Water and construction in Rwanda

(Guest post)

Access to water is typically considered in the context of domestic use, i.e. the access of individual households to meet their daily water needs, but water can also have a significant impact on the construction of buildings and infrastructure. A lack of access to water can raise construction costs, influence the choice of materials or the time when one can build, and necessitate increased manual labor. In other words, it can fundamentally affect people’s ability to build (both for shelter and for development), which, in addition to having clean water for household use, is a basic human need.

In 2011-2012, I spent a year practicing architecture in Rwanda, the majority of which was spent in a small village in the northwest part of the country. My firm had recently constructed a hospital there, but the client also needed us to build new houses in order to attract and retain skilled medical practitioners. Our task was to build houses that would be attractive and comfortable for living, but also durable, seismically stable, related to the local environment, and within certain budget constraints. For these reasons, we chose to build the houses with compressed stabilized earth blocks (CSEBs) as our main building unit.


House under construction

Due to the particularity of local soil conditions, there is no singular formula one can follow in order to form CSEBs. We had to come up with the correct ratio of materials, using a process of educated guesses combined with trial and error, in order to form strong blocks. According to the results obtained with a handheld pressure-measuring instrument, we selected our best mixes of soil, cement, sand, aggregate, and water and sent them out for more thorough compression testing.


Getting a hands-on feel for soil and water mixtures

We also calculated our cost per block, and the portion of that cost attributed to each material. We assumed that soil and water would be the least expensive materials because they were freely available natural materials that were coming directly from our site or the adjacent creek, while cement, sand, and aggregate were trucked in, and thus should be more expensive because we had to pay for purchasing the material and for transportation costs (which are high for a remote site in a region with poor dirt roads). However, when we calculated the cost per material, we were surprised to see that the cost of water varied from about 75% to 280% of the cost of the cement across the range of our tested blocks. How could water be such a high percentage?? Surely it should be a small fraction of the cost of the purchased and delivered materials!


Women were employed to carry gravel on site, as pictured here, but also would obtain water by walking down to a site in the valley and back

However, we had to take into consideration that virtually all the water we used for CSEB production was collected by women who had to trek down the hill to the creek, fill a container, and carry the water back up the hill to our site. We had two cisterns on site, and it would take eight women all day to trek enough water to the site to fill them. This would happen day after day. So the cost of the labor for retrieving the water, one container at a time, was driving up the cost of the CSEBs, and thus the entire project.

Unfortunately, we had no choice, as we were in the process of building a system to bring piped water to the site, but the system was not yet in place. The cost of water for our construction was something we had to absorb, but for many people living in that region, it could be a significant obstacle. The CSEBs that we were using were a more durable, more seismically stable version of the most common local construction method: hand-made mud blocks, which are a mixture of soil, straw, and water. Water is also needed to make concrete, which is becoming a more common construction material in some areas. Of course, during the rainy season, it is possible to collect all the water needed from the rain, but in the dry season, obtaining water to rebuild a collapsed retaining wall or make necessary repairs to a home becomes significantly more difficult.


Local construction with mud blocks, typical in this region


Vernacular preparation of mud blocks

The irony of the situation is that we were working in a place that has two rainy seasons a year, and when it rains, it rains heavily. So at the same time that we were dealing with the high costs of getting water to the site, we were also working collaboratively with our local engineers to come up with the design for a large retention bioswale that would collect stormwater runoff coming from the ridge of the hill down toward our site. The new road that we had built for vehicular access to the housing site necessitated the construction of this bioswale in order to prevent flooding and washing out the neighbors’ homes and lots. We also had to build drainage gutters and culverts along the side of the road to collect the water.

This is the flipside of water issues when designing buildings and landscape, which is that in addition to providing water, it is critically ethical to ensure that you deal with any excess water. Erosion is a major concern in Rwanda due to deforestation and a primarily hill topography. Water runoff depletes the topsoil in a country that is already stretched thin in the proportion of arable land to population density, and runoff can also pollute drinking water sources (which are often the streams in the valleys below people’s homes). Thus, we had to make sure to carefully consider the larger impacts of our construction on stormwater drainage in the area surrounding our site.


