In Lagos, the systemic challenges facing urban water infrastructure affect each and everyone, from the wealthy oga in his corner office on Victoria Island to the impoverished beggar eking out his subsistence on a walkway in one of the city’s slums. While all are affected, the degree to which the pang of the water crisis affects each person is intimately tied to one’s economic status and the ability of individuals and households to access or devise available, quality solutions.

“Water is Life,” the motto for the Lagos Water Corporation, the water utility for megacity.

Fewer than 30 percent of the population has access to piped water connections (closer to 10 percent if considering only household connections, not community standpipes). Even the luckier ones with an on-point or nearby connection must contend with erratic access due to inconsistent waterworks and power outages; neighbors, mostly women, queue to fetch water at community water points for their households, and for some, despite a physical connection, the water may not flow at all — and when it does, with its brownish tinge and metallic smell, it is anything but drinkable.

Locally created options

The shortcomings of government intervention leave a vast gap between supply and demand and have transformed water, especially potable water, into an essential commodity. Over past decades, this gap has opened the way for informal and private-sector led adaptations, as entrepreneurial youth and businessmen have devised ways to not only muddle through, but also to profit from the status quo. Nearly every resident finds him or herself reliant on intermediate vendors — middlemen who source and sell water through varying means.

Depending on the household budget, a few options do exist: Lagos Island and Mainland residents can patronize water contractors, dig boreholes and wells, or patronize water porters, known as mairuwas, in order to obtain water for bathing and other household activities. For Lagos’ poor, who make up more than two-thirds of the megacity’s population, the most realistic comes in packaged sachet form.

Sachet water, known locally as “pure water,” refers to commercially purified water sealed in small (500ml) plastic polyethylene pouches. Produced by innumerable small and medium-sized manufacturers and sold throughout the city by street vendors under a variety of brand names, its packaged form widely engenders a perceived quality compared to piped water. Most of all, at 10 Naira (6 cents) a pouch, perhaps its strongest characteristic is its affordability.

Sachet water production and sale has become a thriving industry in Lagos—the immense number of urban poor in the city’s informal settlements are reliant on it as a main drinking source, but so too are other low-income and even some middle-income residents. But sachet water is simply the most affordable commercially available option.

On the other hand, the market has key concerns. In a 2009 laboratory study of 10 sachet water brands on the market in Lagos, researcher A.C. Dada found extremely low levels of compliance with regulatory standards of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (22 percent of all samples were non-compliant). Samples were taken of sachet water at three key points in the distribution process: the point of manufacture at the factory, at the distributor’s outlet store where the packets are bought wholesale, and at the street sale level where individual packets are sold by street hawkers. Resoundingly, the study found that nearly across the board, unhygienic storage and handling practices played a major role in water contamination, and the further along the distribution process, the more likely the water was to be contaminated.

In addition, despite the industry’s role in addressing a key societal need, technically, sachet water is not counted as an “improved” water source, and therefore is not bringing the city — or the country in general, any closer to attainment of the MDG to halve the proportion of those without access to potable drinking water.

Looking forward

While improving the city’s urban water infrastructure must be a key component of improving access to potable water in Lagos, progress will take time and must take into account the political economy of water stakeholders, many of whom have stakes in maintaining the existing environment. Municipal authorities’ previous attempts to extend and improve the water supply infrastructure have been met with violence and intimidation from entrenched political units like formal water tanker lobbies and informal gangs known as “area boys.” These groups profit from the status quo and readily crack down on any threats of municipal encroachment on their informally inscribed territories where they exercise influence in water provision; this is particularly the case in the city’s slums.

In the neighborhood of Anifowoshe in Ikeja, Lagos Mainland, a mairuwa water vendor uses a community standpipe to fill his jerrycans for water, which he will later sell to customers.

Meanwhile, the residents in these spaces face a stark choice between polluted wells or piped water, expensive water tankers or bottled water, or the questionable purity of low-priced sachet water pouches for drinking needs. The numbers demonstrate that public demand for sachet water is immense, but given households’ limited options, sachet water remains a least-worst affordable choice rather than an a permanent of solution at present.

Therefore, in the short term, the most viable solution for developing an infrastructure for clean drinking water accessible to the poor means taking steps to effectively regulate the sachet water industry: ensuring manufacturers are registered, in compliance with regulations, properly sourcing and treating water and also properly handling its distribution so as to maintain high standards of safe, clean drinking water. This final step would require bringing on board stakeholders like distributers and manufacturers as not only economic middlemen but also handlers mindful of consumer health protection. In addition, educating the public is key, to develop consumers that demand high quality, even when the cost is low.

This article was written for urb.im, “a global community working for just and inclusive cities.” Focused on six cities – Lagos, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Nairobi, the initiative aims to link media, research and practice to promote the sharing of ideas on effectively addressing urban poverty. Read and learn more: urb.im