We are changing perceptions of Nigerians on being forgotten by government – Benson

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Ajisegiri Benson

Ajisegiri Benson is a water engineer who has, since 2015, been the Director of Water Supply, Federal Ministry of Water Resources, having started as a water engineer in 1981 and risen through the ranks. In this interview with a BusinessDay team, the graduate of civil engineering from the Obafemi Awolowo University and fellow of the Nigerian Society of Engineers highlights the challenges of making clean water accessible to Nigerians, especially in the rural areas. He also highlights the ministry’s policies and programmes to ensure that all Nigerians have access to clean, safe and affordable water supply by 2030, as well as tackle the menace of open defecation. He also speaks about the Water Resources Bill and how it will drive private sector participation in the sector.

How important is your department, what does it do?

The department of water supply in the federal ministry of water resources is a very important department that examines policies, programmes, and projects of the federal government to bring water supply to the homes of Nigerians. Also, through advocacy, encourage and motivate state governments to contribute their quota into ensuring that water supply is brought to the homes of Nigerians. You will agree with me that water is life. No one survives without water. The department is so central, that is why it is called water supply, and it’s the central department in the federal ministry of water resources.

The Minister has been taken up severally on the issue of water supply. National access to water supply in general, both from municipal water supply and from household water supply is about 71 percent, meaning that 29 percent of Nigerians are still without access to wholesome water. They get their water from streams and other sources that are not hygienic for human consumption and this is why many Nigerians are unhealthy. If you go through the statistics of health issues in Nigeria, you will discover that up to 70 percent are water-related. If you get water that is wholesome, it improves your health and when you have health, you become more productive and that surely impacts on the economy.

As one of the key departments in the ministry, what projects have been initiated and implemented under you as director?

When I assumed duty as the director of water supply in 2015, the first thing I had to do was to look at the policy driving water supply in Nigeria as well as the water resources policy in general. We are so lucky also that we have a minister that was appointed about the same time who is also an expert in water resources development and passionate on water supply services to Nigerians.

On resumption, I saw that we have to look at water based on the settlements of the people and this is enshrined in the policy; that means we have to look at urban people, the rural people, then those who are in between, which are the small towns, because the services to these three socio-economic groups are different.

For the rural water supply, we initiated what we call Nationwide Rural Water Supply Programme and because of the peculiar situation that the country was finding itself at that time. In some parts of the country, many people have escaped to temporary camps, what we call IDPs, where they do not have access to basic amenities. Then, we said we must have a programme that will address the water supply needs of such people. We have Nationwide Rural Water Supply and Water Supply to IDPs. We have done quite a lot for IDPs nationwide.

We also addressed the needs of voluntarily settled populations, such as the National Youth Service Corps, the Immigration, Customs and Civil Defence officers Service personnel in the borders and some other formations, etc. across the country that do not have access to water.

You have a plan in the rural areas, what about the urban areas?

In the urban areas, there is a whole set up of an agency, established by State Governments that are expected to run water schemes sustainably to provide services to the people. In most cases we arrange development funds for them through International Agencies like World Bank, African Development Bank etc. They are the ones that will get the loan/credit and use them to upgrade their water supply schemes, give capacity to their staff and generally reform their services so that they can run their scheme sustainably. What we are advocating to the state governments is to give them autonomy. Let them not depend on government, because that is where we have major challenge.

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The state governments are still treating their water agencies like regular civil service, which they are not. We are advocating that since they have been established by law to be an autonomous entity, and state governments should allow them run like that and that means to allow them to generate their own revenue, hire and fire their staff, motivate their staff and take procurement decisions. All state governments will do is set targets for them, monitor what they are doing, and if they don’t perform, fire whoever is the CEO, bring another person that will run the place sustainably, like a professional organisation. So those are the sustainability issues that we use to drive the urban water supply programme.

