It is 2 p.m. in Sagbo Kodji, a coastal community overlooking the Lagos Apapa seaports and high-rise buildings of Lagos Island, the commercial district of the city.
Close to a littered jetty, where dozens of wooden boats park ashore with disembarking passengers, stands Bolanle Taiwo’s wooden house.
Under the scorching sun, the single mother hunches over a bucket of water, preparing to wash a pile of clothes before sundown. She adds a handful of detergent into the water but it does not lather because it is “hard water” — water with a high concentration of dissolved minerals.
“The water dries the soap,” Ms Taiwo says. “But you apply the soap again till the cloth comes to your taste [of cleanliness]. It takes a lot of soap.”
Ms Taiwo, who sells jewellery from her home, has been using hard water for her laundry, cooking and other chores since she moved into the community in 1999.
Like many of the 30,000 residents of Sagbo Kodji Island, she struggles to access clean water, free of high mineral concentrations or contamination. The island has no pipe-borne water or boreholes.
This issue is not unique to Sabgo Kodji. With a population of over 200 million, access to clean water – which the UN General Assembly recognises as a human right – is limited in Nigeria. In fact, according to 2020 water data, less than 10 per cent of Nigerians can access clean water from pipes in their homes.
The main source of water for about 65 per cent of the population are boreholes and tube wells, a type of well that requires a long pipe and a pumping machine to fetch water from.
However, what makes the plight of Sagbo Kodji residents particularly dire is the confluence of private greed and government indifference. Since the island has no tap water, the residents depend on local vendors, or “waterpreneurs”, who use boats to bring in tap water from private boreholes on the mainland.
Some of these “waterpreneurs” are exploitative, making their fellow community members pay through the nose for small quantities of water. But with the Nigerian government not addressing the island’s water crisis, Ms Taiwo and her neighbours are at the mercy of the water vendors or dirty wells.
Residents who rely on these wells contract water-borne illnesses such as typhoid and diarrhoea. But the residents face an even bigger problem: the government has sanctioned their eviction by estate developers.
“That’s injustice and denial of people’s right to a place they have lived for years,” says Joseph Amosu, a resident.
Painful toll of inadequate water access
Ms Taiwo arrived on the island in 1999 with her mother and sister. They lived in a house made from reeds, straw and palm fronds before moving to a wooden one-room apartment with a corrugated iron roof.
Ms Taiwo shares the wooden house with her daughter, her mother and her niece, Mariam Azeez, a trained nurse. Her sister, who also lived with her, died long ago.
Since she cannot afford potable water in sachet packs from local grocery stores, Ms Taiwo buys 25-litre water every day from the water vendors. To use the water for cooking and drinking, she first needs to boil it.
Mrs Taiwo spends about N1600 a month on daily water purchases. That is almost as much as some Sagbo Kodji residents pay as rent for a wooden house and about 15 per cent of the daily expenditures of the more than 80 million Nigerians who live in poverty, according to a 2020 report.
Most of the residents of Sagbo Kodji are traders, artisans, vendors and boat drivers. They are part of the heavily-taxed Lagos informal economy of about 5.58 million people. According to the Nigerian Labour Statistic Collaborative Survey, in 2016, the informal sector in Nigeria contributed N9.87 trillion (approximately $25.8 billion). However, paying so much in controversial levies leaves them with little profit to live on.
To make matters worse, the residents say the water they buy from the vendors is not pure. Ocean water often seeps into the enormous tanks transporting the water in elongated motor-driven canoes across the lagoon. And when the salty ocean water mixes with the tap water, the locals have no way to treat it.
The waterpreneurs of Sagbo Kodji
Fifteen years ago, a group of traditional Egun residents gathered at the home of one of their chiefs to discuss the island’s water crisis.
These water vendors supply water to Sagbo Kodji using double-ended timber and fibreglass boats with motors. Every week, they make the long trip across the Lagos lagoon, braving strong ocean winds to buy water from private boreholes in the Lagos mainland areas of Apapa, Kirikiri, Ebute Metta and Bariga.
Peter Akojenu is a leader of the business venture.
“We used to go with our boats to Kirikiri to buy water in huge tanks,” said Mr Akojenu. “In the beginning, we sold 25 litres for N30, but this has doubled because the cost of buying water and fuel to run our boats has increased,” Mr Akojenu explains.
He says he spends N50,000 on fuel for every trip because of “bad” engines and old boats. But another “waterpreneur” named John, who withheld his last name for fear of retribution, said he only spends N13,000 on fuel.