New road gutters leading to the bioswale site (to be excavated on the right, in front of the tree with red flowers)

When working in any context, but particularly in those where resources may be limited and new construction methods are being tested, it is critical to consider access to water as a factor in building construction. Strategies for dealing with excess water runoff must also be developed. In sum, anyone seeking to build must consider water.

LiDAR in the Field: Using High-Tech Equipment in Resource-Challenged Areas

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Source: Wikipedia.com

One important aspect of our research in both Oto-Awori and Itire-Ikate required the use of remote-sensing technology. We intended to capture the proximal nature of open water, boreholes, and other relevant infrastructure in the communities we visited in order to inform our research and provide a spatial richness to our data. The use of airborne laser devices is among the cutting edge remote sensing technologies – but is not brand new. This LiDAR technology (a combined acronym born of “light” and “radar”) uses a combination of laser and light to assess topology and create high-resolution maps.  For years, municipalities and emergency researchers have used LiDAR-based aerial photography to view and identify dense forest areas and flammable foliage for fire modeling, or to most accurately trace street network centerlines or create building footprints – just to name a few functions of many. Because LiDAR pinpoints so accurately the features of the earth’s surface and reads the reflection of light from millions of those points, it is the most capable way to perform remote sensing from above. But LiDAR technology is innovative in that its applications are endless as the technology improves, and some researchers have taken LiDAR equipment into the field to assess topology from the ground, where areas with extreme drought effects or crumbling infrastructure can be mapped more accurately than it could from the air – all of which are highly relevant to our research in Lagos.

To test this endless functionality, our own UC Berkeley research team took LiDAR equipment all the way to Lagos, Nigeria to aid in our understanding of local water infrastructure in underserved informal communities. Our hope was that we could capture some quantifiable surface data to complement our community surveys. While evidence points to some potential benefit to terrestrial LiDAR scanning in the informal  or slum environment, our group was unable to capture these. This is an attempt to illustrate those perils we encountered and to provide guidance from our troubleshooting experience for future researchers in the developing world.


Maptek I-Site 4400 Scanner Source: arf.berkeley.edu

Maptek I-Site 4400 Scanner
Source: arf.berkeley.edu

Our team procured a Maptek I-Site 4400 from an affiliated department at UC Berkeley. Weighing in at about 30 pounds, the scanner alone is worth nearly $100,000. The accompanying equipment includes a tablet for use with the scanner, a delicate but essential tribrach mount, and a heavy-duty surveying tripod. This, combined with all the necessary wires, batteries, and padding was divided into two cases, each awkward and hefty in its own right, and transported by plane as checked luggage to Nigeria.

Power source woes
We made it through customs with only some snags once in country, which is its own harrowing experience without the added stress of transporting expensive survey equipment. Once we were safely delivered to the guesthouse, we tested the equipment one last time. Overall the set-up process was pretty intuitive after doing it a few times on campus before we left for Lagos. In the guest house in Lagos, however, we ran into problems. First, in classic amateur fashion, my attempt to charge the spare battery failed and in fact destroyed our only ground charger. One of the professors supporting our project ribbed me later, claiming this was a wholly generational issue. In what way? Well, back in the day, there were clear distinctions between plug adapters and voltage converters. Today, my fellow gen x-ers and millennials have “no sense of these things,” which is how I fried the charger with my plug adapter (which is not the same thing as a voltage converter). I would argue that correlation ≠ causation, but I’ve been outvoted.

This seemingly small mistake (generational correlation notwithstanding) set us back pretty badly, actually. Our Maptek I-Site is specialized equipment requiring a specialized power source with a specialized charger. In the states, the charger could be found for around $100 USD in a Radio Shack. In Lagos, Nigeria, there were no such connections – at least not readily searchable. Fortunately,  we did have a car charger on hand, and we thought this would suffice as we were planning to be in transit for upwards of 5 hours at a time. Sadly, this didn’t work as well as we’d planned.

