Corruption in the water sector makes access to potable water and sanitation a moving target in Nigeria

by Depo Adenle, Ph.D. (Hydrogeology, George Washington University)

The National Water Supply and Sanitation Policy 2000, estimated that “only 48% of the inhabitants of the urban and semi-urban areas of Nigeria and 39% of the rural areas have access to potable water supply”, while The National Water Supply Sanitation Policy, 2004 gave the “national water supply coverage of 57%, made up of 67% for State capitals, 60% for urban areas, 50% for semi-urban areas and 55% as coverage for the rural areas.

John Gambo Laah, in “Nigeria: Water and Sanitation Sheet” reports the findings of two surveys conducted in 2006 {The UN Joint Monitoring Programme of 2004, 2006 & 2008 (JMP) and Core Welfare Indicator Questionnaire Survey (CWIQS)} that access to improved drinking water sources in urban area is 65.0 and 73.4 respectively while average for urban plus rural is 47.0 and 51.4 respectively for the two surveys. As for sanitation, the average for urban plus rural is 30.0 and 57.6 respectively for the two surveys. For sanitation JMP survey, average for urban is 35, while for CWIQS average is 77.0.  For sanitation JMP reports 25 for rural and CWIQS is 47.6.

The conclusion reached by Laah is that Nigeria is currently not on track to reach the MDG targets of 75% coverage for improved drinking water and 63% coverage for improved sanitation by the year 2015.

For this poor state of access to potable water and good sanitation in Nigeria, Laah’s conclusion goes further to list the following:

  • Available data on estimates show that improved drinking water and sanitation coverage are low in Nigeria.
  • Nigeria needs to revisit sector investment and mobilize civil and political commitment to meet WASH sector demand of the population
  • Government as a driver of change need to strengthen the state and Local Government councils so that they can fulfil their mandate in the water and sanitation sector.
  • There is need to enhance co-ordination and institutional collaboration in the water and sanitation sector to sustain gains of the past and maximise benefits of contributions of sector partners.
  • There is need for a joint sector review to enable the sector partners take stock of the country development and strategise for accelerated progress if we are to meet the MDG targets on water supply and sanitation

However, it appears Laah overlooks an important reason why Nigeria will not achieve the targets for MDG in water and sanitation in 2015:  corruption in the water sector.

According to Luke Onyekakeyah Corruption in the water sector some years ago, “conservatively, not less than $1 trillion dollars have been pumped into the public water sector since the past 46 years of independence. This figure excludes private expenditures in the water sector. Nigeria being a corruption-ridden nation, over 60 per cent of this amount was corruptly embezzled.”

While the source of Onyekakeyah’s data for this article published in The Guardian, a Nigerian newspaper a couple of years ago is unknown and while the figure may seem outrageous, goings-on in the water and sanitation sector in the country would tend to buttress this.  A mere 60 percent of a trillion dollars of those years should be adequate – then and now – to significantly change the current statistics on access to potable water and good sanitation in Nigeria.

Currently, most investments in water and sanitation are almost exclusively done by governments at all tiers. This is done without the participation of beneficiaries and leads, at times, to duplication of efforts by two tiers of government and thereby wastes funds. I remember sometime in 2001 in Gombe State where due to uncoordinated efforts of the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) and other actors in water supply and sanitation sector, water supply boreholes that already had pumps installed by an international donor had the pumps removed by an FGN contractor. Perhaps in an effort to execute the contract which was possibly got through fraudulent means and collect his fees, the contractor did not contact the international donor that was based in the same state before removing the pumps.

The donor would later discover that the pumps it had installed had been removed and dumped by the boreholes.  I am not aware of how this problem was resolved.

Corruption in the water sector comes in different forms and scopes.  For example, the absence of proper or standard water supply borehole drilling practice encourages corruption.  The bill of quantities used by most government agencies for boreholes is hardly understood by civil servants (predominantly engineers who are not knowledgeable in hydrogeology) and is usually loaded with items that cannot be easily measured, often inserted as lump sums which make such items easy to pad.

Government ownership of drilling outfits is very expensive in more ways than one.  First, drilling equipment and material are generally expensive and the added problem of padding supplies contracts which is very rampant in Nigeria. In addition, civil servants usually cannibalize such equipment  either with the intention of selling them or using the stolen parts to maintain equipment in their personal drilling outfits. In a survey that a consultant and I carried out in 1989 for a donor, it was discovered that virtually all government drilling rigs and support equipment were in various stages of disrepair with many missing important parts.

In spite of this, governments at all levels, continue to invest a lot of money in such a venture.  Ownership of drilling outfits encourages corruption by civil servants and politicians and this can come in different ways.  These outfits drill many free boreholes in homes of many top politicians and senior civil servants as well as the homes of relations and friends of these people.