Residents lament exploitation by “waterprenuers”
The early joy of the “waterpreneurs”’ has turned to hostility from community members like Joy Aderoju, who calls them “selfish people protecting their business interests.
“A lot of people are suffering here,” she says. “Water is expensive.” She points to a brown bowl holding about 25 litres, explaining that it costs N60.
Oluwatosin Austin, who lives with her husband and two children in Sagbo Kodji, shares Ms Aderoju’s sentiment: “N60 per bucket is expensive,” she says. “There is no money anywhere. I feel they are really exploiting us and they don’t care.”
A resident, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the “waterpreneurs” always oppose water intervention projects in the community. He recalled them preventing a private individual from building three boreholes for charity.
“There was someone who came from Alausa (in Lagos) sometime ago,” says the resident. “They wanted to fix boreholes, but there were quarrels by the water (sellers’) union. They simply don’t want it. They claim it would ruin their business.”
Mr Akojenu does not deny the allegation. He says the government should support the water vendors rather than “take their business away” from them.
“If you build boreholes in the community for residents to drink for free, how do you expect us to feed our families and keep the business afloat? If the government wants to help, they should give us better boats and engines instead.”
Kotin, the new chairman of the association who only provides his first name, explains the one requirement for sinking a borehole in the community:
“If you want to help us, you will dig water for us and it will be under our control. If you don’t do this, and you do it for the general Sagbo Kodji, we will lose our business and it will cause more trouble.”
Two Sagbo Kodji mothers head home after an early morning trip to collect water from a communal well. [PHOTO CREDIT: Nengi Nelson]
The well water hustle
It is 6 a.m. on a Sunday and Francis Anwasu is among the first to arrive at a local well. He sits in the queue, braving the cold, dry and dusty early morning harmattan wind blowing over the island.
Three women carrying big water bowls soon join him in the queue, exchanging greetings in their native Egun.
Like many on the island, Mr Anwasu wakes up at 5 a.m. to begin the daily quest for clean water.
“I arrive here before other people,” Mr Anwasu tells me in pidgin, an adulterated English that is widely spoken across West and Central Africa. “I do this every day because this is the cleanest water in the community.”
This well is maintained by a small group of women, including Susan Abali, who contribute money every quarter to drill and renovate it. They also regularly treat the water with WaterGuard, a chemical point-of-use treatment for household drinking water, and with chlorine and aluminium sulphate.
The well opens at 6:30 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. and remains open until it is empty. It is then locked to allow it to replenish with fresh water until the next scheduled opening.
On this day, Mr Abali unlocks the well, allowing the early arrivals to collect water before it turns muddy. “People come as early as 3 a.m. to drop their water bowls to fetch water,” says Mr Abali, whose house is close to the well. “The crowd is always massive, pushing here and there, but because today is Sunday, that’s why you don’t see them here much.”
By 6:30 a.m., more people arrive at the well with plastic jugs and large water bowls. Mr Anwasu finishes his first round of fetching after about 10 minutes, filling two buckets before staggering back to his home about three minutes away with a bucket in each hand.
Mr Anwasu’s neighbour, Deborah Faton, depends on water from the well to make cornmeal porridge, a fermented cereal pudding known locally as pap, that she sells to island residents.
“If I fetch the water, I will wait for some hours to allow possible dirt and particles to settle,” she says. “Any day I don’t see colourless water, or there’s no water at all [at this well], I end up spending N600 on water that day.”
For Mrs Faton, buying water reduces her profit by 30 per cent. So, to avoid that, she wakes up by 3 a.m. to secure a good position at the well before anyone else arrives.
“If you get to the well quickly,” she says, “you will get clean water to fetch. If you don’t get there on time, you will get dirty water and, for me, I need clean water to survive and earn decent profits in my business.”
Well water comes with great risk
But relying on the wells also exposes the residents to waterborne diseases like typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea.
A 2020 survey conducted in Sagbo Kodji by Mitsio Motu, a consultancy working with underserved communities in Nigeria, found that 16 per cent of the people they surveyed said their sources of drinking water caused them to fall ill at least once a month. Respondents between the ages of 0 and 20 were found to be more vulnerable to diseases like body itching, diarrhoea, rashes and typhoid.
And 26 per cent of the entire survey group said their sources of cooking, bathing and washing water pose health challenges, including body itching, dysentery and rashes. The water sources responsible for these problems are water vendors and shallow wells, according to the survey.
The survey results agree with the findings of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which reports that cholera, diarrhoea, hepatitis A, typhoid, dysentery and polio are linked to poor sanitation and contaminated water sources.