Charger woes
We selected our scan sites based on proximal infrastructure and conditions. We wanted to identify our sites using five indicators, and hoped that these categorizations would remove any “scan bias” and provide a variety of terrestrial surfaces and conditions for our research. The five indicators we settled on for identifying sites were:

  • Flood areas
  • Water infrastructure
  • Open water area
  • Boreholes
  • Waste areas


Sewer infrastructure

Sewer infrastructure

We were able to locate many of these kinds of sites in both Oto-Awori and Itire-Ikate. However, setting up the Maptek I-Site scanner on campus or even the guest house proved to be much easier than it was in the field.

First, the equipment was very heavy, and the accompanying cases were not designed to be carted over rough, wet clay terrain. There was one instance in which our van became lodged in a hole. In the interest of time, my team and I got out and attempted to wheel/drag the scanner case along a precarious wall above an open sewer.

Second, it was extremely hot in Nigeria. The scanner and tablet became heated quickly – and while this is strictly anecdotal, I believe the Windows tablet we were using to connect with the scanner was much slower and less responsive in that heat. This compounded the problem with the battery, which was not able to charge fully in the car, despite being plugged in for 3-5 hours. Because of this, time was of the essence every time we found a site, and several times we could not get a complete scan before the battery drained.

Open water

Open water

Third, we drew a crowd. In less developed informal settlements like Oto-Awori and Iteri-Ikate, LiDAR scanners are unreal to many residents. Some had questions, others were distrustful, but most gathered around while we were attempting to scan. While we had local helpers asking people to move away, curiosity won over in every case. Because the scanner is dangerous to the eyes, we needed to be clear of the populous. Further, to get a good scan of the terrain, the populous had to be clear of us.

Due to these factors, every single time we set up, the battery died before we could complete a scan, which means we weren’t able to capture useful terrestrial data for our study.  While this aspect of our trip was ultimately unsuccessful where readable scans were the goal, in terms of learning experience, the trip was a huge success. Experience has given us the  tools to be more prepared to meet the challenges of using this type of remote-sensing  equipment in the field. Electricity might not be consistent in your study area, and the weather may be unpredictable. Heavy traffic could be detrimental to time management, or the equipment itself could be damaged by a power surge (through no fault of your own).

Open sewer along a road

Open sewer along a road

I am personally disappointed that we weren’t able to gather the terrain data we wanted, but all of the problematic aspects of our experience with the LiDAR technology provide both useful takeaways to be applied elsewhere in the future. Maybe even another research trip to Lagos!

Stay tuned for another post on how to set up and use the Maptek I-Site 4400 for terrestrial surveying.

Water access strategies in Delhi’s informal settlements

I spent the summer in Delhi, India, interning with the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE), an NGO that builds water and sanitation infrastructure in informal settlements. Though I was not a part of the group that visited Lagos, the conditions my colleagues described were familiar. Like Lagos, Delhi is a sprawling megacity that struggles to deliver safe water to all its citizens. Only two Indian cities have a continuous water supply, and in Delhi running water is only available for a few hours a day. Heavy reliance on groundwater has depleted and contaminated the city’s water resources. Residents of wealthier areas can insulate themselves from inadequate services by building cisterns and buying bottled water, but poor and informal communities have no choice but to depend on deeply flawed infrastructure.

Through my work with CURE, I had the opportunity to visit a number of informal settlements and observe the water and sanitation infrastructure (or lack thereof). My understanding of water infrastructure in these areas is also drawn from meetings with officials of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the municipal water utility. One of the most striking aspects of water access in Delhi is the heterogeneity of services and facilities that people use. I found this especially surprising because my prior experience working in informal communities had been in Rio de Janeiro, where water access is at least fairly uniform. Most residents have constructed their own piped water systems, using tanks that are filled every few days from mountain springs or illicitly connected to city water mains. In Delhi residents employ a startling variety of strategies—often within the same settlement or even the same block. This heterogeneity reflects the hazards of confusing, overlapping policies, jurisdictions, and classifications.


