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.

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