Also, we have the small towns water supply programme. In our own policies, small towns refer to communities that are between 5,000 and 20,000 people and we have a model that we are also using to serve them. Since this administration came in, we have done quite a lot. Small towns could be an institution, so we are also using this model to provide services to them and we have used the World Bank approach to strengthen capacity by setting up project development protocols and it is working. This is because we carry people along under the programme, they plan their projects themselves, they tell us what they want to do and at times they design, bring it up, we support them with funds. They contribute a little fund into it; they take ownership, run and maintain the schemes themselves.

These are the approaches that we are using to serve the different social groupings that we have in the country, Rural, Small Towns and Urban, with that, we have finished quite a lot of projects across the length and breadth of this country.

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What would you say you are proud of achieving as a director in this department?

I am very proud that we are focused and that has enabled us to bring water supply, which is an essential commodity, to the homes of Nigerians. These are happening by reason of the initiatives that we have brought to bear. We have initiatives for Rural, Urban and Small Towns as previously mentioned, and they are working. We see that states and communities are now coming up for collaboration with us by reason of good performances they are seeing. We have received several letters of appreciation from communities. In some of them, you will even see their tears of joy on the letters. They say ‘something like this has never happened to them’.

Some of them said they thought they have been forgotten and government does not know they are existing and now they have water. Some of them will even send photographs of where they used to get their water. So, I am proud that we have, at least, been able to positively change the perception of Nigerians that they are not forgotten by federal government. I am proud because we are contributing to the health of Nigerians and invariably the productivity of Nigerians and to the economic development of Nigeria in general. Because if you’re a farmer and you are sick you can’t go to the farm, if you are even in the city and you drink water that is not wholesome, you are bound to be sick and then you can’t go to work. What does that mean? You are not contributing to the national economy. But now, with more people healthy in this areas that we have intervened, I am very proud that more people are going to contribute to national development.

Thirdly, we have been able to generate a lot of employment; welders, builders, suppliers, many of them who hitherto have packed up, today, they are doing very well because of the initiatives and contribution coming from the ministry. Especially pump sellers, many of them are doing very well, many welders are doing very well, even GP tanks, more are being sold today and that means more employment to those that are manufacturing them.

With more people healthy in this areas that we have intervened, I am very proud that more people are going to contribute to national development. The Water Resources Act that we have now, it has given a lot of power to the Minister. For our Honourable Minister to be pushing this law, Nigerians do not know that he is doing them a lot of good

As a highly experienced water resources engineer, what will you say about the water resources bill. Without it, you have achieved a lot, what more can be achieved if it is passed into law?

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We currently have Water Resources Act that is guiding the sector and the Ministry’s operations, we have River Basin Development Act that is guiding River Basin operations. We also have the National Water Resources Institute Act, all these are what the Water Resources Bill brings together, so that we have a composite law. Such that when you are talking about the water law in Nigeria, it will cover everything. Nigerians don’t know that all these laws are already existing. If you look at the Water Resources Act that we have now, it has given a lot of power to the Minister. For our Honourable Minister to be pushing this law, Nigerians do not know that he is doing them a lot of good because the minister can sit in his office and sign off on any water development project under the current Act. If you say you want to build a dam there, he can sign it, without recourse to that environment. But, the Water Resources Bill has watered down his power, so that power derives from the people.

The people of that area will have to sit first to sign off, before it goes to the region, before the minister will sign, and that goes a long way with the sustainability plan because they will take ownership of it and it is a development that will benefit everybody. For example, you know river flows from up to down, if somebody dams the river up there, those down will not have access to water. Only the minister has that power to say go ahead with that dam, he does not need to refer to the state government or to the people in that area and that is what the existing law says. Now, with this water bill, it has to start from the project area, they have to agree and all those discussions will have to be brought to the minister before the minister can say, go ahead. So, it’s a people-oriented bill which is far different from the highly centralized Act that we have now. So, it’s for the people and people don’t know that, we need to make them know that.

