Just like the year preceding it, 2021 was marked by the Covid-19 pandemic and its severe health, economic and social consequences. In the face of a highly infectious and potentially deadly virus, the interrelated concepts of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) became the center of official preventive measures by international and national agencies to decrease infection rates. Most official publications based their knowledge on scientific studies of former, comparable viral pandemics proving the significant effect of personal hygiene to reduce transmission of the virus —an effective measure, which is of course only provided if water supply and treatment are available and affordable as other studies show . In turn, a lack of access to clean and affordable drinking water prevents people from staying home and results in increasing infection rates and COVID-19-related fatalities. Tragically, because of significant socioeconomic inequalities and ecological conditions, a large share of people, especially in countries of the Global South, cannot afford clean water and sanitation or access to it is limited or non-existent due to misgovernance and corruption. In the following, these intertwined dimensions of water-public health relations will be illustrated via case study research drawn from the EJAtlas. The focus of this examination lies on the controversial debate around the involvement of private sector actors in drinking water service provision, which, despite being hailed and promoted by international organizations such as the World Bank as the solution to global water supply problems, has turned out to be an empty promise. In fact, in recent years, studies have critically examined privatization of water services in the course of neoliberal and austerity policies and why so many cities are turning against this trend : A central critique here is that private management of essential water services shows similar or even weaker performance in terms of efficiency and infrastructure development, especially in marginalized communities where investments simply do not pay off in order to correspond to the profit orientation that many providers have. Those conditions oftentimes build the ground for precarious hygienic conditions such as water borne diseases. The Covid-19 pandemic represents not only an additional health burden, but due to the increased demand for water for WASH, which urban privatized water systems cannot provide, many residents are forced to look for water through alternative sources, adding economic stress and health risks to the most vulnerable .
The failure of private companies to provide water infrastructure and service provision in poorer parts of cities, where high investments are required despite lower profit rates, becomes very evident in the case of the history of water supply in the megacity of Lagos in Nigeria . While the ever-growing city has a constantly increasing demand for water, the local government and responsible water provider, the Lagos State Water Corporation (LSWC), continue to rely on so-called public-private partnerships (PPPs/P3s). Private capital involvement has failed repeatedly in the past decades, however, and it is reported that the state government possesses one of the highest levels of revenue in the country which could be used to publicly manage the water supply. Nevertheless, the state government frequently states that it cannot shoulder the water burden of the state alone . However, while the involvement of private capital has generated profits it has not pushed for the expansion and improvement of water service infrastructure and has led to higher levels of corruption . Particularly in the city’s densely populated informal settlements, where water-borne diseases are common, people are often not connected to the water network and must resort to other, more expensive sources . It is reported that the existing water infrastructure covers only 40 % of Lagos State, while the remaining 60 % are obliged to buy their bottled or sacked drinking water from traders (called Mai Ruwa) and water tanks or rely on water supply by groundwater from boreholes that are mostly determined for other uses (washing, cooking, laundry making etc.) . In addition, people fear increased costs once services are privatized, further limiting necessary water access in times of crisis. Through the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic for example, whose true impact is still poorly known in the city, not only increased economic insecurity and jeopardized water supplies, but the subsequent lockdown, often enforced by rigid means, prevented people from acquiring water at alternate sources like water vendors. It is expected that those vendors, due to poor infrastructure development, play an important role in hygiene and thus pandemic control in Lagos state . In the face of further Covid-19 waves, recently predicted by the Lagos State health commissioner and likely given the low vaccination rate,  this leaves the city in a dangerous situation caused in large part by the substandard water supply.
For some time now, there has been active resistance from the population against these injustices and its serious consequences for the health of citizens. In 2021, a broad civil society coalition with the name Our Water, Our Right was formed by frontline groups including a then part of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) , now Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), the Amalgamated Union of Public Corporations Civil Service Technical and Recreational Services Employees (AUPCTRE), and the Joint Action Front (JAF)  to challenge the vicious attempt of privatisation of water by the Lagos state government. The convening organizers named above rallied people-power, mobilizing across indigenous communities and groups, and wielding international support and solidarity to push through the system, and a grassroots campaign was launched! The campaign ‘’Our Water, our right’’ is now a broad social movement, supported by a multitude of local communities and underserved groups. Important to mention is here the creation of the African Women Water Sanitation and Hygiene Network (AWWASHNET) , a network of women within the movement that stresses the importance of gender in water related questions, where women are disproportionately impacted . Through a variety of strategic demonstrations, resistance marches, position papers, publication of educational materials and public awareness creation through media, the campaign succeeded in educating residents and citizens about their water rights, highlighting the dangers of privatization and building political pressure. The campaign resulted in the termination of the World Bank’s former push for a privatization contract in Lagos and it was shown that public financing and collaboration between public providers provides a better deal for the people and the government. Together with the international union organisation Public Service International (PSI), the coalition is working to establish an “alternative roadmap” with public and democratic solutions to meet current and future challenges and to protect water as a human right. Herein, the activists propose that remunicipalisation of water services and transparent, participative management could be a possible solution for the Lagos water struggle . Recent studies show a variety of examples in the form of cities and municipalities that have successfully remunicipalised their water services in recent years and can thus provide a more efficient as well as fairer and equally accessible supply. Many of these examples rely on a democratic model that involves citizens in strategic decisions and significantly increases the transparency of business processes . Although there are limits and exceptions, other examinations prove that many public and democratic water providers were addressing the public health crisis through proactive measures to secure access and reliability of water and sanitation systems. At the same time, many providers suspended debt and extended accounting periods, and their democratic decision-making processes enabled them to screen and react to the most urgent problems in a holistic manner . However, the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic, namely financing problems of government agencies and the constant lobbying of private actors, could also lead to a return of privatization projects or so-called PPPs, in which the latter finds its way into many infrastructure projects through the back door. The strengthening of private and public cooperation announced by the World Bank for the 9th World Water Forum 2022 in Dakar, Senegal, which is still very much influenced by pandemic related public health concerns, provides evidence of plans to continue PPP projects in the water sector . It is therefore by no means a foregone conclusion that many cities and municipalities will involve private capital in water provision, rather than heeding demands from social movements whose grassroots protest identifies real problems and who are calling for progressive solutions to address rising inequalities in access to safe and affordable water. Averting this requires public water advocates to work closely together in networks of intersectional and international solidarity to share their expertise and create awareness outside of local contexts, but also to work together to develop strong narratives and political strategies.
As a matter of fact, the strong international support for the civil society campaign in Lagos by labour and civil society groups from Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda represents an active example of an international protest coalition to transform unjust economic and political systems towards democratic and holistic strategies . In the light of the World Water Forum 2022 in Dakar, many international activists, unions, NGOs and social movements will stand together, show support and exchange knowledge and strategies to turn the tide on privatization and strengthen water as human right. The Forum Alternatif Mondial de l’Eau (FAME), in the context of which this article is published, will be the first important agenda point for the ongoing struggle for ecological, social and democratic, citizen-based water management on the African continent apart from profit logics .
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Luca Scheunpflug has a masters degree in International Development Studies from the University of Marburg, Germany and is a former research intern at the EJAtlas project at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB).
Luca conducted research for this blog during a traineeship at the EnvJustice Project at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA–UAB) .
The EJAtlas is a digital mapping tool that contains instances of environmental injustice and provides data for both scholars and activists to educate, learn from each other, and build a network of (global) solidarity, particularly suited to highlight injustices in the interwoven relationship between water and the pandemic .
Thank you to Aderonke Ige of CAPPA for comments.