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.