This is the concluding part of this explosive The Tide Roundtable encounter with Rivers State Commissioner for Water Resources and Rural Development, Ms Patricia Simon-Hart, published last Friday. Excerpts.
Anybody who visits your website would
discover that your mission statement incorporates water and rural development, but we hardly hear or see anything your ministry is doing on rural development. Why it is so?
Well, for now, we are concentrating on water policy. Yes, the ministry has a mandate for water and rural development but the policy we have worked on is on water. If you say I should talk about rural development and environmental policies, I cannot do that now; because that is the next thing we are aiming at concentrating on. Nevertheless, the critical area we are concentrating on is water supply because it is critical. Already, the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA) is assisting in that area.
No one who goes to your website would understand the situation as you explained because it looks as if you are not doing anything in that area. Why?
That information on the website was put there by the Ministry of Information and Communications. However, we are working on our own website, and when it is ready, the public would be able to access detailed and correct information about us. For now, the mission or vision statement you see on the website are the ones on water only.
The present administration seems to have jettisoned the Otamiri River Project, which we learnt would have gone a long way in providing water to a large chunk of the state. What is happening to that project?
I do not know where you got the information from because that is a Federal Government project and directly handled by them. Initially, they wanted to have a surface water scheme. The truth is that the scheme is a very small one because it cannot feed Port Harcourt and Obio/Akpor. It can probably feed Oyigbo, considering the population there. However, the scheme has been abandoned and the new Federal Ministry of Water Resources is looking at all abandoned projects with a view to reviving some and completing others. Of course, you know that this largely depends on the funds available. Even at the federal level, the ministry has a very low budget. Therefore, for Otamiri, yes, we agree there is a project there but it is not a Rivers State Government project. It is a Federal Government project. I think that it is a priority for them now. When the funds come in, I am sure they would complete it.
You earlier mentioned the issue of Port Harcourt Master Plan. Can you give us an insight of what that project is all about?
You know we are working for Port Harcourt and Obio/Akpor. We have a mega station at Rumuola, and we are not going to abandon anything there. We are going to upgrade it, and make sure it is more efficient. We are also going to revive the other out-stations in Diobu, Moscow Road, Eagle Island, Elelenwo and Rumukwurushi. These stations would be upgraded to optimize water provision in the city precincts. Even those that had been abandoned at Woji, Abuloma and Borokiri, would also be revived. We would have some new stations as we reticulate the entire urban area, and make sure people get clean water.
Does that cover the Greater Port Harcourt City Project?
Greater Port Harcourt City is bigger than Port Harcourt and Obio/Akpor areas. What I am trying to explain is that these schemes would assist in feeding the new areas. Nevertheless, we have our boundaries and specifications, though that does not mean that we are not working together with the Greater Port Harcourt Authority. We synergize, and our design team liaises with them, especially on how to marry the two systems for effective water delivery. We are not designing in isolation. We are designing in such a way that we keep our minds open on how we can connect better.
From what you have explained so far, it seems your concentration is specifically on the city. Why is it so?
It is our desire to spread across the state, but as I earlier noted, the bulk of the challenge is in the city. The governor would love to do it but you have to understand that we have limited resources. For water, we have many abandoned projects, and that is why we are emphasizing on water, which to us, is the centre of our policy direction. Our interest is to make sure that water provision is sustainable. We cannot invest hundreds of millions of Naira that would be abandoned at the long run because the local government councils do not care neither do the communities at the grassroots.
Currently, what are you working on at the local areas?
Of course, we are doing a lot. We have WASH, and we have a structure at the local levels. We set up these structures to work with the local government councils. There was a time we invited the local government chairmen to interact with us on what our vision was. That is why we have Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) officers at the various local government areas. We also have a WASH Department set up last year in the ministry. These are institutional frameworks we believe can drive the system at the local level. They are currently on ground, and they are the ones that would give us feedback. We believe that all these would drive what we have put in place, and at the long run, create sustainability. Many water projects today at the local areas are abandoned because the vision was at variance with what the people really need.
Last year, the state recorded lots of cholera outbreak in some of the local areas, and the government rushed in to check the menace. How is your ministry trying to check this malaise in the long run?
Sensitization for us is key. Already, we have the Rural Water and Sanitation Agency (RUWATSA) whose role is to sensitize the local communities on what to do with their water, especially in the coastal communities where cholera outbreak is higher. Therefore, government is aware of the challenges, and is certainly doing all within its powers to ensure that quality water delivery is made to our coastal communities.
To what extent do your operations affect agriculture and industry in the state?
