Asset or Investment without Returns? Wastewater Treatment for Agriculture and Economic Development in Nigeria

Filed under: National Issues |

Adebisi David Alade

Asset or Investment without Returns? Wastewater Treatment for Agriculture and Economic Development in Nigeria

Agriculture has been the mainstay of most African communities since the pre-colonial time. When non-agricultural sectors massively developed in the late colonial period, particularly after the discovery of oil in Oloibiri, in the Niger Delta in 1956, agriculture retained its vantage position still. Apart from staple foods, the sector produced 65% of all tomatoes in West Africa, 18% of cocoa worldwide and 70% of all jobs in Nigeria. With the oil boom of 1970s however, extractive industry relegated agricultural to the background, despite efforts by successive governments at rejuvenation of the sector. To the detriment of agriculture, the country derived 70% of her revenue (95% of foreign exchange earnings and 80% of budgetary revenue) from oil. Since the devastating crash of oil prices, and the consequent economic recessions however, agriculture has received serious attention at all levels of government in Nigeria.

Although the raining seasons which is ideal for crop cultivation in West Africa occurs between June and October, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in 2013 that climate changes have seriously compromised the normal rainfall patterns in Sub-Sahara Africa which reduces water availability for agriculture. As a corollary, delays and insufficient rainfall in Sub-Sahara Africa are bound to affect human and food security in many countries. This phenomenon has aggravated water stress in northern Nigeria (the country’s grain basket), where the vegetation is Sahel and vulnerable to drought and desertification. It is evident therefore that water scarcity remains one of the biggest challenges of agricultural development in Nigeria with adverse effect on the overall economic development of the country.

Since independence in 1960, successive governments have made attempt at agricultural reforms. These include Operation Feed the Nation of 1976, the Green Revolution of 1980, the Back to Land Program of 1980 and the creation of 11 River Basin Development Authorities to provide water from reservoirs and lakes for irrigation purpose. Although these initiatives were designed to stimulate food security and increase employment opportunities that would translate into economic development, they were largely implemented in isolation of water policies. This arguably accounts for their failure under drought conditions in 1973, 1975, 1993, 1994 and 1995. Given the manifestation of similar occurrence in many Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) of Asia and America, the use of treated wastewater in agriculture has formed an essential part of Water Demand Management (WDM). Yet, policies and initiatives in Nigeria largely neglect wastewater collection, treatment and reuse in agriculture.

In their quest for lasting solution to the problem of water scarcity that threatens their means of livelihood and the nation’s food security, they joined their counterparts who use raw wastewater in agriculture in other LMICs. Sources of this water include human excreta (faeces and urine), domestic used water, rainfall runoffs, storm drains and water from industrial drainage. Because this water is freely available to farmers at all times, they use it without considering the anthropogenic influences and pathogens in the water, which not only degrade soil, but also pose health risk to farmers, their crops, and the general public.

Although Nigeria has the potential to irrigate about 3.1 million hectares of farmland with wastewater (given her population of over 186.9 million people using water daily), however, wastewater from residential and industries go down the drains untreated, leaving only 150,000 hectares of farmland irrigated with depleting surface water in the absence of a national policy on wastewater management. In fact, it is estimated that only 2% of Sub-Sahara African cities have functioning wastewater treatment plants and only 30% are functioning satisfactorily. Apart from few industrial areas, rich housing estates, and Government Reserved Areas in Lagos, Abuja, Ibadan, Port Harcourt and Zaria as well as some university campuses in these cities, there are virtually no functioning sewer networks and wastewater treatment plants in Nigeria. Thus, 80% of wastewater is neither collected nor treated. In southern Nigeria, Lagos State (former federal capital, the largest city in Nigeria and arguably the fastest growing in Africa) has no major wastewater treatment facilities. The state operates 4 small plants in Iponri, Oke-Afa, Alausa and Abesan which connect 5% of over 21 million populations. Even the 1.5 million cubic metres of wastewater collected per day for treatment by these plants is dumped back into water bodies without consideration or plan for treatment cost recovery. Aside from Port Harcourt which serves 1% of its population, there are no other wastewater treatment facilities in the south. In the north, Kaduna operates one functional industrial wastewater treatment plant, Bauchi State Water Agency serves only 4 out of 20 towns under its jurisdiction and Kano – the third largest city in Nigeria has one non-functional plant. With the exception of Abuja in the Middle Belt, what exist in other states are non-functional treatment plants. As the country lacks a general strategy on sanitation, sewage and wastewater from homes and industries go into streets and sometimes into septic tanks where the sludge settles and the wastewater drains into the soil. This causes pollution of surrounding groundwater with negative health impacts like kidney cancer, helminth infections in children and gastrointestinal disease from contaminated water. Worse, the 15-year Partnership for Expanded Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (PEWASH) program launched late last year 2016 by the Federal Ministry of Water Resources which aims to improve sanitation and hygiene in the country from 2016 to 2030 has no plan for wastewater management or its use. This keeps one wondering how the country seeks to achieve the water and sanitation targets of SDG 6 after failing to meet the MDGs targets.