On her part, Ms Taiwo says she spends at least N5,000 treating typhoid every three months, which is how frequently she contracts the illness. Fortunately, her niece, Ms Azeez, the de facto family nurse, treats the family.
“I give drips [of intravenous fluids] to wash the system once and for all. I also write drugs to treat water-related issues such as typhoid… I do the service for free,” Ms Azeez explains.
Treating the sick
Sagbo Kodji has only one health centre with limited quantity of drugs and health workers. On the day a doctor visits, usually once a week, a large number of people converge and wait in line for hours to be seen.
As such, community nurses like Ms Azeez play a critical role. In addition to treating her aunt and grandmother, she spends her time treating other residents for a small fee.
Ms Azeez starts every diagnosis with taking the patients’ blood samples to be sent to a laboratory off the island for testing. Once the results are in, she prescribes drugs for ailments from cholera to typhoid, following up with phone calls or home visits to check progress.
Blessing Osagie is one of her patients. The mother of five spends N600 every three days buying water in sachet packs from the groceries stores in the community and another N640 every three days on tap water from vendors for cleaning and cooking.
Mrs Osagie changed her water source after contracting skin rashes from drinking well water. But she still gets sick from time to time – including from malaria, a mosquito-borne illness which is also prevalent in the community.
“The water situation here is very bad, that is why there are mosquitoes everywhere,” says Mrs Osagie. “The mosquitoes are mostly from rivers and drainage, and malaria has been my normal sickness.”
Evicting the poor to make way for the rich
Sagbo Kodji’s water crisis is as old as the community, but it has not been the government’s concern. In its quest to remodel Lagos and its many islands into a megacity, the state government appears to consider Sagbo Kodji a real estate development opportunity with a chance for urban renewal.
In the last five years, coastal communities with problems that mirror Sagbo Kodji’s reality have been uprooted.
Residents of at least two dozen slums, waterfront communities and islands like Sagbo Kodji have been evicted by the state government, according to Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), an organisation working with informal communities.
The latest eviction targeted Sagbo Kodji’s neighbour, Tarkwa Bay, known for its beautiful beaches that attract large numbers of visitors. Like residents of Sagbo Kodji, many of the residents of Tarkwa Bay are low-income earners who cannot afford the housing rent on the mainland.
When Tarkwa Bay dwellers and other coastal communities got wind of their impending eviction, they filed a suit at the Federal High Court in Lagos and the court temporarily restrained the government from carrying out evictions in the community.
Despite the court orders, on January 21, 2020, gun-wielding naval officers stormed Tarkwa Bay to evict the residents.
Abali, one of the water guardians in Sagbo Kodji, was one of the 4,500 people evicted from Tarkwa Bay last year. And like every other resident here, she says her fear of eviction is stronger than the pains over lack of potable water.
The state government says the evictions are aimed at tackling oil theft operations along pipelines that run through the slum. The government has also denied any wrongdoing. However, other than its statement alleging oil theft and mentioning the existence of a report, the government has shown little evidence of oil theft. Kabir Ahmed, the commissioner of water front development in Lagos State, whose ministry is responsible for the development of waterfront communities in the state, such as Sagbo Kodji, did not return calls or reply messages sent to him for this story.
However, civil rights groups and analysts, such as JEI and Nigerian Informal Settlement Federation, say the government’s claim is a cover-up for its real intention to turn the island into luxury real estate properties, as it has done on neighbouring islands.
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Navy, which evicted the islanders of Tarkwa Bay, said they had received an order from the government to tackle insecurity on the islands through the eviction of the residents.
The evicted and threatened communities, with the help of JEI, are currently in court to challenge the violation of their fundamental human rights, but the suspension of court sittings due to the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled proceedings.
Back in Sagbo Kodji, an unshakable premonition of eviction pervades the community.
Islanders like Ms Azeez, the community nurse, express disappointment over the government’s failure to provide basic social amenities like running water and electricity and its effort to displace them from the community.
The water vendors’ desire to extract all they can from community members while blocking access to free water does not surprise her.
“I don’t blame them because they are copying the same government who are oppressors and believe they own the lands and can chase us out anytime,” Ms Azeez says.
Although she can stay at her aunt’s mainland home should Sagbo Kodji be evicted, she worries about the islanders who do not have a similar option: “My only concern is with people who are most vulnerable and cannot afford a house on the mainland. If the government chases us away, where would they go to?”
This report was produced in collaboration with the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), supported by Wits Journalism and Civicus.