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Environmental Rights Campaigner Raises Alarm Over Thorny Issues In New Water Bill, Says Lai Mohammed Lied

There is an attempt to be able to divert water freely for commercial agriculture. If big farmers in Nigeria are now using water for free, imagine what could happen.

Akinbode Olufemi, deputy executive director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth (ERA), an organisation that advocates for the environment, has stressed the urgency for the amendment of relevant sessions of the new Water Bill which is currently in consideration by the National Assembly.

Olufemi said the National Water Resource Bill would give private sector players unrestricted access to the country’s water bodies for commercial use.

He said governments across the globe had stopped using the public, private partnership model to manage its water resources and the Nigerian government is just starting to consider what is already obsolete.

Olufemi pointed out that several parts of the law are too grey and require clarification, adding that the federal government is being autocratic in responding to Nigerians and civil society organisations to the proposed legislation.

“There is an attempt to be able to divert water freely for commercial agriculture. If big farmers in Nigeria are now using water for free, imagine what could happen,” Olufemi said.

“There was a crisis in Cape Town in South Africa where farmers and residents were competing for water. Right now, the trend is that lots of cities and countries are taking back their water resources from corporate companies. 

“We in Nigeria are now saying that this is the time to hand over our water. Shockingly, they – the federal government – said the bill is to promote public, private partnership when governments around the world are not going towards that direction.”

Olufemi said the press briefing by the Minister for Information, Lai Mohammed, and his counterpart in Water Resources, Suleiman Hassan, downplayed the concerns raised by Nigerians.

He said, “The Nigerian government did not respond directly to the concerns raised by Nigerians about the bill. The display by the minister for Information and the minister of water resources at the press briefing they organised shows that they feel we are hallucinating, and we cannot read what they wrote.

“They glossed over the core issues as if we are not in a democracy, telling all of us that there’s nothing we can do. It feels like we are almost heading into an autocratic regime.”

He said Nigerians want clarity over several grey areas in the law and the aim of new water legislation should be progressive and not regressive.

“What people are asking for is clarification on some of the controversial provisions or outright cancellation of those provisions from the law. Even if these laws have been in existence before, then we should not be promoting such laws again,” he said.

Section 15 of the proposed bill establishes a Nigerian Water Resources Regulatory Commission which gives the commission power to ‘carry out any of its functions in association with any person or authority as may be considered necessary for the efficient performance of functions under this Bill, including delegation of management and administrative functions to the private sector under a contractual arrangement.’

The bill aims to promote public, the private partnership in the integrated management of water resources in the country. Consequently, the bill introduces licensing and the charging of tariffs for most aspects of water utilisation.

He added, “When you look at the provision on licensing, it says before you can drill a borehole, it did not speak for commercial or domestic use contrary to what the Minister for Information was saying.

“The law says that you must obtain a license from the federal government. They lied by saying that the law mentions state governments. There is nothing in the bill that says you can take a license from the state or local government.”

On the Information minister’s claim that the law regulates commercial use only, Olufemi said, “How do you define commercial use? If I use water for laundry use, do I need to go and obtain a license?”

Nigerians have also expressed confusion and outrage at the first schedule of the bill, which gives the federal government the right to legislate over areas from which rainfall flows into a river, lake, or reservoir, so long as that area is around a tributary in the country.

Olufemi said the federal government has to clarify that aspect of the bill as the land belongs to the state government under the Land Use Act.

Although the bill annexes the right to legislate over catchment areas around rivers and tributaries, section 86 stipulates that river basin authorities cannot lease land or take land for irrigation without permission from the state government and subject to the Land Use Act.

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