Because some of Nigeria’s decision-makers view financial intervention in wastewater treatment for agriculture as an investment without immediate returns, the problem of water scarcity in agriculture has not been adequately addressed. In July 2015, Daily Trust, a local Newspaper reported that farmers in Plateau and Abuja were happy when rain started in April and May in the northern part of the country. However, crops wilted in many farming states due to a long dry spell that followed immediately. As a consequence, Nigerian farmers such as Fodio Umar (the secretary of All Farmers Association of Nigeria in Plateau) resorted to planting vegetables and green beans in their farms which can be irrigated with unsafe wastewater. This trend holds implications for food security. The News Agency of Nigeria attributes the high cost of food items from the beginning of the year to insufficient rainfall, while Novus Agro Nigeria Ltd, an agro-allied company attributes the scarcity of maize, a staple food in many parts of Nigeria, to the lack of rain. Given the impact of anthropogenic climate change on agriculture and without a corresponding cross-sectoral framework for water management like Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in Nigeria, it is expected that the use of unsafe wastewater in agriculture will increase and meeting SGD 6.3 BY 2030 in the country remains a mirage.

With the dwindling oil prices and its attendant economic recession since 2014, poverty eradication continues to be elusive because agriculture has failed to meet the local food needs, industrial raw material needs and export needs. There is no gainsaying therefore that a cost-effective and eco-friendly Water Demand Management (WDM) policy and technology is needed to secure wastewater for agriculture in Nigeria and other developing countries of Africa. In making this claim, I am not advocating the wholesale transfer of western treatment technology. Rather, my point is that Nigeria can join other developing economies like Singapore, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt and the Philippines in benefiting from the efficient and cost-effectiveness of Land-based Waste Stabilization Ponds. To make one example, NHance Development Partners estimates that farmers who use treated wastewater in Mexico and Pakistan harvest more crops per year than non-users. The money they would have used to purchase fertilizer for their soil was also saved because of the nutrients in treated wastewater.

The role of the government in the development of agriculture should go beyond allocating lands and fertilizers to farmers or creating River Basin Authorities. The government needs to adopt a national policy for wastewater management. Astute management approach to strengthen institutional capacity and cross-sectoral collaboration of the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Water Resources and Ministry of Environment should be employed in Nigeria. Financial provisions for wastewater treatment for agriculture should not only be given priority in state and federal water budgets, but should equally be emphasized in all agricultural policies at the state and local government levels. In addition to on-farm wastewater treatment ponds, small and large scale farmers should be educated World Health Organization’s Multiple-Barrier Approach on handling wastewater on farm, safe wastewater irrigation methods, and other risk reduction methods such as human exposure control and post-harvest risk reduction strategies. This will protect farmers, crops and consumers from contamination. It will also stimulate agricultural production and economic development which Nigeria needs in order to care for its growing population.

With water withdrawals in developing countries predicted to increase by 50% before 2025, Nigeria’s decision-makers urgently need to reclassify “wastewater” as asset. This will encourage public-private partnership investment in wastewater treatment for agricultural uses – a move that will arguably guarantee food security and economic development in Nigeria and Africa at large.

Alade Adebisi David is a Water Without Borders student at the United Nations University, Institute for Water, Environment, and Health, Canada. Email: [email protected]




  • Oyewole Abraham Ogunode

    David, you have done well with the new outing. You can be sure that a future improvement on the paper will make more statement if given a global colouration.

    • David

      Thanks so much for your comments and suggestion, sir.