Searching for water to prevent COVID-19

Handwashing is one of the key ways of preventing the spread of COVID-19. This, however, is a challenge as a result of the scarcity of water in many parts of Nigeria. MOSES EMORINKEN examines this challenge

 

AS of December 28, 2020, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) dashboard showed that there have been 79,673,754 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 1,761,381 deaths globally.

The numbers, though staggering, remains the highest tally of global deaths ever recorded in the history of pandemics. Countries have suffered fatal blows in their economies, and most especially in their healthcare delivery systems.

However, hope seems to have been rekindled with some big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna, having developed vaccines that are said to have efficacies up to 95 per cent to inoculate people from the deadly virus. Countries have now begun the frantic race to secure their space in the procurement chain of these vaccines.

While those dramas unfold, the WHO, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC), Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), and other relevant stakeholders have continued to re-echo that prevention remains the surest way to completely defeat the virus.

Part of the non-pharmaceutical measures to prevent transmission of the covid-19 is regular handwashing with flowing water and soap. Ordinarily, this should not be a problem for Nigerians, given that the country is so blessed with water bodies from which to draw from.

Also, in this new normal, Nigerians have now been educated on the benefits of handwashing. While travelling across cities, towns and even villages in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), The Nation investigation showed that there seems to be some decent level of awareness regarding handwashing and hygiene. However, the big question remains – where is the water?

The Federal Government’s advocacy on handwashing across the country is commendable. However, without proper provision of clean water and access to basic water facilities, will be tantamount to ‘pouring water in a basket,’ – null and void! This is the more worrying in the context of the covid-19 pandemic, with handwashing being a critical infection prevention practice.

At least 167 million homes in Nigeria do not have access to handwashing facilities, and only 26.5 per cent of the population use improved drinking water sources and sanitation facilities if figures from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are to go by.

Asides covid-19, a report by UNICEF states: “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 diarrhoea which leads to deaths of more than 70,000 children annually before their fifth birthday.

“73 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.”

To corroborate the above, a report from WaterAid, an international non-governmental organisation, focused on water, sanitation and hygiene, stated that: “The importance of access to hygiene and clean water has been worryingly overlooked by world leaders in the current crisis. The Federal Government has been quick to promote hand hygiene and handwashing, but without acknowledging that this is shockingly still impossible for the 150 million people in Nigeria who lack handwashing facilities with soap, the 60 million people who lack access to basic water supply and for thousands of frontline health workers and their patients in clinics and hospitals.

“95 per cent of all healthcare centres in Nigeria are at risk of becoming epicentres of the disease because of lack of access to combined water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, putting the lives of doctors, nurses, midwives and patients at risk.”

In a chat with The Nation, the Chairman, Medical Sub-Committee of the covid-19 Ministerial Expert Advisory Committee in Abuja, Dr. Ejike Orji, said: “I belong to the global handwashing community and sanitation for all. Without covid-19, 78 per cent of diarrhoeal diseases will be prevented if there is adequate and clean water that people can wash their hands with and drink. Handwashing has reduced diarrhoea diseases in the communities because now people are maintaining some level of hand hygiene. In my community, when people come, they bring a bowl of water to wash their hands but I said to them that once you do that you are carrying out the germs from your hands and putting them into that bowl and taking it up again. That is why we are now preaching that people should take a bowl and make a tap.

“Coming back to whether we have water, do you know that it is now a global concern? It is a big global concern such that in a place like Australia they are already running short of water. In fact, in Australia, water is now marketed on the stock market. A country like South Africa rations water in some places like Cape Town. It is becoming a global phenomenon and the reason is that with the global climate change that is happening and increasing population, the search for water and the use of water has increased.

“And because of the increase of the ambient temperatures in the world, water is evaporating every minute from the soil even though it is recycled. Most of it goes into the ocean and the ocean is very salty. For you to desalinate the ocean and use the water, the cost input is high.

“People do not have enough to drink, and if they don’t have enough to drink, how can they even wash their hands? There should be a strategic attempt also to make sure that you get people to wash their hands, and that there is water for them to use to wash their hands. For me as a development expert, it is not as if we do not have policies. Some policies are not properly aligned and even when we have the policies, they are not properly implemented.

“For Nigeria, I am even seeing a catastrophe coming in the future because instead of using public works water, we are using boreholes everywhere. Take for instance, in Gwarimpa, almost every house has a borehole, and everybody is feeding from the same artesian water basin. At a point, the water will finish and it will collapse. If you go to some parts of America – I think California, there is something they call sinkholes. Your house might be in one place and the next minute it sinks into the ground. That I can tell you that in the next 20 to 30 years, Nigeria will be having such problems until we address the proper use of public works water. I fear that in years to come the artesian water basin will dry up because the rate of use of the water will be more than the rate of replenishing of the water.

“Meanwhile, there are proper dams that have been done and all we need to do is to regulate water to be able to get to every place. For Nigeria, we have everything in abundance but we need to manage it because of our population and we are in a population crisis. If we continue the way we are going, we will get to a point where we will also have a water crisis. For now, they can still use boreholes but the permanent thing will be to have a proper public works water department that will reticulate water.”

We don’t have water, and buying water is now expensive, communities cry out

Now that community members have been sensitized on the sundry benefits of handwashing, especially during the covid-19 pandemic, people are crying out that the public waterworks do not function and they have resorted to digging boreholes for themselves or buying water from local suppliers. Either way, there is a catastrophic cost from getting water.

Speaking with The Nation, a resident of Nyanya, Abuja, Mr. Moses Nwachukwu, explained that the culture of handwashing is gradually dying because people cannot readily access water facilities.