Rooftop water tanks

The first strategy I observed was similar to the infrastructure in Rio: piped water and rooftop tanks with water pumped from borewells or city mains. This was common in commercial and apartment buildings on the main streets of larger settlements, presumably higher income areas. As far as I could tell, tapping into water mains was unofficial but tacitly allowed by the DJB.


Well and pump



Hand pumps



Hand pumps and borewells were also widespread. In one community, a single pump served 150 households, meaning that water had to be carefully rationed to avoid overdrawing the groundwater too quickly. Running water was available in two hour windows, twice a day. Groundwater is generally used for washing and construction, because it is not potable. This means that people must use several water sources for different needs. In some areas, however, residents drink groundwater after straining it through cloth.


Buckets waiting to be filled at public tap

Borewells are an uncertain proposition because they frequently dry up and have to be deepened or replaced. Depending on the depth of the groundwater, they can be contaminated by sewage overflows and flooding. Extremely contaminated water cannot even be used for washing because it causes skin infections.

Wells are either built by the DJB or financed by residents pooling their resources. Use of wells can be highly contested; one woman told me that construction workers had started taking water from a well that she and her neighbors paid for, and they beat her up when she protested.

In communities near water mains, the DJB installs public taps with running water a few hours a day. This water is usually closer to potable than groundwater.


Residents filling containers from a public tap



Delhi Jal Board tanker truck (photo credit: The Indian Express)

Sending water tankers to informal settlements should be a last resort, an emergency measure to hold people over until permanent systems are installed or repaired. Unfortunately, tankers are the primary water source for some communities, even years after their establishment. This is the case in Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony built in 2006 to house people evicted from the city center around the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Piped water networks have yet to be extended to Savda Ghevra, so residents rely on DJB and private tankers, private borewells, or even public taps at a nearby train station. Long lines and unpredictable schedules make the tankers extremely inconvenient.


Water for sale in a small shop

Some households buy bottled water to supplement this range of sources, or when none are available. In some cases groups hire private water tankers; in others individuals resell water jugs bought outside the settlement. The owner of the small shop shown in the photo buys jugs in the suburbs and sells them for a small profit. He supplies his neighbors when their nearby borewell’s water is particularly dirty.


Water storage



 Plastic barrels, buckets, jugs, and bottles filled the alleys of all the settlements I visited, stacked precariously on stoops, hung from doorframes, or tossed onto corrugated roofs. Storing water dovetails with services like tanker trucks and handpumps, allowing residents to take advantage of these brief interludes of access to water. It has a number of drawbacks: containers take up precious spaces in houses and streets and may contaminate the water. The burden of filling them tends to fall on women and children, who sometimes miss school or work to be ready when the water starts to flow.


Water pit

Some of the poorest households in the communities I visited used water pits, small concrete lined holes next to their houses that store water gathered from other sources. This struck me as the least desirable of all the water strategies I observed, both because of the difficulty of keeping water clean and the inconvenience of emptying the pit.

My internship was focused on developing a rainwater harvesting plan, so I also visited a few of the rainwater systems that they constructed in Agra and Delhi. Rainwater harvesting is probably the least common water access strategy, but it has potential to provide free, relatively clean water during the summer monsoon, when Delhi receives ten inches of rain a month. These systems channeled water from rooftops through simple gravel filters into concrete tanks. Some of the barriers to widespread rainwater harvesting include the lack of storage space and the multiple uses that rooftops serve.


Rainwater harvesting system installed by CURE, Agra

The heterogeneity of water access strategies in Delhi reflects the convoluted classification systems for informal settlements: there are seven categories, each permitted different levels of formal services and land ownership. It is not easy to discover which areas fall under which categories. And the rules are fuzzy even when a community’s status is known. A report by the Centre for Policy Research states that “according to the [DJB Act of 1998], the DJB is not obligated to supply water to ‘unplanned’ settlements. At the same time, it is important to note that the legislation does not inhibit the DJB from supplying unplanned settlements…the DJB can expand its services to any settlement—planned or unplanned—as long as the Board considers it practical.”