Secondly, we have the private sector that cannot contribute to the development of Water Resources in Nigeria, because the existing law does not protect them, this water bill has opened it up for them. If you are interested in the water resources development of the country, you can come and contribute your expertise, you can contribute your fund, you can own asset. So, it’s for the betterment of the country, to develop the water resources faster than we currently have. Government cannot do everything, you need the private sector, you need the philanthropists, you need other people to cooperate with government to do this, that is one aspect that this bill has addressed.

The third leg has been the National WASH Fund. In November 8, 2018, Mr. President launched the Water Supply and Sanitation Action plan. The President was shown the statistics of those that don’t have access to water, sanitation and number of people defecating in the open, which is about 25 percent of our population, that is why you go in the suburbs and everywhere is smelling, that is where people are having all sorts of health challenges. The president was concerned and said we have to declare a state of emergency, which he did at that time and launched this Water Supply and Sanitation Action plan.

At the centre of the action plan is what we call the WASH fund, because we know that we are not putting enough resources into providing these services to the people. It was proposed that we have a national fund that federal government, state government, philanthropists, development partners can contribute and aggregate them. We have a target and that will be the driving force for pulling funds from different areas. So, the bill supports that, because you need an enabling law to support that, so that people will now know that when they contribute their money it will not be wasted because there is a guiding principle that is in the law that will help to ensure that these funds are well utilized. So, this is one area this bill is also addressing.

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The bill is also supporting licensing operators in the sector. Now borehole is being drilled indiscriminately, nobody licence the drillers, nobody licence the borehole themselves. Licensing boreholes does not mean you have to pay it means that you have to register it. In Niger Republic, you can’t cut a tree unless you are licensed to do that and that is what the bill is supporting, so that we can control the rate at which we are punching our aquifers. If you punch an aquifer, which is the ground water bearing formation, it is susceptible to pollution, government has to know about it, if you pollute it, it’s not only affecting your family, it’s affecting everybody because the ground water is like the surface water flowing underground, when you pollute it at one point, it flows to other areas. So, this bill supports licensing the boreholes and the borehole drillers so that government will know where the boreholes are. If you want to trace source of pollution, for example, you know which areas to map so that you can trace the source of pollution.

These are some of the issues, apart from the very robust monitoring and evaluation entrenched in the bill, and streamlining of the responsibilities and duties of the sector agencies, which before were duplicated in the different laws. These are the benefits and that is why the minister is so passionate about the bill to be passed into law. Nigerians need to know the benefits of this bill so that they will embrace it.

From your understanding of water resources, and with this bill passed into law and implemented, how many years do you think it will take Nigeria to have clean, safe water supply that is accessible and affordable in the country?

If we continue at the rate at which we are going now, our target is 2030. All our programmes are targeted towards 2030 and I see that we are gaining momentum. If you take statistics today, you will see that close to 60 percent of people living in the rural areas now have access to water, which used to be 25 percent some years back. We are making good progress and with all these investments we are targeting from the world bank, and other development banks, you will discover that urban areas will begin to change because the real issue is municipal water supply, where you will do large scale scheme and do distribution network and pass water to people’s homes. Our target still remains 2030, in tandem with SDGs and I see that if we continue to put our actions where we are putting our mouth, I believe that it is achievable. And going by what the minister is doing by creating this awareness, motivating the states, putting money into it, I see that by 2030, we will have achieved our goal substantially.

What legacy would you be leaving behind in this department?

I am leaving behind a well-focused department, a department where staff have to work to earn recognition, a department where our partners, contractors, consultants believe in. They believe that when you have a contract with this department, you have to do your bit otherwise you won’t be paid and when you do your bit you get paid. Before now, some people do not take government contracts, but now, the public is rushing to it, because they know that this is a department, where once you do your job, you will be paid and you will be recognized.

Also, I am leaving a workforce that is well trained. I am leaving behind, a department that is well positioned to continue to contribute to the water resources development and by extension to the economic development of the country.

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