Big things every so often start in small ways. Louis Pasteur may never have fully conceived the far reaching effects of his innovative contribution to science and medicine.Thomas Edison may never have realised how the invention of a single lightbulb would impact civilisation today. The team that visited Sauka, a rural community of about 3000 residents under Waru District in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to identify the health challenges of indigenous communities, never envisioned that the simple visit would end with the community accessing safe, quality drinking water.
How it started
Sauka community’s journey to accessing safe drinking water started with a simple visit in 2019. Dr Ifeanyi Nsofor, as part of his Atlantic Fellowship for Health Equity at George Washington University, U.S.A., and the Nigeria Health Watch team, accompanied by two journalists, visited the community to identify some of the health inequities faced by the indigenous inhabitants of the community in Abuja.
This is significant because when the federal capital city was moved from Lagos to Abuja in 1991, many of the original inhabitants were relocated from their ancestral homes with promises of compensation. Some of these promises are yet to be fulfilled and they continue to lack access to basic life-saving social amenities, including healthcare, despite living close to Nigeria’s seat of power.
Transparent communication is important to manage expectations when dealing with communities and the team made their intention clear to the inhabitants of Sauka, Jahi, Utako and Kuje, the four communities they visited — “We are an advocacy organisation. We are here to learn about your challenges, leverage on our platforms to amplify these issues so that organisations with the capacities to respond can target their interventions”.
The team engaged with community members through house-to-house surveys, focused group discussions and in-depth interviews with representatives of the community. Although several issues were identified such as poor access to basic health services, like quality maternal healthcare care and other basic social infrastructure, it soon became evident that one of their most compelling needs was access to safe drinking water.
Approximately 25 percent of the world’s population does not have drinking water from an improved water source like a pipe or well, as of 1990. In 2000, the United Nations pledged that by 2015, it would cut that proportion in half. In Nigeria, only 26.5% of the over 200 million population has access to improved drinking water sources and sanitation facilities according to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Getting the right attention
With the hope of galvanising action from both public and private actors, the team used social media to amplify their findings. When Nsofor shared the findings in a talk, it caught the attention of Adetola Olaniun, the Deputy Country Director of Riders for Health (Riders) and they decided to intervene.
Riders for Health is an international social enterprise with operations in Nigeria. They focus on contributing to strengthening health systems by bridging the gap between healthcare providers and patients, and saving transportation expenses for patients. This project was important to them because “As a social enterprise, we use our profits and grants from development partners to fund a corporate social responsibility (CSR) portfolio that attempts to solve social problems within our communities”, said Dr Anthony Olagunju, Manager, Global Health Programmes for Riders.
Armed with recommendations and ranking of the communities with the most urgent water needs, the Riders team visited all the communities and met with the community leaders. “Since before the beginning of the pandemic, public health policies for child and maternal health have highlighted systemic deficiencies in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) practices especially for socially disadvantaged groups of people in Nigeria,” Olagunju said, adding that the pandemic made it more important to invest in WASH to prevent infections, not just COVID-19 but other communicable diseases.
Visiting each community was essential as it helped them identify the problem area and where to focus on. Olagunju said that if a community already had a borehole, but was unable to pump water due to power challenges, it wouldn’t make sense to drill another but rather to address their power issue.
The assessment team decided that Sauka community’s water needs trumped others. An earlier Schistosomiasis infection that was flagged by the project team was likely a result of contaminated water. In addition, when the project team first visited in 2019, community members took them to a stagnant pool of water which was one of the few sources of drinking water for both the community and the livestock of nomadic herdsmen. Riders drilled a borehole and provided a generator to power the water pump. The project was completed and launched on December 15, 2020.
One year later
A return visit to the community in January 2022 clearly showed that the community took complete ownership of the project and have sustained it since then. Chief Bala said they now charge a fixed amount of N10 from community members for a gallon of around 20 to 30 litres. “The money helps us buy fuel, service the generator when it’s faulty and pay Gladys, a community member, who supervises it”, said Bala. In addition, the community contributed N125,000 to buy another generator to support the one Riders donated to them.
Unfortunately, some community members are not able to pay for the water. “In such situations, we explain to them why we need to collect money but we never deny them access. I instructed Gladys to give them so they can pay later. When they abuse this, we then insist they must pay their debts before fetching again”, Bala said.
Samson Zaki, the youth leader, alluded to the challenge of sustainability as many people access water but are unable to pay. But as leaders, they can’t ignore them so they sometimes contribute money to support as the project serves people from nearby communities.
Chief Bala added that the project seemed to have inspired similar water projects in the community as they had three water projects built after Riders completed theirs. “But one of the things we need now more than ever is power supply as it will remove the cost of pumping water and this way, people can access water at no cost”, he said. Access to clean water is a basic human right and the target for Sustainable Development Goal 6 is that by 2030, there should be universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water.
Whose responsibility is it anyway?
Drinking contaminated water and poor hygiene practices results in increased vulnerability to water-borne diseases. Sauka community has had their fair share of these in the past. But inhabitants of these communities do not have much of a choice as they often have to make do with what is available to them. Even though organisations like Riders help bridge these infrastructure gaps, it remains the primary responsibility of government to provide for its citizens.
More active citizen involvement and engagement will help bring visibility to what government is doing to meet the needs of the citizens. Since Nigeria is a signatory to Open Government Partnerships, citizens should be able to access information on government budget appropriations, releases, and spending. For example, how much is known about the N196 billion budgeted for capital projects in the FCT in 2021? How much was released and what was it spent on? Information like this will help communities like Sauka hold their representatives accountable.
Finally, while responding to community needs is important, government and partners need to listen to communities to ensure interventions match actual needs to avoid duplicating efforts and wasting resources. This way, with one intervention at a time, every community will have access to the infrastructure they need to live quality lives.