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03 Mar Written by  Malik Yila

Special Report: Nigeria’s Water Men (Mai Ruwa)

 In most parts of the country, particularly in the north, it is commonplace to see young men hawking water. The sight of these men with their trucks and yellow jerry cans attest to a terrible but widespread problem plaguing Nigerians: lack of access to clean, potable water.

With rivers and dams in abundance across the country, Nigeria’s water supply is at best laughable, especially when compared to a country like Libya that is 95 percent desert, yet is able to meet its people’s water demand. This is because in 1953, efforts to find oil in the southern part of the country led to the discovery of huge quantities of fresh water underground. Thus, the Great Manmade River project was conceived.

Estimated to have cost $25 billion, it was the largest water transport project ever undertaken. Scientists estimate that the amount of water harvested is equivalent to 200 years of water flow from the Nile River. Critics had initially mocked the idea, calling it Muammar Gaddafi’s ‘Pipedream’, but it came to be regarded as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Today, households in Libya not only enjoy easy access to clean water, but agriculture also benefits greatly from the GMR.

In a country like Nigeria where the economy grows only on paper while the majority of its youth are either unemployed or under-employed, the situation can best be likened to a rat race. According to WaterAid, the coverage of water supply in Nigeria is 60% in urban and 55% in rural areas, but this is hardly true in reality and many people, especially those living outside the major cities, continue to provide their own water.

This is where mai ruwas (Hausa word for water men) – as they are known – play a prominent role.

The Mobile Water Board

From Abuja to Sokoto to Maiduguri and almost every state in-between, mai ruwas have taken it upon themselves to supply people with water right to their doorsteps. As people struggle to put food on the table – most times leaving home very early before the children wake up and returning late when the children are asleep – they really value such services. From 6am to 6pm and sometimes beyond, one can get water without leaving the house.

These young men, some teenagers, come out every day with their trucks, announcing their presence by calling out “Asiya ruwa!” (Buy water) as they pass by, while others simply shout “Water borehole” (indicating that the water is from a borehole). A normal truck contains 12 20-litre jerry cans while some contain ten or even 14, but people prefer the 12-loader truck because it is cost effective.

Water sells differently, depending on the area. In the outskirts of Abuja, the average a 20-litre jerry can of water sells for is N20, three cost N50 and a complete truck sells for N200. At Masaka, Mararaba, Karu, Mpape, Kubwa, Lugbe, Zuba, Suleja and all the towns surrounding the Federal Capital Territory, a jerry can sells for N20.

But there are also areas within the FCT where these water hawkers are also found, negating the assumption that the seat of government ‘flows with milk and honey’. In the FCT, a jerry can sells for as much as N50 and a full truck for N600.

In Minna, Niger state capital, a truck of ten 20-litre jerry cans of water sells for N300. In other states, water sells cheaper and a jerry can may be bought for as little as N10. In states like Gombe, Sokoto, Zamfara, Kebbi or Jigawa, water is cheap as a result of people’s lower spending power.

Something for Everyone

It is easy to recognize the mai ruwas as originating from the north, where most of them travel out from to eke a living. A look at sellers in the FCT and environs will reveal men from Sokoto, Katsina, Jigawa, Kebbi, Kano, Zamfara, etc.

They usually arrive with little money and set out immediately to start making money. Some go into shoe-repairs while others go into petty trading. For those that opt to hawk water, they rent a truck, as they often cannot afford the N15, 000 cost of owning one, and pay a weekly rent of N600 or N700 depending on whether the truck is old or new.

The water hardship thus provides some people with business opportunities. The mai ruwas pay between N5 and N10 to fill each jerry can depending on the area. People can book their services by paying in advance or make them their personal water suppliers and pay weekly, fortnightly or monthly.

Ironically, the rainy season is the time when these watermen make more money as most of them travel back home to farm, and the ones who remain usually have more demand for water, especially when people experience lack of rain for days or weeks as is the case in most parts of the north.

Kabiru Shafe, a Fulani from Jigawa state prefers to stay back when his colleagues return home to farm and he says he does not regret it. “Sometimes I sell up to ten trucks a day when many of my friends leave, though it can be stressful because you have different orders to attend to at the same time,” he says.

Hygiene

According to WaterAid, Nigeria’s infant mortality rate is 167 per 1, 000 births, and each year there are 300, 000 deaths due to diarrhoea, malaria and typhoid, which together account for 70% of child mortality. Diarrhoea alone is responsible for 130, 000 deaths in under-fives each year.

But one major problem people have with mai ruwas is the unkemptness of most of them. From the clothes they wear to the jerry cans they use, the insanitary conduct of mai ruwas can be off-putting. What’s more, their blasé attitude does not help matters; it is commonplace to see them either drinking directly from the jerry cans or from the covers.

Overtime, people have also begun to question the honesty of some mai ruwas. Rather than fetch water from the taps, some would rather fetch from a well or river in a bid to avoid payment at the boreholes and, when asked, they are prepared to say anything to convince one that the water is from a borehole. Some of them actually fetch from wells or rivers to sell to car washes or block makers, but when these customers do not buy, rather than pouring the water away they sell it to home users.

Marginal Profits

The saying that no job is easy very much applies to water hawking. A regular 12- jerry can truck carries 240 litres in total, and the mai ruwas have to push these trucks around until someone calls for water. Sometimes they push the trucks for a kilometre or more, whilst also contending with bad roads and unfavourable weather conditions. Add to that, they start the day on empty stomachs and the day’s business determines how much food they eat. Also, whether or not they work, they have to remit their weekly fees as long as the trucks are with them.

“I have two wives and three children in Kano and I send them money every month. Because of the stress of work, I have to be careful how I live and spend money here. That is why you see six of us living together in a single room,” says Abubakar Isa, one of the mai ruwas.

The gain on each truck depends on how much they pay at the borehole. Some borehole owners charge N10 per jerry can while others charge N5. Those who pay N5 feel lucky because their counterparts who pay N10 still sell at the same price of N20 per litre.

For the borehole owners, the unhealthy business environment and conditions also affect them. The lack of electricity – the bane of both small and big businesses – is a major problem associated with the water business. A lot of borehole owners depend largely on diesel, a litre of which costs N160. Add that to the N800 weekly cost of engine oil and the cost of servicing the generators monthly, and what you have is a monthly expenditure of several thousands of naira.

Eunice Audu, a widow, depends solely on this business to take care of her four children, but it has never been easy. According to her, “I make an average of 5, 000 naira daily but spend about half of the money running the business.”

The 2015 target for Millennium Development Goals is barely a year away, but Nigeria is off target to meet the goal on water and sanitation. But whether or not the government is able to meet its obligation of providing potable water to its teeming population remains to be seen. As for mai ruwas, this is an obligation they are happy to meet. 

See below for more pictures:

Mai Ruwas in Minna, Niger state capital


Mai ruwas in Garki, Abuja


Garki, FCT, Abuja


Off-loaded jerry cans ready for use at Karu, Nasarawa state


Minna, Niger state

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