Living through a pandemic when your access to water is difficult

Access to clean water is dramatically uneven across the world. About a third of Nigeria’s population — 60 million people — must leave home to find it.

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LAGOS, Nigeria — The most basic ingredient for mankind’s survival is also a critical weapon against the novel coronavirus. Wash your hands with soap and water for 30 seconds, scientists say. Drink eight glasses of water a day. Stay hydrated and hygienic.

But access to clean water is dramatically uneven across the world. About a third of Nigeria’s population — 60 million people — must leave home to find it, according to aid groups and government statistics.

In this pandemic, venturing out to the nearest pump has meant risking exposure to the virus or a clash with police. Officers and soldiers enforcing lockdowns killed 18 Nigerians over a two-week period this spring, the country’s independent National Human Rights Commission reported in April.

As of Wednesday, 200 people had died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, but doctors worry that the true number could be much higher. Some areas, such as Kano state, have recorded far more deaths than usual.

Africa’s most populous country eased restrictions earlier this month, allowing citizens to go outside with masks — a move to revive the sputtering economy, the president said. Some vow to stay indoors because cases are spiking. (Nigeria’s count this week surpassed 6,600.)

Others don’t have that choice.

The following interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Image: Mayowa Duntoye, an actress, lives in a compound with three other families. Each family has a room and everyone shares the bathroom and kitchen space. She stays in one room with her daughter. "We want them to know that there’s no money, there’s no food. We have spent everything that we have; no more income,” she said in late April.

Mayowa Duntoye

39, actress in the Iyana-Ipaja neighborhood of Lagos

I live in a compound with three other families. Each family has a room, and they share the bathroom and kitchen space.

I live in one with my 14-year-old daughter.

We don’t have tap water, so we have someone who fetches water for us. We pay 300 naira for 10 jerrycans. Sometimes, we get it twice a week. We keep the water in the containers outside.

LEFT: A street view near Duntoye's home. MIDDLE: Duntoye keeps the water she purchases in buckets outside her home. RIGHT: Duntoye and her daughter, Aduke, pass the time in their room by reviewing old schoolwork and playing the board game Ludo.

I’m very scared of that coronavirus. The hunger and the sickness. Everyone is broke: no food, no money. We don’t want to die.

Rice used to be 250 naira ($0.64). Now it’s 500 ($1.28). Can you imagine?

After we come from the market, we bring the water from our containers, and I shower right there. I remove my clothes and wash them.

We have spent everything that we have. There is no income. I’m really broke now. The government should just provide for the people. We need security because there are a lot of robberies around. We even need soldiers.

Whenever there is power, I turn on my TV. I have some Christian cassettes. I play Christian music on my phone. We are in God’s hands.

Image: Victor Ehikhamenor, an artist and writer, at home.

Victor Ehikhamenor

50, artist and writer in the Ikoyi section of Lagos

Before you enter the compound, the guard gives you hand sanitizer. When you get inside, there’s hand sanitizer. Everywhere, hand sanitizer.

If we order food from outside, we treat it like a biohazard.

The house is mine. It is my first home. Two years ago, I used an estate agent to find it. It took us 10 or 11 months to gut the entire thing and redesign it. Create space for my art collection.

There are five bedrooms. Every room has a bathroom. I live there with my wife and two kids — a 15-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl.

LEFT: A view of the area where Ehikhamenor lives. MIDDLE: Ehikhamenor washes his hands frequently. RIGHT: Hand sanitizer is ready for all who come to Ehikhamenor's home.

I think that is what has actually seen me through all this. I can’t imagine if I was holed up somewhere else, wondering how they are faring. Are they in a state of anxiety? Are they safe?

We buy drinking water from stores and stocked up before the lockdown. For bathing and cleaning and all that, we have a pump from the ground.

Between the house and the studio, I spend between $100 and $150 (up to 58,000 naira) on water each month.

I’m able to hold down the fort for my family, but Lagos is a big city where most people are living day-to-day.

