Hitting The Ceiling

By Desmond Molloy

Lagos may be one of the most underrated cities in the developing world. Compared to Asian counterparts such as Mumbai or Jakarta, or even other African cities such as Nairobi, Nigeria’s commercial capital suffers a severe image problem on the global stage. Ever since international relations scholar Robert Kaplan used the city as a case study for what he dubbed the “Coming Anarchy” in the developing world, Lagos has been seen as dirty, dangerous and backward. Yet its economy and quality of life are the envy of the rest of Nigeria. In a 2015 article discussing the city’s surprise recovery over the first decade of the 21st century, The Economist pointed out that unlike many of its counterparts, Lagos has built a taxation system capable of harnessing a US$90 billion regional economy for public good. Consequently, the city has been able to invest in infrastructure without hunting for funds in the fetid swamp of Nigeria’s central government.

But Lagos is approaching a limit to its development potential. Despite its recent growth and improved governance, the city still fails to provide clean drinking water to most of its citizens. In her 2014 Master in Environmental Science capstone project at the University of Pennsylvania, Judith Afooma Jideonwo explains that 90% of Lagosians rely on informal boreholes or water vendors to access clean water. The city has drawn up a plan to improve the publicly owned Lagos Water Corporation’s coverage to 100% by 2020. But it has its limits. Jideonwo warns that the city’s plan is focused almost entirely on building new pipes and other infrastructure without addressing governance.

Should the plan be unsuccessful, Lagos will face trouble translating its short-term success into lasting prosperity. Foreign investment in Africa has boomed in recent years, but cities with poor infrastructure are unlikely to capture a significant share. The Ebola epidemic of 2014-2015 and the Zika outbreak in Brazil two years later, both reinforced how the presence of standing and unclean water can undermine cities’ health systems. A Unilever or Google is interested in selling its products in any city with demand—something that the quickly growing Lagos megaregion has in abundance. Boards will balk, however, at locating new regional offices in cities with poor water supply, or in sinking funds into small firms located there. Jideonwo’s warning that a systematic approach is necessary to fix the city’s water problems is likely to prove prescient.