Enugu Water Scarcity: Peter Mbah and the Magic of 180 Days | CABLE REPORTERS

By Prince Ejeh Josh 

For the residents of the city of Enugu and those that have been following the disturbing trend over the past 20 years, what Enugu has in coal it lacks in water. Coal is in abundance and that informs the reflective sobriquet of Enugu as the “Coal City State,” while water had not only become a scarce luxury and expensive commodity but also a perennial endemic the people of the state had come to live with. They had accepted their fate in the face of helplessness, frustration and entrenched despondency. Thirsty tongues could only wag in despair, raspy voice from a droughting throat and the endless search for water continued. The people of Coal City often put up melancholic faces whenever the issues of water were raised, and their hearts palpitated once they remembered that dry season was around the corner. An offer of water to a visitant was like a priceless gift treasured by the benevolent host.

The beautiful city of Enugu over the past two decades became an epitome of desert in an obscure oasis. The hope of having water restored to the people had long been dashed with such recondite, lengthy and puzzling narratives that all Enugu had were coal and shale. It became a mystery and a spiritual affair that required spiritual warfare to defeat the demons bewitching the state with deliberate drought. Such was a version of the narrative often told in our religiously gullible society. People bought into it and there they engaged in a battle that could only be won not by flesh and blood. Hence, when Dr. Peter Mbah, the now Enugu State governor, began his campaign, sermoning that he would make water available in abundance in the first 180 days of his administration, many cast doubts and vigorously defended their position. That promise alone elicited debate in the charged political atmosphere. Opposition hurled scorn, skeptics tossed and howled. 180 days? Impossibilia! Was Mbah living in the moon or feigned not to know the dimension water had assumed before he made such a promise? Questions were raised. Opposition members and detractors saw the promise as a landmine laid by the governor for himself. They started counting days for him. 

Indeed, water is an essential commodity to human existence. It has been described as life itself (Mmiri bu ndu). This could have informed the reports of the United Nations Peace, Dignity and Equality on a Healthy Planet and the United Nations World Water Development Report that water is at the core of sustainable development and is critical for socio-economic development, energy and food production, healthy ecosystems and for human survival itself. The reports also recognized water as not only a rights issue for the ever-growing human population but also essential for sanitation and for reducing the global burden of disease and improving the health, education and economic productivity of the population. This is why water occupies a strategic position in the goal-target of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as number six on the rung of the ladder. The SDG 6 clearly sets to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” 

Despite the essentiality of the role water plays in human ecosystem, the WaterAid presented scary graphics of water challenges in Enugu and its environs. Half of the state’s population, approximating 2.27 million people, lacks access to potable water services. They depended on polluted and often disease-infested water from upstream or their sources. They further submitted that lack of access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) contributed to poor sanitation, poverty and amplified the degree of health challenges and primarily increasing infant mortality. In a representation that showed the body had given up hopes of having water in Enugu again due to its strained geological formation and topography, it capped its report with the following sad finality; “The government and the International Non-Governmental Organisation have played their parts to see a lasting solution to this problem, but all to no avail.” This submission had the corroboration of the finding of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting of August 8, 2022 which gave a frightening horror and pointblank eyesore narrative of the Enugu imagery. The alarming description titled, “Amid widespread scarcity, Enugu residents pay tanker drivers for dirty water”, would leave no one in doubt about the crumbling dignity of humanity, but that was just the sad situation on ground in the state before the recent intervention.

“Adults and children squatting and defecating into trenches and pools of floodwater under the bridge at the New Artisan Market is a common sight, with some others washing their clothes and children swimming at the other end. Those who cannot descend into the trench when they need to defecate use polythene bags and fling the content into the trench. The water flows from a gully that passes through the market, characterized by improper waste disposal, lack of toilet facilities and hygiene practices. Residents say they depend on the dirty water for everything. Bathing, washing of cloths and sometimes, cooking and drinking,” the report submitted. 

