LAGOS, Nigeria — There’s a supreme irony about Lagos, Africa’s most populous megapolis.
Named after the lagoons that thread its shores, the city endures lashing annual rains and its flood-prone coastline is constantly being eroded by the Atlantic Ocean. And yet, 70% of its 21 million inhabitants lack access to drinkable, piped water.
This month, the state government is set to launch its solution to the decades-old problem by bringing in private companies to fix the crumbling water infrastructure. Top of its list for the multibillion-dollar contract: Veolia, the company whose alleged “botched” role in the cities of Flint and Pittsburgh exposed residents to dangerously high lead levels in water.
In theory at least, bringing in private providers makes sense for elected officials, who can offload the huge costs of repairing infrastructure onto companies with deeper pockets and technical know-how. As it stands, the state-run water company pumps out 220 million gallons of water per day. But there’s still a shortfall three times that amount — enough to fill up roughly 900 Olympic-size pools. So, when their taps run dry, citizens turn to private water hawkers and water trucks, bore their own wells, or use polluted rivers and streams.
But the answer, activists say, isn’t putting it in the hands of multinationals like the French-owned Veolia. In the worst-case scenario, it foreshadows a future in which drinkable water is up for grabs to the highest bidder rather than democratically accountable officials. And it underscores a dystopian threat that campaigners have worried about for decades: that one day every last drop of water, whose scarcity threatens cities from Australia to Asia to Latin America, will be controlled by profit-hungry private companies.
“With a private company, there’s no direct line of accountability,” said Satya Conway-Rhodes, managing director of US-based Mayors Innovation Project, which helps cities find sustainable water solutions. “You’re just basically hoping the company will be a good actor and do what they say they’ll do. That’s not a good way to run anything — just based on hope.”
Veolia, which is the world’s largest water company, is under investigation in at least three different countries, including an complaint filed by the state of Michigan for its role in overlooking contaminants in Flint’s pipes and making the situation worse. Veolia denies those allegations. "Veolia has consistently maintained that the crisis in Flint is a tragedy, and we find it disappointing that certain news organizations continue to recklessly portray the extent of the company’s work there," the company said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News after publication of this article.
In Lagos, Veolia is being considered alongside three other companies for the flagship Adiyan II contract, per the Lagos Water Corporation, which would hand over almost two-thirds of the city’s water system to the winning bidder. One, the Spanish multinational giant Abengoa, was behind a disastrous privatization attempt in Bolivia that sparked months of protests before being scrapped. Another shortlisted firm, the Dubai-based Metito, has links via its largest shareholder, Mitsubishi, to investments in the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens Indigenous communities in the United States. When the Lagos contract might be awarded is anyone’s guess — a July deadline has since passed, and information on the process isn’t publicly available. (Veolia, for its part, said in its statement to BuzzFeed News that "Veolia has not submitted any proposal to provide services in Lagos.")
That lack of transparency highlights, environmentalists say, the kind of profit-driven process that undermines good governance and democracy.
“Rather than looking at water from the human-right perspective, the government is looking at 21 million residents and the revenue they can generate,” Philip Jakpor, project manager at Friends of the Earth Nigeria — the local branch of the global environmental group — told BuzzFeed News from Lagos. “The reason they’re not compelled to do the right thing is because a lot of decisions so far have been taken in the dark.”
Lagos is the latest in a string of African cities grappling with water shortages. Earlier this year Cape Town, in South Africa, was on the brink of becoming the first major city in the world to run out of water, while the capitals of Ghana and Kenya have suffered recurrent shortages for years. But such water crises resonate well beyond Africa’s borders, and concern over Veolia’s potential involvement has reached as far as the US Congress. The company’s growing foothold on the continent — it already operates in Gabon and South Africa —has stirred painful memories in Flint, where the effects of lead poisoning among poorer, mostly black communities are still being felt.