Fortunately, we are blessed with good water resources, so we do not have problem when it comes to water. There is enough water for agriculture in the state. Therefore, we do not need dams and forms of artificial irrigation. For the industries, we have water provision facilities in Trans-Amadi Industrial Layout, and we are delivering water to that area.
You have introduced a new data collection office. What is it meant to achieve?
Yes, we did. You know that without a reliable data collection system, you cannot take meaningful policy decisions. Indeed, we collect data on water supply to know areas that are working and those areas that are not working. We have also uploaded the new design, the pipes network for anyone to view. The essence is to give a total picture of the water supply landscape in the state. Remember, we also have borehole issues and other issues relating to water provision. The data centre is to assist us in making proper and effective decisions through adequate information.
Does that have to do with meeting international standards?
Whatever we are doing currently is actually based on international standards and best practices. You have the minimum standards even locally for your water to be acceptable. So, yes, we are doing that.
How much has your ministry expended in this area, and how much do you intend to spend in the near future?
For now, I do not have the figures.
Earlier, you talked about the various agencies you have set up to monitor water quality and sanitation. What are their scopes, and what have they been able to achieve?
When funds are released, they do their jobs effectively. We are working on sanitation, and there is a committee established to look into those areas. So, we can improve on the sanitation practices in the local areas in order to reduce the malaise of water-borne diseases.
What are the challenges you are facing in achieving your mandate at the local areas?
I do not think we have any major challenges. For me, the only area I think we would have challenges is in the area of funding. As I explained earlier, the provision of urban infrastructure is capital intensive. You need to understand that we cannot get it right in one day. Most of the water infrastructures we have today have been there for 20 years. You cannot solve the water problems we have in one day, one year or even in four years, actually. You have to have a long- term plan. However, the challenge I can say we have now is funding. We know what we want to do but the funds are not there. To get that kind of funding, we may have to put the whole fiscal year’s budget into it. You have to understand that there are so many priorities for government. Education, health, power are all-important. Without power, most especially, we cannot run our pumping stations efficiently. So, at the end of the day, what is more important is how to schedule our development strategies and plans.
You said the major challenge is funding, but last year, government spent about N24 billion on water. How true is that?
I do not understand. During which time?
Last year, during one of the accountability forums?
May be, they have planned to put that much into the sector but that is not based on what we have as at now. If I may understand the point, that figure is from the report of the committee. They estimated that to overhaul the existing water infrastructure, it would take that much. It was not based on the realities on ground. Nevertheless, we have carried out the actual studies, and we have the real figures.
How much is it?
(Laughs) I cannot tell you that now. I have to tell my boss first!
Why have you delayed it to this day?
We are waiting for the proper documentation. You know they just finished the design just last two weeks. Therefore, I need to sit down with the governor and discuss the whole report in details before making it public. The whole thing covers Port Harcourt and Obio/Akpor. So, get ready in the next month or so – by God’s grace, when we win the elections, you will all know about it.
Just recently, there were indications that your ministry was working on a new special tariff for water. Can you tell us what the details are?
Yes, water is a social amenity. However, people should pay for it, and that is in line with international best practices. You pay for power, so what stops you from paying for water? Imagine how much you expend daily or monthly paying for your telephone bills. Government cannot do everything. At least, it gives you free education, and free healthcare. On our own, there are certain things we have to do. However, infrastructure development in water is enormous, and government is taking all that responsibility. So, we should be able to assist in our own small way.
Very soon, you will be two years in office. What are the things you can beat your chest and say you have achieved?
I have been digging the foundation to hold the structure that would stand the test of time. If you do not have a firm foundation, the building will collapse. As I said earlier, policy formulation is the thing you cannot see physically on the streets. I have been working hard on it. We are also working on the laws, and you would see the institutional reforms. You have to understand that we had enormous wastes in the sector. For now, we do not have such wastes again. You can now see that we have a solid policy on ground. We should have stronger institutions at the end of the day, including a proper design nobody can argue on. You can go to any international organization for funding and get support from what we have now. We have done a very comprehensive feasibility study that can enable our state to tap from any offshore funding. We have consultants that have worked out the proper rating structure. That means we would not have haphazard water rate based on what is obtained anywhere in the world. Based on the economic realities on ground, we have worked out what people can actually pay. All these are the things you need to put in place.
Can you tell us how long these lofty programmes would take before they begin to manifest, especially the urban water scheme?
If government were able to release major bulk of the funding, then soonest, you would begin to see it. Maybe, in the next two years. However, you know that that is difficult. They cannot give us all the money in one swoop.
