The gentle early morning rain falls as we drive through the still dark streets of Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, to Uko Nteghe in Mbo Local Government Area, which our guide says is about three hours away. Uko Nteghe is a rural community of about two thousand inhabitants, who are mainly farmers and fishermen.
When we arrive, some people are completing their morning chores: sweeping, fetching water, washing clothes. “Alaga…. Alaga nde” …neighbours call out to each other as they walk to a nearby set of taps where a few people are waiting to fetch water. This is one of the three water regulation points the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a humanitarian organisation installed in the community, as part of an intervention project to ease their water woes.
One communal clash too many
Uko Nteghe and its sister community, Uko Enwang are so connected, that you must drive through one to get to the other. A motorbike could cover the distance between them in less than 10 minutes, however, a communal clash in January 2021 appears to have driven them miles apart. Comrade Okon Effiong Moses, Uko Nteghe’s youth president, pointed out that like siblings, both communities have had sporadic spats in the past. However, the 2021 clash was the mother of them all. It resulted in several deaths, as well as the destruction of houses and sources of livelihood. One service that was heavily impacted was water supply.
As is often the case in rural communities in Nigeria, the residents of Uko Nteghe have no source of pipe-borne water, so they buy water from privately owned boreholes or fetch from the two streams within the community’s boundaries. Moses reveals that almost all of the five privately owned boreholes in the community were destroyed during the clash, and they went back to fetching water from the streams, which had served their community for generations. One stream is more than 30 minutes away and not easily accessible; the second one is five minutes away, but the water is brackish and cloudy.
“We no get choice, we been dey use the water as e dey after we come back,” says Ekaete Ntuen, a community member who recounted how women and children had to flee to neighbouring communities during the clash, because there was no food and water. When they returned, water was still an issue, even though the village was being rebuilt.
The water project
The ICRC helps people and communities affected by armed conflict and violence; particularly in the North-East, North-Central and South-South states of Nigeria. When they heard of the conflict, a team was sent to assess the situation and meet with the community leaders to know their pain points. Afterwards, they commenced building a solar-powered drinking water supply system made up of water treatment plants, pumping stations, and tanks. If managed properly, the ICRC says the water system has a 50-year life span.
The project was handed over to the community in May 2022. The youth president is tasked with managing a small team of people selected to operate the water system. The system was designed for minimal contact, as it was installed with a sensor which automatically turned the water pump on when the tanks were empty and shut it off as soon as the two, 5000 litre Geepee water tanks filled up. However, community members said it failed after a few days. They called the installation team who then taught them how to operate it manually.
Moses says he was given the instruction manual and taught how to use it to troubleshoot any faults. However, when there is an issue, the manual can’t help with they reach out to the ICRC who then send a technician to fix the fault. With the exception of one or two instances, the community have not had much need for technical assistance as the installation is working well.
We are grateful but…
Moses can’t tell if the months they spent drinking water from the stream had any impact on their health, as there is no health centre in the community. “We were using the Primary Health Centre in Enwang, but because of the fight, we don’t go there anymore. If the need arises, we cross the creek to Udah Village to use another health post. It is far but safer for us,” he says.
“When a woman is in labour, we take her to the church, to the pastor’s wife and pray and the person delivers successfully,” he adds.
They told the ICRC team that they also wanted a health centre, but the team’s focus was on completing the water project. This wasn’t the first time they had tried to get a health centre for their community. An oil company had paid a contractor to build one, but the project has been abandoned for years.
The Minimum Standards for Primary Health Care in Nigeria directs that every group of villages/neighbourhoods with a population of 2,000 to 5,000 persons should have a Primary Health Clinic. Uko Nteghe community falls into this category and should have a well-equipped government funded health clinic.
Being seen and heard
Uko Nteghe has no source of power supply, so it would have been difficult to power the water system. Installing a solar powered machine took care of that problem and promotes green energy by generating far less pollution. Putting the community youth leader in charge of the installation, which includes one feeder and three regulation points — one at the centre of the community and two at its extremes — is also a big deal, as it allows them take ownership. While private borehole operators sell a jerrycan of water for ₦10 or ₦20, depending on the size, the water from any one of these points is free.
“We appreciate the Red Cross for this because it is a gigantic project,” says Moses who is grateful for the different ways in which the team made them feel ‘seen’ and ‘heard’.
As we begin the drive back to Uyo, I find myself humming the late Fela Kuti song, “Water, e no get enemy,” because I’m reminded yet again that water is life.