“I was shocked and extremely angry [to learn about the potential Lagos deal] because Veolia — I feel Veolia is a snake, and they slithered over to Lagos to try to increase their profit margins,” Nayyirah Shariff, an activist still campaigning in Flint, told BuzzFeed News. “They have a history of poisoning black communities in the US, and they should not be poisoning the largest African city on the continent.”
Shariff's allegations are echoed in the complaint filed by Michigan against the company, which alleges that Veolia deliberately falsified reports about the quality of the drinking water, allowing lead to leach into drinking water pipes.
Lagos was the first city in the region to get piped water, in the 1800s, and for a long time, clean water was abundantly available.
That was still largely the case when activist Jakpor was a schoolboy in the 1980s.
“I remember most days as a kid coming back from school and getting to a street tap and we’d start playing, splashing around,” he said. “I wouldn’t say most houses had tap-borne water, but even if your house didn’t, there was a tap at the end of every street.”
Then, in the 1990s, multilateral lenders led by the World Bank began demanding that developing countries privatize their water supplies if they wanted to get desperately needed loans. Privatizing water, the logic went, would mean its price would be controlled by supply and demand, eliminating unnecessary waste and curbing scarcity. That rationale is still touted by proponents today — including the CEO of beverage giant Nestlé, who has openly dismissed the idea of water as a public right as “extreme.”
In Nigeria, an increasingly corrupt government simply pocketed World Bank loans while leaving treatment plants and distribution networks to fall into disrepair. Today, damaged pipes leak one-quarter of the supplies still available.
In 2014, activists were stunned to learn that the Lagos state government had signed an advisory contract with the International Finance Corporation, the investment arm of the World Bank that aims to maximize private-sector profits in developing countries. Jakpor and his colleagues scoured the Lagos Water Corporation website for clues about the deal — and found barely any official information.
“We couldn’t just sit back. A lot of money will go into these projects and we still won’t see pipes in every home. And then this time, the public will pay twice,” said Jakpor, who is the leader of the campaign. “What we are asking for first is disclosure.”
So they took their fight to the streets.
Our Water Our Right — which activists refer to as a substitute “parliament” that holds the government accountable — was born. Last March, the Lagos government proposed a new environmental law aimed at legislating privatization. But draconian clauses — including criminalizing efforts to collect water through methods as simple as transporting it from one house to another — sparked huge protests.
Campaigners recorded major victories when the government agreed to amend sections of the bill that were deemed “anti-people,” pour $185 million into rehabilitating water systems, and put plans to privatize the Lagos network on hold. Instead, civil rights groups responded to a government challenge to come up with viable alternatives.
But this May came the news that the Adiyan II project would go ahead, despite little sign of the public consultations that typically precede such announcements. Rather than full-blown privatization, the project would be a public–private partnership. Known as PPPs, these deals are signed between private companies and the government, which underwrites the contractors in return for promised services. In other words, the public purse pays if private companies go bust or don't fulfill their obligations.
A Lagos Water Corporation (LWC) spokesperson declined to respond to specific questions about the privatization process, but said the state was “overwhelmed” with funding public projects, and the plan was the best option available “to ensure that water gets to every nook and cranny of the state and every Lagos citizen.”
“The state has … put in checks and balances in its procurement process and will ensure that the public is not paying for the inefficiency of the investor,” Titilola Oridamisi, a manager at LWC, told BuzzFeed News.
Not everyone agrees. “Although companies claim that they have access to more capital and can bring in the money that’s needed to fix [utility] systems, the truth is there’s no free lunch,” Conway-Rhodes, whose company has helped find sustainable water plans for cities across the US, pointed out. “They’re not going to spend money on these systems out of the goodness of their heart.”
Tunji Buhari, a Lagos-based water project officer with Environmental Rights Action, had a more blunt opinion. “PPP is a kind of fraud,” he said, noting that despite officials initially saying public funds weren’t available, the money the government later pledged to rehabilitate waterworks ultimately reduced costs for whichever private provider will eventually take over. “The problem isn’t that the government doesn’t have the capacity to provide water. It’s that they’ve adopted this strategy of drawing money from public utilities.”