The complexity of these rules and classifications essentially leaves water service at the DJB’s discretion. The Board is as susceptible to local politics as any city agency, and it predictably overlooks poor and vulnerable communities like Savda Ghevra, leaving them stuck with supposedly provisional infrastructure. The ad-hoc strategies that residents develop, like borewells and water pits, may have adverse environmental and public health effects.

Boreholes, Brackishness, and Justainability

The spectrum of experiences I had over the two weeks I spent in Lagos, Nigeria with three classmates, my professor, and her 9 year old son truly runs the gamut. As a mixed-race Black American woman, the interplay between my racial, gender, national, and academic identities made for a complex and unforgettable trip. The diverse social spaces we explored rapidly changed between the 20 hour international flight, planning with our local PAVE and logistics team, holding meetings with key water stakeholders, facilitating focus groups with local leaders of Itire Ikate and Oto Awori, updating surveys based on focus group feedback, mWater surveying with community volunteers, visiting the Historical Badagry Slave Port, and of course spending what seemed like an average of one-third of our time in the infamous van in ‘go-slows’ I constantly experienced a new layer of my positionality and identity.

Top Left: Our tour guide and the beginning of the slave route tour in Badagry; Bottom Left: mWater survey with community volunteer and CDC member; Top and Middle Right: In the infamous van caught in a 'go slow' - aka a traffic jam - with our PAVE team; Bottom Right: After a long day in the field typing up notes and updating surveys at a local hotel bar.

Top Left: Our tour guide and the beginning of the slave route tour in Badagry; Bottom Left: mWater surveying with community volunteer and CDC member; Top and Middle Right: In the infamous van caught in a ‘go slow’ – aka a traffic jam – with our PAVE team; Bottom Right: After a long day in the field we stopped at a local hotel bar to type up notes and update surveys.

Because of the richness of these experiences, it has been a struggle to narrow down this blog topic. However, one that has bubbled to the top is my ever-growing awareness of unearned American privileges and the impact of those privileges on the human right to water beyond the socially constructed American (and other Western country) borders. For example, the U.S. average carbon emissions is 17.0 million metric tonnes of carbon per person compared to 0.5 tonnes per person in Nigeria (as of 2011 according to the World Bank).

Clearly there is an unequal degree of consumption between the U.S. and Nigeria, and this is not a unique trend between developed and developing regions. Our excessive consumption is not only greater than communities like Itire Ikate and Oto Awori, the informal settlements we worked with, but also our polluting disproportionately impacts their lives. Therefore, my (and my country’s) consumption privileges are inextricably linked to the crisis of the human right to water experienced in Lagos:

According to the Lagos Water Corporation, the current population in Lagos State is about 20 million people, requiring 660 million gallons of water per day. Assuming that the Lagos Water Corporation’s facilities are running at full capacity, it can only provide 210 million gallons of water per day. Therefore the government-run water supply only meets 31.8% of the water demand for the population – a 450 million gallon gap. Where then, do people get their water? As mentioned in our previous blogPAVE found that nearly 74% of the Lagos population get their water from informal sources. Our preliminary data shows that a large majority of the water is collected via privately funded boreholes, not from government provided sources.

Community utilized borehole in Oto Awori.

Community utilized borehole in Oto Awori.

Notwithstanding the dependency on electricity access to utilize boreholes, accessibility, and water quality (see UN defined dimensions of the human right to water) – all topics of concern in and of themselves, are these boreholes a sustainable water source in the inescapable context of climate change? We learned from our meetings with Environmental Rights Action, the Water Corporation, the U.S. Embassy, and the Lagos State Civil Society Partnership, that imminent sea level rise will make the groundwater brackish. Thereby making borehole water inutile. This left me with two questions:

  1. Is the greater public aware of this, especially those living in informal settlements with the least government provided infrastructure and protection?
  2. What are the mitigation and adaptation plans, if any, to ensure that those most vulnerable have a human right to water, in other words, what is the “Justainable” (social justice + sustainable development) approach?