This, of course, was just one out of many. At Ilukwe, Nzekwe, Obosi and Lagos streets in Ogui Layout, the vicious cycle continued without hope of abating. I did a check at the only source of water at Ilukwe Street which had close to a thousand residents and had my heart palpitate at the gory scramble by the elderly and children alike over gully water running out slowly from a source decorated with the laurels of heaps of rubbish dumped indiscriminately over the years. Women and children who often lined up like the mai-bara of the Almajiranci every morning waiting, perhaps, with such unending patience for their turn to scoop the dirty, foul-smelling water, disclosed that the water was their “everything”. Interestingly, most of the children born within the vicinity in the last couple of years could only hear like a tale in the moonlight or read in their primary school textbooks, about Enugu water  but had not seen, felt, touched, and used the purported water. This was in addition to the Imri-Ani at Chinatown, Independence Layout, Ugbo-Ogrugru stream at New Haven, with all the water declared unsafe for human consumption. As a result of this, in July 2021, the Premium Times reported an outbreak of cholera in the state with over 14 fatality recorded and 100 of residents infected with the disease. All efforts to consign this challenge into the state’s historical past could only end up draining into futility.

Then Mbah came. He campaigned on the unpopular trajectory of ending water challenges. It was, to many, the norm and platitude heard over and again as part of campaign promises for all politicians. Mbah, weird as that could be, did not only campaign to defeat the intractable problem of hydra-headed dimension, he assured of his resolve to bring water to the people in 180 days. Analysts were alarmed. Maybe he meant to say another thing. Maybe it was a slip of tongue which could occur to any human being. But he insisted. He was unambiguous. That was uncanny! Even insiders in his political party recused themselves from the 180 days promise. Mbah’s reaction to the skeptics reinforced conviction in some quarters that political actors were good in oration. But the man was not an orator. He says what he means and means what he says. Mbah had told doubting residents that he understood their disbelief because they were used to “bad leadership and bad government”. 

Like the 65th United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, once said, “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work”. Determined to demystify leadership and deliver on his solemn promise, shortly after the election, Mbah embarked on a voyage, in search of water. He mobilized the best hands, drawing professionals across the globe to do  the seemingly impossible. Even with the gloomy meager resources at the reach of the state, the governor was unrepentant about his conviction to do things differently. For the first time in the history of the state, the political lexicon had a radical shift. It became a more sophisticated register such as disruptive innovation, technology deployment, ICT, robotics, artificial intelligence, optimal performance, meritocracy of idea, traceability, responsibility, etc. All this, the governor deployed in the water resource sector to frame a new narrative and prove the can-do spirit. 

Workers worked round the clock. It was a tortuous journey with labourious nights of creativity and technology. In his 1927 poem, Journey of the Magi, T.S Eliot presented the worst of the journeys of the Magi in search of a new beginning. Probably, a worst time of the year full of challenges for the wise men. For the Magi, it was such a long journey. But for Mbah, the journey could be shortened with the right approach. This accounted for why it took past administrations decades of strenuous efforts only to end up on a treadmill. Robert Frost, in his “The Road Not Taken”, stated that men, in making decision, preferred to taken the popular, more comforting road which usually ends in ineffectuality. However, understanding that the road less taken by men because of the grumpy path and sore-footed potentials could lead to success, the governor took the challenge upon himself and rode through it. And his motivation? Result. He could be heard reinforcing the conviction that “we are the people known to turn deserts into fertile plains”. 

As the countdown to the 180 days continued by the residents, on the media, in the markets, in churches, and became almost a household song, detractors were impatiently waiting for a 180-day of requiem lamentation. Mbah would prove them wrong sooner than the very day. From the occasional two million litres of water to 120 million litres of water in less than 180 days. That was a magic, or probably a miracle as many had argued. But he broke the jinx and set a new pace. Writing in 1992 in his work titled, “The End of History and the Last Man Standing”, the American political economist, Francis Fukuyama, argued that western civilization had weathered all storms to emerge from the relics of the Cold War as the only idea. From the rubble of challenges, Mbah defied the stormy water to emerge as the man with magic wand to erase the history of water failure in the state with a new beginning. 

Today, with all the reservoirs working in full capacity across the metropolis that could house the 70 million litres from the 9th Mile Ultra-modern Water Scheme, 50 million from the Oji River water project and the ongoing work on facility extension, an end has been put to the drought in the state. The barriers of failure in the sector was shattered. Once again, the people of Enugu could taste fresh, potable, clean and disease-free water after over 20 years. The 9th Mile Water Facility with a 4.4 megawatt power station is a world-class project that is becoming a subject of research. This guarantees a 24-hour water supply to the people. Schools, hospitals, hotels, industries, businesses and residents can now heave some sigh of relief. Before I forget, I have been inundated with calls from members of the public asking the list of other promises the governor made with timelines so that they could be counting down on the pegged timelines. It is now goodbye to open defecation, bad and contaminated water. A new dawn has just begun.

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