Why is it so? (General Laughter)
That means they have to stop the litany of road construction works. We need to consider other areas as well. For now, however, we are laying pipes in Gokana, but there is a road they are constructing. We have to wait for them to finish the road construction before we begin laying the pipes. These are the realities, and most importantly, you have to understand that infrastructure development cannot be done in isolation.
We are yet to get your explanation. Why it is taking time for you to implement these?
What I have told you is that primarily, we will present the design to His Excellency, and he would take decisions based on his own priorities and the funds he has available. Even Cross River and Lagos states are still working on their water projects.
Even before you came on board, there was water in some parts of Port Harcourt, and suddenly, that disappeared. In your own conviction, do you not think it is taking a long time before the people would have potable water?
I am surprised that you seem not to get all these explanations, and I wonder what the common average person would get from you. We have decayed infrastructure all these while. Not up to 10 per cent of the pipes were usuable, and we have stations that have not been upgraded for the past 30 years. The whole thing boils down to poor funding and maintenance. For example, Moscow Road Station is flowing water, and yet about 60 per cent of that water is being lost to leakages underground. Besides, these leakages underground can equally pose threats to foundation of buildings on top of it.
You seem not to understand my question. What I am asking is that with these decayed infrastructure and other factors, do you think it is justified that after all these years and our level of development, we are still talking about water provision?
Well, I cannot speak for previous administrations (laughs). For the current administration, we are determined on providing sustainable water supply in Rivers State. We are determined to do it; otherwise, we would not spend much on the design as we have done. Let us focus on what the current administration is trying to do to deliver water to the people of Rivers State.
Just before we wrap it up, we know your ministry has spent so much money in revitalizing stations at Rumuola and Moscow Road. Can you give us an idea of how much has been spent so far?
I do not have the figures off hand. I cannot give that right now and but I know that we have not spent very much. Earlier before now, we found hiccups in the Rumuola Station because we could not flow the water. We discovered that most of the pipes along Old Aba Road have been damaged, and the same we found at Ikwerre Road due to construction works going on in those areas. Nevertheless, we can fix all the 11 pumps running but if you cannot upgrade the network, you would have much wastage.
However, if you pressurize the pipes to meet up demand, you would discover leakages everywhere. Therefore, it is not something we can fix overnight. For example, we tried it on Old Aba Road by pumping more – along that axis – and the roads started washing away. We got an alarm the other day from the Diobu area that a building was being endangered because of water pipes under its foundation. We have discovered that many of our water pipes were being endangered because of haphazard building construction in different parts of the city. So, there are a lot challenges in the sector, which is why we believe that the re-design is the easiest way to go. Otherwise, if you continue flowing water as it is today, some buildings will collapse and roads would wash away. So, most of the time, we have to shut down production because road construction is on going. We believe that the people also need to understand that when urban renewal is on course, there would be some hiccups, and major sacrifices have to be made for the future.
From what you have so far explained and done, do you have the requisite manpower and tools to meet future challenges?
Yes, we do. We have qualified personnel and sound staff. However, you never stop learning. We are still trying to fortify the ones we have, and we are seriously working on capacity building with the European Union, and other organizations to put things in place. In a recent assessment of some Niger Delta states’ water policy, we came tops. This shows that we are really ready to move the water sector to the next level.
So much have been talked about the water sector and other policies. However, people would like to know who you are, and what you do outside government duties?
(Laughs) Yes, I am from Bonny Local Government Area in Rivers State. I grew up and schooled here – primary, secondary and university. I went to Lagos, where I did my National Youth Service at the Federal Ministry of Health; in the Primary Health Care Section, where I did statistics planning for them. I have a degree in Computer and Mathematics. On my completion of youth service, I worked in a computer firm, and rose from a programme analyst to a branch manager. I came back to set up an In-Laks Computer branch. I left In-Laks, and joined a mobile telecommunications company – specifically Mobile Telecom Services. I worked with them as a regional manager in the late 90s, and then, later set up my own company between 1997-1998. I moved from information technology into the oil sector, and later owned one of the indigenous oil technology servicing companies. That was what I was doing before I was called up to serve my state.
What about sports/recreation?
Yes. I used to be very sporting. In secondary school, I played ball in my alma mater – Federal Government Girls Secondary School, Abuloma, and I also played for Rivers State – I played volleyball. I also played volleyball for my university. I also used to play squash, and now, I play golf. But I have not played for sometime now because of my busy schedule. I am a very private person. I have two children, and I am happy to spend time with my family, quietly. I am also very religious person, and I like spending time with my God.