There is also corruption arising from over-supply of chemicals, etc.  For example there is a state in the federation where treatment chemicals such as alum and chlorine gas are stockpiled in such a quantity, especially the former that can last up to 15 years. The improper storage of canisters of chlorine gas arises because of a dispute between the Water Board and the supplier since the former was not informed before procurement was made and since the contractor failed to provide the Board with necessary delivery documents. As a result chlorine gas canisters lie around haphazardly at the water scheme site in that state even as I write. The danger posed by such is apparent because of the improper storage of the chlorine gas canisters which pose great danger to those in the vicinity of the water scheme.

Politics also introduces a lot of corruption into the water and sanitation sector. Membership of State Water Boards consists of political party supporters who see membership of such boards as a form of compensation. In addition, pre-election political promises that are difficult to fulfill are covered up by engaging in make-belief projects which apparently are not intended to be completed, anyway, but which gulp a lot of money nevertheless.  For example, pretentious pre-construction works are usually started to hoodwink communities. These gimmicks include surveying, digging of trenches for pipe laying, etc.  Usually nothing is done thereafter, but the would-be beneficiaries would have been deceived.  This has led to communities being cynical about whatever activities of government with respect to water supply.

Social factors also contribute to corruption in water supply.  For example, typical examples of corruption include falsification of meter readings by meter readers after receiving bribes and illegal connections to water supply distribution networks. A recent customer enumeration survey revealed that over 70% of connections are illegal in a particular town.

Most of what have been discussed above is on water supply because the sanitation sector is equally exposed to the same kind of corrupt practices that are typical of the water sector.


Nigeria must look to the developed countries to move its water and sanitation sector forward.

To rid Nigeria of corruption in the water sector, a problem that permeates every sector of Nigerian life and economy, a problem that is now so bad  to the extent that there is hardly anything that can be done from the registration of birth to obtaining a death certificate that does not include payoffs, kickbacks, etc., best practices in the West remain the template that must be copied.

The ongoing Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Reform Program that is being funded by the European Union (EU) in some states of the Federation should be the template the whole country.  The Nigerian government is capable of funding such a program nationwide without any donor assistance if the political will is there.

If we stop paying lip service to ridding the country of corruption by making sure that all offenders are punished as political commentators and opinion writers in various newspapers have widely suggested, surely the water and sanitation sector will be well served, and access to potable water and sanitation would improve, and meeting the MDG will become a reality in not too distant a future – even if not by 2015.

In the western world (the Americas ad European countries) water and sanitation sector is well regulated and this provides for proper practices in the sector. The draft Nigerian Water and Sanitation Bill is still in the process of being approved.  Hopefully, by the time this draft bill is approved and applied the sector will be rid, to a great extent, of the fraudulent practices. Proper regulation of the sector is part of good water governance which these western countries enjoy and which we lack.

3 responses to “Corruption in the water sector makes access to potable water and sanitation a moving target in Nigeria

  1. Thank you for sending this article to me and I must congratulate you for embarking on this project.
    We need to cooperate to fight corruption not only in the water resources sector, but also in the entire nation. The source of Luky Onyekakeyah’s article is not certain and I cannot freely comment as a result. Your experience in Gombe is however curious as one is not sure of the service supposed to be rendered by the Federal Government Contractor. It would seem that was what he was sent to do. Did he set out to rehabilitte them, but ended up messing them up by virtually shutting of the water source to the communities that relied on them?
    You definitely will have the name of the State that stockpiled 15 years supply of chlorine. Can we have the name of the state and the photograph of the chlorine canisters in the store? Publishing these items will serve to wake up the state concerned and others will sit up.
    The MDG was actually designed to be moving targets especially as it is based on reducing by half, the population of those without access to water supply and sanitation by the year 2015. Since the population is not static and continues to grow at roughly 3%, so will the target be shifting.
    Back to corruption. Majority of our political leaders are not committed to render service. They are simply interested in their personal welfare. While we should hunt and hound the corrupt ones, we should be vigilant during election times to elect credible representatives. By fencing off known corrupt politicians and those without serious commitment to service, we would have taken a bold step towards reducing the rate of corruption in this country. We should also without restraints, apply our rights to recall those that have failed us.

    • Thanks, Mr. Hanidu. You’ve raised important points that I won’t want missed by readers who may simply read my submission that I will post yours on Monday as a short article. I’ve also prepared a reply that is fairly lengthy and will post this later in the week. DEPO ADENLE.

  2. Pingback: Governments’ water supply policy should be geared to correcting their bad deeds instead of criminalizing citizens efforts towards improving access. | weircentreforafrica

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