I’m still paying my staff. My driver is getting paid. The studio manager and assistants are getting paid. Not many people have that opportunity. A large percentage are receiving nothing right now. The crime rate is rising.

I can’t blame the government for loosening things up a little bit — for lifting parts of the lockdown — but we are not out of the woods yet.

We have not even entered the woods yet fully. The cases are still rising.

Image: As content manager for a digital bank, Aisha Owolabi in Yaba is able to work from her flat, which she shares with a friend.

Aisha Owolabi

24, digital content marketer at a financial technology firm in Yaba

I have bottled water under my bed and around my room. It should last me about three weeks. I store water and hope the power doesn’t go out. The last time that happened was a couple months ago — before everything got really serious.

My roommate and I didn’t have water for three days straight. We had to look for people selling it on the roads. We bought 10 kegs for 1,000 naira each ($2.50).

I’ve become 10 times more paranoid about being around people. In the apartment, we’ve agreed to only see each other. Nobody else is coming in.

If the water stopped today, I’d wear my mask and dress in protective gear before going out to find a vendor.

Lots of houses don’t have water. Landlords and developers, they really just do whatever they like or whatever they can afford. There is no standard that says: Every home must have this.

You go to the borehole. You go to a tank. You come in contact with objects and surfaces and people.

LEFT: Yaba is an old suburb in mainland Lagos. MIDDLE: Owolabi has tap water at home and washes her hands regularly. RIGHT: Owolabi and her housemate, who have similar interests, share a small space and get along well.

It wouldn’t be hard to find someone selling water in my neighborhood. They stay within a few blocks and avoid the main roads, where they are more likely to be apprehended by police during the lockdown.

I’m separated from my family right now. My honest feeling about that is, I actually prefer it that way because there is so much anxiety about work. I have to maintain a certain output.

It has really been a roller coaster of emotions. This morning, I logged on for work and got a message from a friend. He just lost his job.

Now I’m wondering about my situation. The situations of everyone around me.

That leaves me on edge at all times.

Image: Adun Okupe, an economist, at home in Victoria Island.

Adun Okupe

34, business consultant in Victoria Island

I live in Victoria Island. It’s meant to be one of the nicest places, but guess what? We don’t have state-provided water.

Even in this area of affluence, you still have to go out and purchase water.

Down the street, there are people who are squatting in abandoned government buildings. It used to be a prime beachfront area. Then those offices moved to Abuja, the city of political power, and decay followed.

The people staying there have to go out looking for water with jerrycans during this pandemic. They’re dealing with poverty, hunger, thirst — and now they have to worry about this thing no one can see?

It’s impossible.

Even the people with money have to struggle for water when we’re all supposed to be staying inside and washing our hands.

My building has four units, and we share the cost of buying water. They sent me a text today: It’s your turn to buy water. We’re spending so much money on it. About $100 (39,000 naira) a month, on average.

With the lockdown, the tankers selling water have hiked up prices. They don’t always come when you need them.

LEFT: A view of Victoria Island from Okupe's home. MIDDLE: Okupe uses the trickle of water at her kitchen sink to wash up. RIGHT: It is not uncommon to encounter difficulty in getting regularly running water.

I worry about it. You never know when the sink is going to stop working.

Right now, we have five tanks. Some of them store up to 7,500 liters. We need a refill every 10 days or so.

In Nigeria, you just adapt to it. I have my own buckets of water just in case. The constant just-in-caseness is painful. Sometimes, I feel guilty, like, oh my God, I’m using all this water on my plants.

I’m lucky to be a researcher, to be able to talk to my clients on the phone. My dining table is now my workstation. My hand-washing game is strong.

My mind-set has always been: Achieve, achieve, achieve.

My goal for 2020 is to be alive at the end of it.

Headshot of Danielle Paquette
Danielle Paquette is The Washington Post’s West Africa bureau chief. Before becoming a foreign correspondent in 2019, she spent five years writing about labor, gender and the economy.FollowFollow