Aisha Gwarimpa, a housewife lives in Abuja with her husband and four children. When members of her household wake up in the morning, they take their bath, brush their teeth, flush the toilet, and then Aisha does all her morning chores with the water pumped by the public water utility to private homes. By the time the family of six settles to eat breakfast, the family must’ve used hundreds of litres of water.
This is the typical life of many families living in urban centres in Nigeria. Though, there are certain urban areas where people have to rely on water vendors to get water; but for many others, potable drinking water is no farther away than the nearest tap in their houses. It is always available; they take it for granted.
In northern Borno and many parts of Yobe States where the problem of unavailability of water is perennial, the reality contrasts sharply with the aforementioned story. Yagana wakes up before dawn, slings her water jerry cans on a donkey and throttles a couple of miles to the nearest water points or ponds that are nothing more than infested mud-holes. There she and some of her children who may have accompanied her on the trip would take their bath side by side with livestock having their early morning drink. Any washing of clothes must be done at the water point, and Yagana will then fill the jerry cans with water before heading back home. This daily routine takes hours to complete.
Yagana’s story may strike one as a problem peculiar to the rural areas in Borno and Yobe States. But lack of potable water has resulted in the death of many people living in Damaturu, the capital of Yobe State and other towns in the state. People, who consume water in the state, stand a high risk of contracting diseases that may lead to permanent disability or even death. Sandra Postel, then vice-president of research at the World-Watch Institute, says: “It remains a grave moral shortcoming that 1.2 billion people cannot drink water without risking disease or death.”
Records at the department of dental medicine and orthopaedics’ at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital indicate that a significant number of children with skeletal flourosis in the last 10 years are from Damaturu metropolis. Similarly, majority of the patients especially young women, disheartened by their brown teeth and who are seeking bleaching therapy also come from Damaturu. This phenomenon spurred our correspondent in Yobe State to investigate the causes of the twin diseases ravaging the state.
Sunday Trust visited Pawari ward, one of the oldest wards in the state capital with a population of 50,000; two thirds of whom are children. It was discovered that four out of every 10 children in the community showed signs of skeletal flourosis while victims of dental fluorosis doubled this number.
What could be responsible for high incidence our correspondent was forced to ask? Residents interviewed blamed the disease(s) on Satan while another group said the disease is prevalent because of the water they drink or the food they eat. In 2001, the then Yobe State governor requested the assistance of experts from the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital to investigate the high prevalence of these two diseases. The committee that carried out the investigation was headed by Professor Omotora of the community medicine department of the hospital. According to a member of the committee, Dr. Theophilus Dabkana, the committee members saw children of varying ages and even animals showing symptoms of skeletal malfunction.
“As at then, we could ascertain the real causes of the disease and we submitted a report with a number of recommendations that included the assistance of foreign partners. After that we were never contacted to continue the work we started,” Dabkana said. That was in 2001. But today, many studies have been carried out by individuals, the state government and non-governmental organisations revealing that water wells and boreholes in Pawari and its environs were contaminated.
The various studies showed that water from the wells contained excess fluoride, even though fluoride is an essential element for the development of healthy teeth. But, when high concentrations of fluoride is found in water and is then consumed by man or animal leads to skeletal, or dental fluorosis.
At Pawari, the water analyses done by experts indicate that in every litre of water that is consumed, there is between 22mg to 25mg of fluoride; the national standard for drinking water is 1.5mg of fluoride per litre of water.
Successive governments in Yobe State have been advised to shut the boreholes provided by government and the several private water wells in the community. Unfortunately, many years after the people have little or no other choice than to continue drinking from the contaminated wells and boreholes. A resident told our correspondent that it is better to live with his brown teeth or any other disability than die of thirst.
According to Dr. Dabkana, majority of the victims in Pawari are children and most of them are out of school because of their deformities. “The bones are deformed because they lack the natural ability to maintain their shape, some are short, some are so bent and they break easily,” he explained.
Chief dental therapist at the UMTH, Dr. Timothy Ehisinaya says dental fluorosis is a national problem that is not peculiar to Yobe State. He disclosed that people suffering from the disease can also be found in Kukawa in Borno State. When Sunday Trust confronted the Yobe State commissioner for health, Alhaji Bukar Machina, he said: “Up till now, the ministry of water resources has not reported this issue to the ministry of health,” adding that the ministry has representation on the water and sanitation units of RUWASA; the body responsible for the provision of portable water in the state. “If there is any such problem, the government will be notified and surely, something will be done,” he stated.
When told that the problem has existed for decades, the commissioner said: “Okay, okay. It can be true but I don’t see it this way because I am talking about the present administration that is two years now. If the information is available to us, government will act fast,” Machina said.
Contacted, the state commissioner for water resources, Usman Barau Sugum said even hed just been appointed into office, as he has come across people suffering from the two diseases, revealing that “sure three out of 10 children there (Pawari) around the borehole along Gashua Road close to the state library complex have this peculiar problem.
“I am not an expert so I don’t know the cause of these diseases but if this kind of information is available, especially in writing, government will shut down this borehole and construct another one else where, then channel the water there (Pawari) because I am aware the problem is only peculiar to that area alone, and not the whole of Damaturu,” the commissioner said.
Interestingly, few metres from Pawari ward in Damaturu, the water contains less fluoride. A one time general manager of the Borno State Water Corporation, Mr. Bukar Usman in an interview said the soil formation can be different in locations metres apart. “Where you have excess fluoride, it is better to isolate the borehole than to engage in sophisticated treatment of the water. A borehole can be built at a far distance; get a sizeable pipe to channel the water to a water tank for the benefit of the community in question,” he suggested.
For the people of Pawari however, the water borne diseases afflicting majority of them is as old as Yobe State itself. And they have waited patiently in vain for the state government to come to their rescue by tackling the scourge ravaging the community.