, competing water uses and users and management of shared basins. These issues are, to a great extent, inter-related, for example water quality may be affected by corruption which in turn affects water quantity as well as potable water accessibility and lack of access to potable water leads to health problems.  Furthermore, disregard for competing water uses and/users by up-stream riparians could result in conflict as well as water scarcity for down-stream riparians.

Access to potable water: The most important water issue, especially in developing countries is access to potable water. A good insight into the magnitude of this problem is demonstrated by the figures in some reports on Njgeria where it states that 71% of those living in the rural communities do not have access to potable water and adequate sanitation while 58% of the urban and semi-urban population do not have access to both. These high figures are the result of a number of factors such as low investments in water supply, corruption, uncoordinated planning, water quality, etc. (The figures quoted here are probably not based on intensive field work but on some form of random sampling.)

Funding: Four possible sources of finance have been identified in the water sector in developing countries:  Government, Private sector, Donors and Users. Government in Nigeria does not have enough funding for its ever-increasing population because it has many diverse competing demands for its resources. Furthermore, the derelict status of existing water supply infrastructure cannot encourage private sector participation in water supply. The World Bank, African Development Banks, etc. will like costs recovered in funds invested in water supply schemes just as the private sector is also interested in cost recovery.  Thus the water users must be the ultimate source of most of the funds and here lies the problem. The funds from users are usually extremely below what is expected because of the poor state of water supply delivery services to consumers.

There have been several studies on willingness to pay. The conclusion is that consumers spend over 1,000% in purchasing water from water vendors when compared to how much it will cost from State Water Agencies (SWAs). Consumers are willing to pay for good services which state-run water agencies are not providing because of low investment in the water supply sector. This leads to the inability of SWAs to collect enough revenues that will make them viable as commercial entities.

Corruption: Corruption in the water sector threatens billions of lives as it makes water undrinkable, inaccessible and unaffordable – Transparency International (TI).  It has also been observed that corruption can increase the cost of connecting a household to a water network by more than 30 per cent in some developing countries. It is worth noting that in these developing countries, about 80 per cent of health problems can be linked to poor accessibility to potable water and adequate sanitation services, claiming the lives of nearly 1.8 million children every year. In addition, students suffering from water-related ailments around the world miss an estimated 443 million school days every year.  For the poor, the loss of an education in turn leads to lost economic opportunities, making the cycle of poverty increasingly difficult to break.

It was reported in the Nigerian media several years ago that the water sector is one of the hardest hit by corruption. Conservatively, not less than $1 trillion dollars have been pumped into the public water sector since independence which excludes private expenditures in the water sector. Of this huge amount, over 60 percent of this has been reportedly embezzled.

Planning: Planning, a part of water resources management, is uncoordinated in the water sector. This has led to investing in huge dams without pre-feasibility study for political reasons which has subsequently resulted in huge waste of resources.  The result of uncoordinated planning led to building of dams and irrigation schemes by the authorities that have been grossly underutilized. After many years, usage of such dams has only been 10 to 20 percent of their potential.  In addition, given the facilities have been provided without any determination of demand from the communities, there is little possibility of cost recovery and, with no cost recovery and insufficient Government funding, there is little or no maintenance of facilities.

Costly investments are being run down to the point of being made useless through neglect and lack of maintenance. This represents an enormous waste of past capital investment leading to dams that have silted up and water systems that have failed through lack of maintenance and neglect.

Water Scarcity/water quality: Scarcity could be due to a number of factors:  socio-economic, physical and climatic factors, for example.  Socio-economic activities could result in making an area that is located in very wet, humid climate become an area of water scarcity.  Pollution from urban population and industries as well as poor agricultural practices could result in drastically reducing the volume of water available for all uses.

Physical factors could be responsible for water scarcity. Climate and climate change are important factors with respect to how much water is available in most parts of the world. In the Sahel Savannah parts of Africa, change in climate is suspected to be responsible for the shift in the isohyets over about 180 km southwards leading to making parts of the Republic of Niger and the north eastern parts of Nigeria drier than usual.

Competing water uses and water users: This is a major challenge in water resources management.  The situation in Komadugu-Yobe Basin in northeastern Nigeria clearly demonstrates the challenges faced in water resources management with respect to upstream-downstream uses and users.

The Komadugu-Yobe river system (a tributary of Lake Chad situated in Northern Nigeria) has experienced severe impacts of climate change and variability. In addition, the upstream Tiga and Challawa Dams completed respectively in 1972 and 1992 divert a substantial share of the river flow for domestic use and irrigation (mainly within Kano State). The combined effects of climate change and variability as well as water diversions resulted in a significant decrease of the average annual flow to the middle and lower reaches of the basin ⎯ decline of 37% from the 1964-69 period to the 1970-79 period, and of 26% from the 1970-79 period to the following decade (Hollis, et al. 1993). Today the Yobe River (lower reach of the Komadugu-Yobe System) only contributes about 1% of the total water inflow to the Lake Chad. In this context, the middle and downstream States of Jigawa, Yobe and Borno complain a lot about the lack of fairness in the sharing of the river water between Kano (the upstream State) and other riparian States. In the meantime, farmers from middle and downstream States are engaged in a kind of “water warfare” by digging channels in order to divert as much water as possible to their farms, which has deeply disorganized the natural drainage network of the basin.


Transboundary Waters: The case of the Komadugu-Yobe Basin further demonstrates the challenges of competing water users in the international shared Chad Basin. The riparian countries are Algeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Libya, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan.  The Basin comprises a number of transboundary waters that include three main aquifers and a network of river catchments. This shared basin has witnessed series of conflicts on the use of surface water.


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