The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has reported that 78 million Nigerian children are at high risk of three water-related threats due to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and climate hazards. This was disclosed by UNICEF Nigeria Chief of WASH, Dr. Jane Baven, before the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York slated for March 22-24, 2023. According to Baven, one-third of children in Nigeria do not have access to water, while two-thirds do not have basic sanitation services.

In Nigeria, hand hygiene is also limited, with three-quarters of children unable to wash their hands due to lack of water and soap. As a result of the water crisis, Nigeria is reportedly one of the 10 countries with the heaviest burden of child deaths from diseases arising from inadequate WASH, such as diarrhea diseases. 

Available figures from UNICEF further show that over 60 million people in Nigeria still lack access to clean water and more than 110 million people lack basic sanitation facilities. Also, 48 million people are still practicing open defecation.  In Nigeria, more than 100,000 children under five years of age die each year due to diarrhea.

Out of the figure, 90 per cent is directly attributable to unsafe water and sanitation. The states with the highest rates of open defecation in Nigeria are Kwara, Plateau and Ebonyi, while those with the lowest rates of open defecation are Abia, Zamfara and Akwa Ibom.

In 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari declared a state of emergency in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH)  sector with the launching of a national campaign, ‘Clean Nigeria: Use the Toilet’ to jump-start the country’s journey towards open defecation-free by 2025.  With two years to that target, open defecation is still widely practised in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s water crisis is more acute in rural areas where many Nigerians lack access to potable water. In many cases, people trek long distances to fetch water from contaminated sources. Unfortunately, Nigeria ranks second out of 163 countries globally with the highest risk of exposure to climate and environmental threats.

In some parts of the country, the groundwater levels are reportedly dropping to the extent that it requires much effort to hit the water level. The erratic and intense rainfall in many parts of the country led to floods, which contaminated the scarce water supplies. In a related UN agency’s report, about one in four people or two billion people around the world lack safe drinking water.

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In the ‘Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, 2000-2020: five years into the SDGs,’ UNICEF stated: “The 2020 Agenda for Sustainable Development commits UN member states to take bold and transformative steps to shift the world into a sustainable and resilient path, realise the human rights of all, end poverty in all its forms, and ensure no one will be left behind.”

It also said: “Since 2000, billions of people have gained access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene services, but many countries still have a long way to go to fully realise the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) ambition to achieve universal access for all.”

In 2020, 74 per cent of the global population used safely managed drinking water services. By 2020, a total of 84 countries had achieved universal coverage (99 per cent) of at least basic drinking water services. With 78 million children at high risk of three water-related threats, the nation’s water crisis is frightening and unacceptable.

All the three tiers of government should consider investing so much resources in water, sanitation and hygiene by improving access to clean water in both rural and urban areas. Since water shortage is more acute in rural than urban areas, more attention must be paid to developing sustainable rural water schemes across the country.

If the majority of Nigerians have access to water, it will encourage adequate and safe sanitation and proper hygiene practices. The government must be more committed in helping many Nigerians move away from the practice of open defecation. This will help to curb the spread of diseases caused by inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene.

We urge the incoming administration to declare another state of emergency in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector so that we can achieve the open defecation-free status by 2025. Let the government launch a comprehensive programme to ensure that all Nigerians have access to clean water and basic sanitation services.