In our fieldwork, we learned that for the most part, the unsustainability of boreholes due to sea level rise had not been communicated to Itire Ikate and Oto Awori, not even the Community Development Councils (CDC) which are the local community leaders. This disconnect in knowledge sharing was shocking. My initial concerns were rooted in an urgent desire for the Water Corporation to improve its community outreach and sustainability planning in order to protect those most vulnerable. After all, it is their responsibility to serve the public. However, upon reflection, I cannot help but wonder what my role is, and more broadly, what my country’s role is in contributing to the crisis in Lago’s human right to water. While it is important that those in power and those who hold stewardship positions for the public in Lagos provide the infrastructure (whether it be formal or informal), other entities beyond Lagos and even the Nigerian government are responsible for this crisis.

It’s not just about individual behavior change on my part or yours, it is really about developing global accountability systems and policies that hold equity at the center – fusing social justice and sustainable development. This justainable approach requires an increased awareness and empathy that reaches across socially constructed country borders and an understanding that sustainability cannot be achieved, or even approached, without leading with equity.

Surveying with Mobile Phones – Is paper where data goes to die?

Conducting an mWater survey

Conducting an mWater survey

An important component of our survey work in Lagos was the use of the mobile phone app mWater. The app’s mission is to “use data to eradicate waterborne disease and other threats to survival and well-being.” To achieve this mission mWater has created online survey and mapping platform because they believe “paper is where data goes to die.”

mWater’s technology has been used by groups like the World Bank and USAID, and has resulted in an impressive amount of crowd sourced data. We were excited about this technology not only because it eliminates the time-consuming process of inputting paper surveys, but it also creates a mechanism for sustained collection of data over time. The mWater app can be downloaded onto anyone’s phone and once the survey is complete it can be immediately uploaded to the Internet. This presents the opportunity for ongoing data collection by community members.

One goal during our time in Lagos was to investigate the feasibility of using mWater in the survey communities — Oto Awori and Itire Ikate. Our complete findings will be published in a formal report later this year, but some initial reflections on the issues that arose around technology and community engagement are included here.


There is no doubt that inputting responses directly into the platform was a huge benefit of using the mWater app. Immediately after completing the surveys we were able to download the data and begin analysis. The challenges with using mWater were instead felt on the front end – during the survey collection process in the field. Some of the challenges included:

Syncing phones before going to survey

Syncing phones before going to survey

  • Internet Connections: While you don’t need an Internet connection to complete the mWater survey, you do need it to sync any updates to the survey questions or to download the app onto a new phone. In our two survey communities – Oto Awori and Itire Ikate the Internet (4G and Wifi) connections were often limited, which required significant planning before we arrived to make sure all devices were synced. Many of the community residents helping with the survey also used their own data plans to download the app and sync the surveys. Future surveying efforts should factor in these costs and determine a mechanism for reimbursement.
  • Screen Visibility: Many of the surveys were conducted outside and as a result it was very hot and bright. This often created problems when trying to read the survey questions or click the correct button on the screen. This may have been resolved with higher quality phones, however, we were using the brands and models of phones that would be available in the community. Using widely available phones is an important component if future surveys are to be implementation directly by residents. Something that mWater may consider in future versions of their app is to provide more tools for formatting the surveys. For example being able to change font size and bold certain text may help to address these visibility issues on lower quality phones.
  • Survey Access: With the current mWater settings it is difficult to make the survey publicly available without the surveyor going through several steps within the mWater app. If the survey is difficult to find and download the likelihood of the survey work being sustained is much lower. In order to really grow our initial work in Lagos we would need to work with mWater in developing a way to make access very simple (e.g. a direct url link or a standalone app) that would allow for simple, streamlined access.

Community engagement

Training community volunteers

Training community volunteers

In each community the local officials recruited young adults from the area to help us with the surveys for a small stipend. As we went around with them to implement the survey the value of engaging young community members was clear. They were not only able to quickly master the technology, but were able to navigate community dynamics that a visitor would never be able to do. The challenge with this model of community engagement – as is so often the case – is how to maintain and scale that participation.

