What we're reading: The privatization of water, from Flint to Lagos

Trash piles up in water supply in Lagos, Nigeria
Plastic waste is dumped in water channels in Lagos. Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

The government of Lagos, Nigeria is considering allowing Veolia, a French-owned water company currently being sued for its role in the Flint water crisis, to take control of almost two-thirds of the city's crumbling water infrastructure, writes Monica Mark for BuzzFeed News.

Why it matters: With 21 million inhabitants, 70% of whom do not have access to "drinkable, piped water," Lagos is Africa's most populous city and an embodiment of how modern-day governments have turned to privatization as a means of solving their water shortage crises — while pocketing some extra cash in the process.

The backdrop: Veolia was hired by the city of Flint in February 2015 as a water quality consultant. According to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose office filed a lawsuit against Veolia, the company was "hired to do a job and failed miserably."

  • "Veolia filed an interim report on Feb. 18 of 2015 that completely misrepresented the quality of the Flint water. ... Veolia stated that the water, quote, was safe. Veolia also callously and fraudulently dismissed medical and health concerns by stating that, quote, some people may be sensitive to any water."
  • Schuette adds that, in March 2015, Veolia recommended that Flint add a chemical called ferric chloride to the water supply, which ultimately led to further corrosion of the pipes and "made a bad situation worse."

In Lagos, the state-run water company delivers 220 million gallons of water per day, only a quarter of what is needed.

  • When the water runs out, "citizens turn to private water hawkers and water trucks, bore their own wells, or use polluted rivers and streams."
  • That's why enlisting private providers makes sense in theory, Mark writes, as the government can "offload the huge costs of repairing infrastructure onto companies with deeper pockets and technical know-how."
  • But that also requires blind faith that the company will be "a good actor" and not structure their operations around squeezing every ounce of profit they can out of the city's residents.

The big picture: The privatization of water supplies dates back to the 1990s, when the CEO of Nestle dismissed the idea of water as a public right as "extreme." In Nigeria, which already has one of the world's highest child death rates due to water-borne illness, citizens fear they'll have to pay a huge price for a resource that much of the world takes for granted.

“They [Veolia] have a history of poisoning black communities in the US and they should not be poisoning the largest African city on the continent.”
— Nayyirah Shariff, an activist campaigning in Flint

Go deeper: Read Mark's full piece at BuzzFeed News.