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Date Published: 07/09/10

Nigerians' Forced Romance with Boreholes and Their Waters: Counting the Hazards starting rom Orlu District in Imo State By Benedict Okereke

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Part One

Nigerian families are fast getting used to providing themselves with private electricity, private water supply system, private front-house drainage system, private refuse disposal system, etc. You are wont to believe the leadership class is unaware that the only thing that can guarantee its continuous hegemony over the led is the provision of these mundane services.  

Rural and urban settlements are usually provided with running water through the following two methods: (i) use of groundwater drawn through boreholes. (ii) use of surface water from rivers, lakes, etc.

Notwithstanding the health hazards associated with drinking water from boreholes, more and more families in Nigeria are constrained to resort to it. Governments are not left out in the choice of groundwater for public water supply. In  a recent study published in the medical journal, Lancet, as many as 77 million people have been exposed to toxic levels of arsenic in Bangladesh and are at the risk of early death from the use of groundwater. Some Bangladeshi authorities had over the years encouraged the consumption of groundwater in the country.

It is cheaper to supply groundwater through boreholes than the intricate job of, say, damming rivers to provide treated running water for urban or rural settlements. For devious political leaders, the political razzmatazz behind their choice of groundwater for large public water supply systems obfuscates the necessity to consider the prospects of the system's sustainability before the digging starts. Once the first drops of water surface and the airwaves are filled with the news of the commissioning ceremony, and huge sums of money declared expended, the deal is done. In so many cases, the commissioning ceremony could hardly finish when the water boreholes stopped functioning.

Water boreholes require constant maintenance the culture of which most governments in this country lack. 

Nigerians are not known to purify water from boreholes before consumption. Though much of groundwater are clean, they are easily contaminated by leaky contaminants, heavy metals and micro organisms. When pollutants spill, leak, or are inadvertently dumped on the soil surface, they easily seep through the soil and pollute the aquifer - the layer of rock or clay holding groundwater. Shallow well waters are much more vulnerable to pollutants than water from very deep boreholes, except that in areas of mining and oil drilling activities, the vulnerability of very deep aquifers to pollutants is on the high side. Cases of toxicity arising from drinking untreated water from boreholes are rife. Illnesses arising from drinking polluted water are often misdiagnosed and are under-reported in developing countries, in the same manner causes of death by contaminated water are easily misread and are under-reported. According to a UNESCO report: “Water-related diseases are among the most common causes of illness and death, affecting mainly the poor in developing countries. They kill more than 5 million people every year, more than ten times the number killed in wars. The diseases can be divided into four categories: water-borne, water-based, water-related, and water-scarce diseases."

For domestic water supply, UNESCO had since recommended alternative source to groundwater: surface water. And much of the world's governments have since been dissuading citizens from the use of ground water. These governments are fast latching on to the use of surface water for public water supply schemes.    

But if there are legislations controlling sinking of water bore holes in Nigeria, they are not broadly enforced. At least, the rule of the thumb that water boreholes should not be sunk too close to one another is not seen to be observed or enforced by any body in many localities.  

Close drilling can cause boreholes to dry out and people are constantly forced in the circumstance to either drill deeper or shift to new sites, thus multiplying the number of drill sites. When we bore the depths to get to the aquifer, rocks are constantly blasted by drilling machines. Having these rock blasts concentrated too close to one another over a large range may distort the equilibrium of the rock layer. At this juncture, cave-ins and major land slides may occur, especially, in highly built-up areas with sedimentary arrangements underneath, as the stability of buildings may easily get compromised, more so, in areas with high-rise buildings.

Cave-ins, however, can be excluded for areas with volcanic underneath.   

If one part of Nigeria caves in from this ubiquitous blasting of underneath rocks, when and how other adjoining parts of the country, or the rest of the country are subsequently affected depend on the depth and extent of the initial slide or cave-in.  

Ubiquitous sinking of boreholes for family water supply system is a nationwide phenomenon, but when one considers the relative depths and clustering of private water boreholes in Imo West senatorial district, aka Orlu zone, it is apt to brand the area the epicentre of all that is wrong with sinking water boreholes in Nigeria. As governments seem to have forgotten their obligation to supply portable water to the citizens here, self-help practice has led affluent families into sinking water boreholes, in most cases, ubiquitously. On entering most parts of this district from any neighbouring zone or state, you are most likely to be first greeted by sights of nursing mothers with babies strapped to their backs, or school children pushing carts laden with cans of water to or from the nearest private water borehole site. Talk of a population unwarily ingesting polluted waters, people from this zone quickly come to mind. Oil is drilled in the zone, impliedly, groundwater here must be foremost among the most vulnerable to contamination by heavy metals and chemical pollutants.                                

