SPECIAL REPORT: Left with no choice, Makurdi residents consume ‘dirty water’ supplied by mairuwa

By Ode Uduu

On Saturday morning, the 14th of May 2022, Samuel Mkem left his house searching for water. He had only one option; to buy from water vendors popularly called ‘mairuwa.’

Mairuwa is a Hausa word loosely translated to water vendor or seller. In Makurdi, the state capital of Benue, where Mr Mkem lives, it is commonly used as many households depend on the services of water vendors, who sell in plastic kegs transported in wheel carts.

There is a friend’s wedding to attend, but his household chores need to be done, hence his search for water.

Samuel Mkem, Badagry street, Low-level, Makurdi

‘Our well is dried up, and there has been no water in it for the past four months,’ Mr Mkem said as he searched for Mairuwa. ‘Mairuwas are our saving grace in these periods as the well we have can’t serve us all year round,’ he added.

Makurdi has various water sources, which include protected wells, boreholes, rainwater, and piped water. These sources provide the entire city with water for domestic and industrial use.

However, in recent years, changing climatic conditions have made it impossible for these sources to provide residents with potable water all year round. The next best option many settle for is to buy from vendors.

Although they use water bought from vendors for all household needs, including cooking and drinking, not many residents of Makurdi question the source or safety of the water.

Water causing illnesses for residents

Liberty Wonah, who lives at Eric Street in the North-bank community in Makurdi, buys water from vendors at least twice weekly for his household use.

‘Sometimes the water has a different colour, and it is hard as it does not foam when I wash with it,’ he said, adding that despite noticing this non-purity, he had no choice but to use the water.

Ella Akinsani, also a resident of North bank, has been falling ill recently, but she could not pin it to a reason at first.

‘I discovered ‌I fall ill with malaria and fever too often’, Miss Akinsani said. ‘I treat malaria every two weeks even after running the full course, and I am really worried with the rate at which this occurred,’ she admitted.

Her medical personnel friends told Miss Akinsani that her frequent illness might be due to the water she consumes. Although she sought no further confirmation, she has been doubtful of what the vendors dispense.

At least three members of the Obega’s family, who all depend on water vendors, treat typhoid every month. But this changed when the matriarch of the family, Christiana Obega, was advised by a doctor to subject the water she consumes to treatment before drinking.

Mrs Obega said boiling and filtering of the water has had a tremendous impact on the family as no member had fallen ill of typhoid in the past two years.

Mrs Obega, High-level, Makurdi

What is in the mairuwa’s water container?

Grace Terfa, a resident of Makurdi, complained about the kegs used by water vendors to supply water as she observed ‌ they appear dirty at all times.

‘Some kegs have spirogyra. When they turn the water in the drum, I see spirogyra in it, which makes me not to drink it,’ she said.

This reporter visited some locations in Makurdi to observe the state of containers water vendors use. While some try to keep them clean, many dispense water in visibly dirty and micro-organism-infested containers.

In many cases where the containers are damaged and need replacement, the vendors would instead patch it up. Most of the containers are so dirty that their colours change from sharp yellow to mustard yellow.

Also, at several water collection points visited, the ground is primarily muddy, and the pipe used to collect the water is dropped on the floor after collection. The vendors do little on their personal hygiene, as most of them look unkempt. This increases the chances of water contamination in the process of collection.

Makurdi, Benue state, has almost all the water sources approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO). These include piped water, tube well or borehole, protected dug well, rainwater, and tanker truck/cart with a small tank.

The availability of the WHO-approved safe water sources in Makurdi, Benue state, gave the state a high rating in the last National Demographic Housing Survey (NDHS).

Benue State was amongst the top 15 states with improved water sources. The state has 73.1% of its population having access to improved water sources and 72% of its population with essential drinking water.

As identified by the NDHS survey, one source is water in a tanker truck/cart with a small tank, popularly called mairuwa.

These vendors are recognised for providing water for the population in Makurdi.

While the water vendors provide the people with access to water, there remain questions about the state of the water after collection.

Unclean Water Source

Visual analysis of samples of water collected at two locations shows traces of spirogyra in the water supplied to the residents. The sample collected at Low-level, a community in Makurdi, looks clear but with spirogyra present from the bottom of the keg. The one from North-bank, another community, is coloured and has spirogyra particles.

