“I have spent my whole life fetching water”

Access to water remains a mirage for millions in Africa’s wealthiest country

Eliana Drakopoulos, Chief of Communication, UNICEF Nigeria
A woman with a face mask
UNICEF Nigeria/2020
29 July 2020

Elizabeth Luka* just turned 30 years old and is excited to soon give birth to her first child, a girl.

She lives in the outskirts of Abuja, and travels in at 6.30 am every day for her job as a housekeeper in one of Abuja’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

Like most Nigerians, Elizabeth has no running water at home. She must buy water from the owner of a local borehole, who charges her 20 naira per large bucket. Every three days, after a long day at work cleaning other people’s homes, she carries six to seven buckets of water home on her head, one by one. Each trip takes about 20 minutes. She does this despite the fact that she is 8 and a half months pregnant now.

The water she carries is stored in a large plastic container in her house with a cover. She and her husband use it to bathe, wash clothes and wash dishes. But the water is not drinkable.

A woman fetching water
UNICEF Nigeria/2020
Elizabeth fetching water from a local borehole on her way home.

So, Elizabeth buys 20 small plastic sachets of drinking water on her way home from work every day. This costs 150 naira per day, which, on top of her travel expenses to get to work, takes up a large portion of her salary.

“Sometimes I have no money left to buy drinking water, so we drink the borehole water. It doesn’t taste good, and I worry it is not really safe to drink. I don’t think it has been tested. It tastes salty and even makes me more thirsty – but I drink it sometimes because I have no choice.”

“I wish I had running water in my home. But if I was to rent a house that has running water inside, it would cost so much more than we can afford.”

Elizabeth’s husband, Gabriel, a driver, has not been working since the lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19. He spends his days washing Linda’s work uniforms and taking care of the home.

When asked if it is difficult to fetch and carry water every day, Elizabeth smiles and shrugs, saying, “It’s normal for me – I did this when I was a child too.”

Elizabeth grew up on a rural village in Jos, in Mangu Local Government Area in Plateau State. She says her village, Mangun, is beautiful.

“When I was a child, we used to fetch water from the river every day. The water was clean because it wasn’t stagnant – but because we also used the river for washing clothes and bathing, we did not drink that water. There was a water spring nearby, and we all knew to use that one for drinking.”

Elizabeth fetched water from the spring every day before going to school. After school she would wash all the plates with the water collected by her mother from the river.

“During rainy season, instead of fetching water, we collected rainwater and stored it. Those days during rainy season were easier.”

The village had no toilets – everyone used the bush when they needed to.

“Once we got to school early in the morning, all the students had to help fetch water for the school too, from a nearby well, before we could start classes.”

Today, still only 14 percent of Nigerian schools have access to basic water.

Elizabeth’s primary school had no toilets or latrines either. The same is still true today – only 14 percent of Nigerian schools have access to basic water, and sanitation services.

“When you had to go to the toilet, you would take water in a small container to the bush and rinse your hands before coming back into the classroom.”

More than 20 years later, the situation in Elizabeth’s village has changed somewhat. A borehole was built, so now people can use that water for drinking and bathing.

“It is much better now,” said Elizabeth. “While we still must fetch water from the borehole, you can’t compare the water in the river with that from the borehole. The borehole water is treated and much safer. But there are still no toilets in the village, so that part hasn’t changed,” she said, laughing.

About 23 percent of Nigerians across the country are still forced to practice open defecation, putting whole communities at risk of disease.

Only 16 percent of Nigerians have access to basic hygiene services that would allow them to wash their hands with soap, under running water.

WASH in Nigeria stats
UNICEF Nigeria

When Elizabeth was 14, she left home to attend secondary school in a nearby village.

“All the girls at the school had to fetch water at a well, every day. But there, I had to wake up at 2 am every morning to do this, because if I went later there would be no water left. I then went back to sleep for about 2 hours before waking at 5 am to prepare for school. I warmed the water I had fetched so that I could bathe, and then cooked breakfast, before class.”

“I hope one day things will change. When we get water in our homes, life will be easier. I am hoping that when my husband and I build our own home, we will be able to connect to the water system. We were planning to start building this year – we even bought the land already - but because of the lockdown, my husband has no work and we have to use all of my salary for day-to-day living expenses.”

If Elizabeth and her husband manage to build a home with safe running water, they will be among the fortunate few. Today, only 9 percent of Nigerian’s population have access to complete basic water, sanitation and hygiene services. And the trend is not in Elizabeth’s favour – fewer Nigerian had access to these services in 2019 than did in 2018. And even then, 66 percent of drinking water at source is contaminated in Nigeria – with about a third of all drinking water containing high concentrations of E. coli, which could put Elizabeth’s family’s health at serious risk. And rural Nigerians only have access to 9 litres of water per day, on average – well below the standard in an emergency setting like Yemen or Syria, where the norm is 15 litres per day, per person.

“It will be hard to save any money now - the price of food has really gone up since the coronavirus. The government is not helping us with food – and local rice is almost the same price as foreign rice now. All the prices have gone up. Many people in my neighborhood cannot even eat at all, some days. And when food is distributed in neighborhoods, it is expired food. I am worried it will make people sick. We don’t want hand-outs – we just want the prices of food to lower again so that we can afford to buy it ourselves.”

But for now, making sure she and her husband have water is still the priority for Elizabeth, and she will use whatever money she has to buy it and carry it home.

“It does feel like I have spent much of my life fetching water. But I am used to it. And I don’t know whether I will ever be able to stop. When I have my baby, I will carry my baby on my back, and continue to fetch water, like always.”


UNICEF supports water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) development and emergency response activities across Nigeria, including the construction of water, sanitation and hygiene systems in selected locations. UNICEF supports the Clean Nigeria campaign to end open defecation. UNICEF’s WASH work is supported by generous contributions, including from DFID, the European Union and the Government of the Netherlands.

*Name changed to protect privacy