Even government-run utility companies have to figure out how to cover increasing costs, most likely by raising rates. But bringing in private money to regulate precious commodities raises moral questions that market forces don’t take into account, campaigners say. In Nigeria, they noted, impoverished citizens pay the same water rate as multibillion-dollar bottling companies like Coca-Cola and Nestlé. Further fueling the controversy are instances in which large corporations have privatized water supplies then raised the rates of local residents, essentially cutting them off from their own resources.
Abengoa, one of the corporations in the running for the Lagos water contract, was embroiled in a debacle in 2000 in Bolivia. Pushed by the World Bank, among others, the Bolivian government’s privatization of fresh water supplies sparked the so-called “Cochabamba Water War.” After introducing licenses to collect rainwater and hiking water rates by 35% in the impoverished district — a move Abengoa and other water firms said was necessary to upgrade infrastructure — the firm was eventually forced to close shop and leave the country.
In Lagos, campaigners fear the same might happen, but only after citizens have already paid a huge price. Despite boasting Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria already has one of the world’s highest child death rates due to water-borne illness.
The state government has already begun distributing water meters — but in a city where 70% live in informal settlements, most won’t receive them. “The implication is that those who don’t have water meters won’t have water. That’s a way of disenfranchising people,” Buhari, of Environmental Rights Action, told BuzzFeed News.
With climate change, industrialization, and Nigeria’s own internal resource conflicts contributing to water sources drying up, Lagos, like other cities, needs to start promoting water efficiency at both household and utility levels, experts say.
Something as simple as people turning off running taps is still not widely understood, noted Priscilla Achakpa, executive director of the UN-funded Women Environmental Programme. “And then people don’t like paying water bills because the water is provided inefficiently. If people had good supplies of water, they’d be [more] motivated,” added Achakpa, who joined in as thousands took to the streets last year.
And the burden of wasted water is shouldered disproportionately.
Abdoul Ramjul works in a five-star hotel in Lagos, whose entrance is lined with lush grass and palm trees. Guests pay upwards of 50,000 naira (about $140) a night for the luxury of constant water, power showers, and a pool with a cascading fountain.
But at home, before heading to work each morning, Ramjul fetches water from a borehole in his compound in Orile. If — as on most mornings — there’s a power outage, the electric-run borehole doesn’t work, so he relies on water tankers passing through the streets. The expense sets him back 60,000 naira a month — almost half of his entire household’s income. “We don’t get a single drop of public water around this area, and we are even lucky ones. Some people depend on groundwater,” he said.
Even if, as proponents argue, turning to private companies is the answer, the case of Veolia in Flint provides evidence of the pitfalls of putting public utilities in the hands of unelected people.
“It’s very difficult if you have a grievance against how these transnational corporations are operating, because you can’t go to France — it’s physically impossible for an ordinary resident to travel to file grievance against a company that only cares about profit,” Shariff, the Flint-based activist said. “I know with the population of Lagos, it’s just going to have a larger inverse impact on when Veolia fucks up — because it’s going to happen. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when, and how soon are you able to find out when they fuck up.”
Nearly 6,000 miles away, Buhari, the activist, agreed. “Veolia are the company behind Flint,” he said shortly. “Why do you want to embark on this dangerous experiment, which is bound to fail?” ●
Veolia was named in a complaint filed by the State of Michigan. A previous version of this article mischaracterized it as an indictment.
In response to this story about water in Nigeria and Veolia North America's background as a provider of water services, Veolia North America submitted the following letter from their attorneys outlining the company's concerns and objections to the story. Veolia was not contacted by BuzzFeed for comment before the original story was published. BuzzFeed agreed to post this letter after the company contacted it to raise objections to several aspects of the story and seek a correction.