Today (July 20), in Lagos, the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Adamu, shall be engaging Chief Executive Officers of the organised private sector in a one-day interactive meeting where the Federal Government’s programme, Partnership for Expanded Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene, shall be unveiled to the private sector.

I believe there is no better time than now to introduce PEWASH to the country’s private sector; and no better location for such presentation than Lagos.

There is no doubt that Lagos State is hardest hit in the nationwide flooding incidents we are today witnessing in Nigeria. This is because it boasts of the largest population, and also has the busiest coastline, with a sprawling community of upwardly-mobile middle class who unfortunately are blinded (or in denial) to the reality of their endangered topography.

A few weeks ago, some Lagosians wished they owned boats or that their cars were amphibious.  Some others who were lucky to have less need for a couple of paddles quickly changed their leather shoes to rubber rain boots and their suits to plastic rain coats. But, sadly, when the rains subsided and the floods receded, we all heaved a sigh of relief without searching for the fundamentals.

One of these fundamental issues that we seldom discuss is sanitation. Not only does the poor quality of existing sanitation cause significant health problems for millions of city dwellers in Nigeria, they also contribute to flooding. Inadequate, poorly thought-through sanitation systems obstruct water channels, complicate waste management procedure, and generally worsen the ecological dilemma of urban dwellers when the rains come. Yet, sanitation barely gets a mention in national statements – in both critical public and private sector circles.

However, the worst disaster is in not factoring in the impact of sanitation during and after the flood. Extreme weather events such as flooding, storm surges, and sea level rise put existing sensitive, often old-fashioned sanitation systems at risk. This leads to inundation of pit latrines, septic tanks or sewage treatment facilities, and increases the risk of contamination of the environment.

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I am not sure how Lagos (Island, Lekki and Aja) sewage system is designed, but in the majority of existing urban systems, storm water drainage is combined with the sewage, putting urban areas at risk of sewage contaminated flood. Sewage treatment plants are often positioned on low-lying ground, as sewage systems rely on gravity, but this puts them at risk when groundwater levels rise due to flooding or sea-level rise. Rivers and other water bodies are thus regularly polluted with untreated sewage and effluents. This is why cholera and diarrhea reign supreme in flood flashpoints.

So, as part of adaptation to the increasingly obnoxious vagaries of nature as a result of climate change, Lagos should devise a far-reaching adaptability strategy in its sanitation sector. As local climates change, as temperatures vary with reduced predictability, as regions experience higher or lower rainfall, and greater extremes in weather patterns, it is crucial that resilience is built into the existing and planned sanitation systems.

The PEWASH, which was launched in Abuja in November 2016, is a National Collaboration Platform for the improvement of access to water supply and sanitation nationwide through structured multi-agency partnerships. In the partnership, there are roles for the public sector, private sector and other development partners both local and international.

Nonetheless, the private sector has a critical role to play because PEWASH is an innovation that will effectively change the water, sanitation and hygiene paradigm in Nigeria; as it would remove the natural focus from government who is always perceived as the sole supplier of WASH infrastructure. In a highly populated state like Lagos, this new standard will quickly and positively impact on the economic growth and human development index. It will therefore enhance the state’s adaptation to climate change.

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Interestingly, it will be easy for the Federal Government to find collaborators in Lagos considering that there is the likelihood that the many blue chip companies and religious organisations’ headquarters that are resident in the state could easily adopt the PEWASH model in their corporate social responsibility projects.

The other day, I watched a TV report that featured a particular Lagos church which initiated a safe-drinking-water outreach in Lagos markets as its own form of mission/community service effort.

Adamu’s gospel to Nigerian business leaders in Lagos is timely. It is a novelty that dovetails into emerging global practices in the WASH sector, and which when concluded will surely put Nigeria on a better environmental footing, and perhaps, crown the nation as a regional and continental leader in the sector.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, worldwide, over a billion people lack access to drinking water and 2.6 billion to basic sanitation. Developing and managing water and sanitation infrastructure constitute an urgent and major challenge. Just halving the proportion of people without access to drinking water and sanitation by 2015 would require investments of some $72bn per year.

Therefore, to meet these tremendous needs, many countries seek out the private sector to modernise and expand their water and sanitation infrastructure and/or to improve the efficiency of water systems. To make the most of private sector participation, the OECD advises that an effective regulatory framework should be in place and key principles of good partnerships should be followed.

This is where the PEWASH programme comes in, as it has been approved by the Federal Executive Council. The Water Resources minister had said at the national inauguration that the PEWASH is a 15 year programme divided into three phases.

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“Phase 1, covering the period 2016 to 2018 is the preparation period that is devoted to sustained advocacy, mobilisation and project take-off. Phase 2 will span 2019 to 2025 with substantial increase in project delivery; while Phase 3 from 2026 to 2030 will consolidate the programme implementation.”

Lagos should accept and imbibe this new gospel of environmental sustainability because eco-stewardship is no longer a job for the government alone. Having seen how flooding can shut down commercial activities in a matter of hours, with far reaching after-effects, the private-sector-driven Lagos economy must recognise the new challenge of partnering in the design, management and supply of critical WASH infrastructure. This is no longer about politics; it is about corporate resilience.

There are also inherent opportunities for opening of new economic frontiers for the highly innovative former capital. Who will forget about the mobile toilet business that sprang up in Lagos many years ago and gave us the street lingo: “shit business is good business”?

In 2015, the United Nations noted that countries where open defecation is most widely practiced are the same countries with the highest level of poverty, high number of under-five child deaths, and large wealth disparities. In January 2016, the World Economic Forum released its global risks report which ranked water crises as the top global risk to industry and society over the next decade. Hence, water and sanitation will be significant factors in driving economic growth and human development in developing countries over the next decade.

Lagos, a natural driver in overall economic trend in the West African sub-region, cannot afford to miss the opportunities these developmental concerns present. Infrastructure supply and maintenance is always a big business. It can start the process by looking towards establishing a corporate Lagos-Lagos government task force even after the PEWASH inauguration must have come and gone.