This reporter probed further to ascertain why the water sold to residents had so much dirt.

Water vendors in Makurdi mostly get their water from boreholes across the town. Some of them get it from standpipe at locations where they are available. These sources are judged as good, clean sources of water.

Musa, who sells his water around Old GRA, said he does not live in Makurdi but only comes during the period of water scarcity to trade in water. He gets his water from boreholes.

Mairuwa collecting water from a ground pipe at Woodland Garden junction

However, some of Musa’s colleagues collect water directly from the river. This is specifically true for those in the North-bank and Wadata area.

Aminu, who supplies for people around Low-level and Wadata, said he gets his water from the river, although sometimes, he collects water from the borehole. Despite this, he said he did not see any need to wash his kegs after collecting water from the river before collecting from the borehole.

‘Water na water na,’ Aminu says, ‘I dey wash my jerrican like once in two months if I see say e don dirty well-well.’

Saudi at Eric street, Northbank, Makurdi

Aminu’s hygienic practice was echoed by Saidu, who sells at Eric Street in North-bank. He sees no need to wash his kegs frequently, as he has to meet his daily sales target.

Thus, while these vendors get water from different sources, most are not bothered by the hygienic conditions in which they supply the water. All water vendors who spoke to this reporter failed to give their other names for fear of being hunted.

What’s in the water

To determine the quality of the water, three samples were taken from North-bank, High-level, and Low-level/Wurukum. These samples were subjected to laboratory tests to determine whether they were fit for human consumption.

The test was conducted by Prof. Charles Ariahu, a fellow of the Institute of Public Analysts of Nigeria (IPAN). He subjected the samples to sensory, physio-chemical, inorganic, macro-biological, and micro-biological processes.

Prof. Charles Ariahu, Fellow, IPAN

All the water samples were sensory unacceptable. The sensory test determined the odour, appearance and taste.

Test results revealed that the three water samples have an acceptable colour specification. They are all soft water and fall within the required pH (6.5-8.5). The water samples’ total alkaline and dissolved solids were within the acceptable range of 100 and 500 maximum (mg/l), respectively.

Prof. Ariahu noted that the water samples contain nitrite above the required mg/l of 0.02. The sample from North-bank was the highest at 0.22 mg/l, while it was 0.12 mg/l and 0.16 mg/l for High-level and Low-level samples, respectively.

All the water samples have algal growth and nitrite present in them. Nitrite, which is salt or ester anion of nitrous acid, can be naturally or artificially occurring in groundwater. Its presence in water stimulates the growth of bacteria and disrupts the oxygen-delivering ability of haemoglobin in the bloodstream.

The Fellow of IPAN said that the water samples show faecal contamination. This, he said, is only possible if its surface water is washed into the source. This happens when water sources are not at the recommended 50 metres from the sewage pit.

He said ‌yeast and moulds show the unhygienic way of handling the water by the vendors before supplying. This can also be because of cross-contamination, with the same container used to collect water from contaminated sources and improved sources.

The three water samples collected were tested to have the following, among others, above the required specification: nitrite (which causes cancer), salmonella spp (which causes typhoid fever, diarrhoea and other food-borne diseases), e-coli (faecal contamination of water) and yeast and moulds (a sign of unhygienic practice and cross-contamination)

The presence of these microorganisms in the water makes them not potable.

‘Potable water is water that is good for consumption, which should be colourless, odourless, and tasteless. It should be free of oxygenic microorganisms and other chemical oxidants,’ Prof Ariahu said.

Based on the test result, Prof Ariahu concluded that before the water is consumed, it should be subjected to secondary treatment to purify it.

Who regulates the mairuwa?

Mrs Grace Upaa, the Commercial Manager at Benue State Water Board, said that the water vendors in Makurdi work independently. There is no union under which they work and no authority regulates their activities.

She confirmed that there is a standard approved distance of a borehole from sewage. She said all boreholes must be at least 50 metres from a sewage reservoir. This will prevent sewage waste from contaminating the water in the borehole. But not everyone adheres to this. This means the water supplied to the vendors can be contaminated from the source.

‘These mairuwa have helped make water available to Makurdi residents, especially as the town expands and the distribution system from us didn’t cover the whole town. But unfortunately, their activities are not regulated by the government’, Mrs Upaa concluded.

Support for this report was provided by the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID Africa) and it is made possible through funding support from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.