In the same manner UNESCO started discouraging governments from using groundwater for public water supply, the Imo state government led by late Sam Mbakwe had since earmarked five regional water supply schemes to be sourced from surface water for the then five senatorial districts that made up the old Imo state, namely: Aba, Okigwe, Orlu, Owerri and Umuahia. Except that for Orlu zone whose foundation stone is yet to be laid, the other four surface water supply schemes had  since been completed and commissioned. The proposed Orlu regional water scheme was meant to serve nearly all the 12 local government areas in the zone. Water for it was planned to be sourced from the Njaba or Orashi rivers or from both. The penultimate of these water schemes - that for Okigwe started since the early 1980's - was completed with the assistance of the federal government during the period of the Achike Udenwa-led administration which left the impression that it could not handle two of such costly projects at the same time. The Okigwe water scheme was commissioned by late President Umoru Musa Yar'Adua, February, 2008. Today, water scarcity is practically scorching the inhabitants of most of Imo West district, but within the past three years any serious talk of realising the proposed water supply scheme owed the people has not been surfacing in the state government's development agenda.   

Another back-breaking disadvantage for people in Imo West senatorial zone is that it costs a family 1.3 million Naira to hit groundwater level through a borehole in much of the district; at Owerri, for example, it costs less than 300,000 Naira. The numerous oil-producing communities in this zone confer oil-producing-state status on Imo state. This area's oil-producing communities and their neighbours are constantly subjected to a barrage of piercing flames, scorching heat and acrid fumes from flaring natural gas arising from oil production. The zone is a compactly built-up zone with a population approaching 2 million people. Attempts by the federal government to provide water in some parts of this area in the past were based on water boreholes that fizzled out soon after they were commissioned. Those attempts were not in consonance with the Sam Mbakwe-led administration's surface water supply proposal for most of the area. 

On the 24th of May 2007, at Orlu, on the eve of the completion of the Okigwe scheme, then out-going governor of the state, Achike Udenwa, before the visiting out-going President Obasanjo had to plead with the federal government to assist the Imo state government in realising the proposed water scheme for Orlu zone. Present on the occasion was then governor-elect and now the Imo state governor, Ikedi Ohakim. Three years after and no sustainable surface water supply scheme, in abundance in the zone rather are factitious organs of balkanisation aimed at deflecting pressures on the state government to discharge its obligations to the people here. Oil-bearing communities remain divided among themselves as they regularly take it out on one another over crumbs. It has worked out very well within the last three years for those that profit from this unsavoury trend. For example, in 2009, the state government in conjunction with the NDDC sunk a whooping 8 Billion Naira in dredging Nworie stream in the state capital, while most of the close to 2 million people in the oil-producing zone remain without access to the most basic necessity for life - water.  

However, in the first quarter of 2010 and during the visit of the Southeast governors to then Acting President, Goodluck Jonathan, Governor Peter Obi of Anambra state while briefing the press as the chairman of the Southeast Governors Forum mentioned the realisation of the Orlu water scheme alongside others of its type abandoned by the federal government as one of the demands the Forum presented to the federal government. But it was not until early June 2010 during the Imo state Investors Summit when the state governor merely said that the Orlu and Okigwe water schemes were ripe for construction. That's all. But the fact is that in a saner political clime, provision of a sustainable water supply system as proposed for the suffering large population of people in Imo West district must have been the number one priority of the state government immediately after the commissioning ceremony of the penultimate of these water supply schemes at Okigwe, February, 2008.    

All said, one thing is certain, the federal government had provided similar and even more gigantic surface water supply schemes in other places in the country, the present administration in Imo state needs to, at least, kick-off construction work on the Orlu water scheme as proposed, and thereafter approach Abuja for aid or complete take-over of the project. Playing politics of buck passing with human lives in this zone shouldn't be fun to any body.  

Life expectancy in Nigeria is among the lowest in the world but Nigerians are not known to be famished. Therefore, the country's healthcare delivery system must be held to account. To ameliorate the system, we need to prioritise the citizens' domestic water supply system. Priority misplacement by some state governments that get immersed in scoring cheap political points by expending  funds mostly on road construction needs to be discouraged. After all, if roads are constructed first before water reticulation, in future, the roads must be broken here and there in order to lay down water pipes.    

One of the reasons why decent people prefer democracy to any other form of government is because democracy permits the citizens to demand what needs to be done, ask for how far it has been done and why it has not been done. And the leadership is obliged to respond to these demands, else it runs the risk of losing its hegemony over the led.

Benedict Okerekebenox@hotmail.com

 

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