“Handwashing is a practice we were not used to before the advent of covid-19. But with covid-19, I think that consciousness was beginning to somehow gain ground, particularly as offices were forced to enforce it on their staff. Some of us imported that same practice into our domestic homes. But again, over time, with the relaxation of the lockdown, I think that culture is again dying. I think handwashing is a good practice to maintain and imbibe.

“Where I live, there is the challenge of water supply because nothing flows into your tap. Even when we get from the water board, it is usually once in a long while. By implication, we usually need to buy water continuously. Assuming water flows and the Water Board gives water, practising handwashing under flowing water would be easier.

“There are also the economic implications of buying water depending on the size of your household. The truth is that incomes are not increasing and the pandemic has rather eroded or reduced people’s incomes. People now have to buy water from local suppliers who use trucks with kegs of water, popularly called ‘meruwa’. A truck can cost N350. By the end of the week you’re spending close to N2,000 or more in one week just for water,” he said.

Mrs. Adache, a Civil Servant who lives in Kuje, who spoke with The Nation, said: “Truly, covid-19 has made people pay more attention to washing their hands and in taking care of their health. People know that they have to wash their hands thoroughly before anything. The painful part is that the water is usually not available.

“But for me, I draw water from the well but not from the taps because they are not available. The water we get from the well is not hygienic but since it is the only available source, then, that is what we have to use.”

The Madaki of Karu, Alh. Ismail Musa Karu, in an interview with The Nation, said: “As a community leader, I keep enlightening my people about the reality of covid-19, and about the need to wash their hands with soap and water and wear their face masks properly because of their safety. Even in the mosques, no one can enter without wearing face masks and you know that you cannot pray without ablution which includes washing your hands.

“The pumps from the water board does not rush every day, and that is the reason why I want to advise the government to help us to make boreholes. Boreholes can be made 2 metres away in the community. If the government does that, the people are going to be happy. This is important because if you rely on the pumps, we can stay a whole week without getting water. In my house I do not use the water board; I did my borehole and also made it accessible for people in my community to fetch for free. The House of Representatives member in the FCT, Zaphaniah Jisalo, has constructed twelve (12) boreholes around the Nyanya, Karu, Jikwoyi, Kpegi axis. I will encourage Chairmen and House of Representative members to do the same.”

Failed promises, dry taps and pipes, and way forward

In a bid to improve the access to water and water facilities, and revitalize the deplorable situation of the Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector, the Federal Government in 2018 declared a state of emergency.

Two years down the line, the people’s pipes remain dry, their taps broken and hopes dashed from broken promises. This is evident by the 2020 report from USAID that revealed that only nearly 30 per cent of Nigerians have access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation. This can potentially affect Nigeria’s aim of meeting the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets (6.1 and 6.2) for WASH by 2030.

To solve this, the Federal Government is pushing very hard for the passing of the National Water Resources Bill.

The controversial Bill which started in 2008 and predates the Buhari Administration, has been a source of debates. Some people believe it is ill-timed and will add to the hardship the common man is already facing during the covid-19 pandemic.

However, the Minister of Information, Alh. Lai Muhammed, during a briefing, explained that the Bill, when it becomes an Act, will not only bring about the professional and efficient management of all surface and groundwater for the use of the people but will also amalgamate extant Water Resources Laws – the Water Resources Act, Cap W2 LFN 2004; the River Basin Development Authority Act, Cap R9 LFN 2004; the Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency (Establishment) Act, Cap N1100A, LFN 2004; and the National Water Resources Institute Act, Cap N83 LFN 2004.

During an interview with OSRC TV, the Managing Director of Benin Owena River Basin Development Authority, Saliu Ahmed explained that although Nigeria cannot be categorised as a water-scarce country because of its clement weather and guaranteed rainfall, but must learn to manage its water sources.

“Some countries may not have abundant water like Nigeria but they have learnt to manage their situation better. Israel, for instance, doesn’t have much of freshwater but they have managed to be able to undertake what is called desalination, that is, taking out the salt from the water and converting it to freshwater for use for their population. They have also learnt to be able to manage their wastewater to the point that no drop of water, even from your urine, is unaccounted for because it is converted and put to beneficial use as portable water in the homes or for irrigation.

“For us in Nigeria, whereas we are not water-scarce, we need to manage our water resources much better. Much of the rain that falls in our country still run off as waste. Whereas it could be collected and managed for various uses industrial, domestic, irrigation etc.

“We have to understand that water is not a social good and we have to pay for it. While paying for it, we must also demand good service. This is part of why the Minister of Water Resources, Engr. Suleiman Hussein Adamu has been driving what is now known nationwide as the Water Resources Bill. The Bill will ensure that water access for everybody is guaranteed. But for it to be guaranteed, it also means that government at all levels must learn to be responsible for its citizens. Where the government cannot, the private sector has to be involved to come and invest with a guarantee of good returns on their investment.

“Some people say they cannot pay for public water supply which is portable but is spending so much money to drill boreholes, operate generators that pump the water out from the boreholes, build elevated tanks, and every home is practically having this.

“But the public water supply is taking its source from a large body of raw water, treated and then reticulated to everyone so that in the comfort of your homes, you open your tap and you get what you want. But again, you must be conscious of the fact that because water is not a social good, if the supply to your house is metered, then you know that you cannot just open it up and it is flowing away like we do sometimes. Wasting the water means that we are depriving somebody else of that supply. Quite frankly, that is the future of potable water supply in our country.”

Governments at all levels, therefore, have a responsibility to prioritize the provision of safe and flowing water to all Nigerian citizen, especially because it plays a critical role in handwashing, which remains key to halting the transmission of the covid-19 virus.

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