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“Our Water, Our Right”: The Struggle for Justice in Nigeria

March 2019

In January 2019, our graduate fellow Nicholas Johnson joined Grassroots International Solidarity Program Officer Mina Remy for a trip to Nigeria. In the blog below, Nicholas provides context for the current water justice struggles in the country and recounts the national “Human Right to Water” summit.

Cleaning your children’s uniforms for school; growing food for trade and survival; preparing a meal at the end of a long day. Linking all these daily tasks is the need for water. Water is a catalyst in the relationship between the earth and those who live on it.

For Nigeria, a country with the largest population (200 million) and economy ($376 billion in 2017) in Africa, many elements bind the diverse peoples to their green and white flag. Not only history, politics, trade and culture link Nigerians. So too does the struggle for access to clean water, against water privatization, and the demand for the expansion of sanitation services.

These struggles are responding to failed policies and misuses of power. Even as we were attending the summit, Nigerian President Buhari declared a state of emergency for water. Together, corporate actors, the World Bank, and a corrupt government have begun transferring the control and ownership of water from public to private hands.

Whether in cities or farmlands, the 86.9 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty are forced to drink contaminated water. Meanwhile, activist and frontline communities throughout Nigeria have created grassroots networks to fight for clean water, based on the internationally recognized human right to water:

“On 28 July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that “clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights”

There is a struggle for control between Nigerian civil society, Nigeria’s government officials, and the transnational entities that buy rights to bodies of water and pump it without community consent.

The water justice movement’s philosophy of “Our Water, Our Right!” led to the formation of a convening in the country’s capital of Abuja. The National Summit on the Human Right to Water: From Resistance to Real Solutions against Corporate Control, was organized by our ally Environmental Rights Action: Friends of the Earth Nigeria, and attended by over 200 activist and delegates from across Nigeria and other West African countries, Uganda, India, and the United States.

The conference sought to build solidarity across borders and transition that energy into action. That included not only a review of Nigeria’s National Water Policy, but the development of a people’s Bill of Rights to Water. Through culturally relevant storytelling and political education, the water summit talked about a popular and ecological political agenda for Nigeria and beyond to confront the privatization offensive.

The water summit ended with an illustration of the power of grassroots organizing, and helped frame the next part of our trip: visiting partner organizations in their communities to learn first hand of the atrocities of Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP), the plunder of natural resources, and the stories of steadfast resistance.

Nicholas Johnson is Grassroots International’s graduate fellow for Winter 2018-2019 and Spring 2019. He is an Anti-Racism Facilitator and student at Northeastern University studying Global Studies & International Relations.

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