Key to this challenge in maintaining and scaling community participation is the issue of sustained resources. Especially during the initial stages of expanding the survey work, small stipends for the youth volunteers and resources to conduct the trainings and provide administrative support would be critical. There are still a lot of hurdles to overcome before this could be a truly ‘crowd sourced’ project. Until then we would need dedicated people on the ground who have the capacity to problem solve issues with technology and implementation and to engage new people in the project.

A great tool, but not a ‘silver bullet’

In the end we found the benefits of using the app outweighed the technology and community engagement challenges. But it is also important to remember that mobile technology is not a ‘silver bullet.’ Future survey efforts have a lot of issues to address before this is truly a scalable and sustainable option for data collection and advocacy. It will take groups around the world working together online AND offline to develop mWater as a tool that doesn’t allow data to die, but instead puts information in the hands of people who want to improve the conditions in their own communities.

Looking for Solutions in Informal Places: How the Lagos State Water Corporation is overlooking their most important private partner

You can’t talk water in Nigeria without talking Public Private Partnerships (PPPs). During our time in Nigeria we participated in many heated discussions about the Lagos State Water Corporation’s (LSWC) decision to pursue a PPP model.

Groups like Environmental Rights Action argue that Lagos state government and LSWC can fund the necessary infrastructure without private dollars that place profits over people. Meanwhile LSWC argues that the price to upgrade Lagos’s water infrastructure is simply beyond their means. LSWC’s 2010 Master Plan proposes a $3.5 billion budget that would expand their treatment and distribution systems to meet an exponentially increasing demand. To fill their public funding gap they intend to find a corporate partner – despite growing public opposition, including from the US Congressional Black Caucus.

Sachet Water being sold at a local store

Sachet water being sold at a local store

Yet in proposing a PPP model LSWC has overlooked one very important, and less controversial, private partner: the countless vendors across Lagos that have created an informal water distribution network. Components of this network are visible everywhere — from the ‘truck pushers’ selling canisters of water door-to-door, to the sachet water that is sold at every local store. According to The Pan African Vision for the Environment (PAVE) nearly 74% of the population in Lagos rely on water from informal sources. These individual water entrepreneurs have already made significant investment in a distribution network that the LSWC could build upon instead of re-creating the (water) wheel.

By not including informal water vendors in their PPP model LSWC is choosing to ignore a win-win solution. Incorporating informal vendors into the LSWC Master Plan would greatly expand their water distribution at a much lower cost and in a much shorter timeline. It could also help to address many of the public health issues caused by the questionable water quality currently supplied by informal vendors. Beyond those benefits, incorporating informal water vendors would create and formalize millions of NEW JOBS – what politician doesn’t like that? In fact, for these reasons (and more) PAVE proposed such a solution in 2012.

So why does LSWC ignore this ‘informal’ option? By formally recognizing the system that supplies nearly three quarters of water to Lagosians, LSWC may also have to admit that their own system isn’t working. This would require them to rethink their $3.5 billion dollar plan.

Despite such barriers, similar models have found success elsewhere. For example, Mozambique has created a framework for certifying and formalizing private water vendors. What could Lagos learn from the experience there?

But LSWC doesn’t even have to turn to other countries to understand how such a model could work. During a meeting with the Lagos State Civil Society Partnership (LACSOP), they mentioned how the state government had implemented a certification of private schools in Lagos. This certification monitors the quality of education and formalizes a private system that supplements a public service – two of the key issues also found in the water sector.

Ultimately it’s not clear whether a PPP model is the way forward for Nigeria. The United Nations Right to Water (the standards on which we are basing our research) does not prescribe a public or private approach. Yet what is clear is that the current LSWC proposal does not sufficiently prioritize people over profit. Rethinking a PPP model that empowers local entrepreneurs instead of disenfranchising entire communities might be one component to equitable and comprehensive access to water across Lagos.