Doctor Nneoma Idika is an expert in water and environmental sanitation. Doctor Idika will be talking to us on how to manage our water and also how to keep our environments clean.

Doctor Idika, we know water is very important to our well-being, but how healthy is it to substitute it for other fluids, such as minerals and beverages for some days?

Well, like you rightly said, water is very essential; you can’t overemphasize the need for water. Water intake is seen to replace fluids that are lost in the body during metabolism – breathing, sweating and the removal of fluids. And water is also very good for hair growth, the body skin, nails and so on.

In as much as beverages and soft drinks could be taken occasionally, they can never replace water. This is because the soft drinks contain a lot of sugar – and we all know that sugar in accumulation, continuous taking of soft drinks would accumulate so much sugar in the body, which in the long run will not be good for the body especially in weight gain; and so also for beverages. And it doesn’t go down well with the body as it leads to dehydration when taken in excess.

Beverages, minerals could be taken occasionally for the taste and pleasure, but they should never, ever replace water.

Ok. What you suggest is that even on daily basis, no matter how much of other fluids we might take, like soft drinks, we should make sure that they go hand-in-hand with water – they are not substitutes for water.

How accessible is drinking water to the average dweller – I mean in Nigeria?

Well, it’s a long story when we talk about water being accessible to the people since there are other sources of water that are known to be contaminated; from the Lakes,Wells,  Streams, Rivers, etc, which are accessible to Nigerians – but potable water – water that is free of germs, that is good for the health is very, very inadequate. The coverage in Nigeria is inadequate. About 37 per cent of the population in Nigeria do not have access to potable water (water that is fit for drinking); and this is just the general figure because there is a disparity between the coverage in the urban area and that of the rural area. There is much more access to potable water in the urban area than in the rural area, same as the sanitation facilities. The report also says that ­2/3 (two-third) of the population in Nigeria do not have adequate facilities for sanitation; and like I said earlier, these facilities are more in the urban areas than in the rural areas.

There are many individuals bottling and selling water in our cities. What are the health implications of this proliferation of water trade? I know we are always advised to look for the NAFDAC number on anything that is consumable we are buying – like water, for instance. But how do we even know, the average person on the street, who just looks at a certain pack and sees any number. How do we know that the numbers are not assigned by those who are actually producing these things or bottling them; so what are the health implications of this proliferation of water trade?

Yeah. Having so many people interested in the water trade is not a crime, but it is the maintenance or the standardization. Like you asked about those that have NAFDAC certification, ideally, when you see the NAFDAC certification on the product you should have some confidence, but you and I know what is obtains in Nigeria; there is so much sharp practices and cutting of corners.

So the health implication is that if this product is not produced in a clean environment, there is a problem to health. The water source should also be water that is potable. If that is done, there should be no health implication.

Then another big problem is the handling of the product; granted that the water has been produced in a standardized and good environmental condition, but between the factory and the consumer there could be a big problem. People, who handle this water especially for sale, may not observe good hygiene practice. For all I care, someone who is even hawking it on the streets, maybe selling to the people in the bus, could have just used the toilet somewhere without bothering to wash his/her hands afterwards , and will use the same hands to pick the bottle or sachet water and the consumer just tears it open to drink. So there are problems, challenges to even observing good hygiene practice – hand washing; because you may wish to wash your hands and the water sink is not available for you to wash your hands even when you use the toilet. So the health implication is that we take products that are not handled properly and also it could be that they were not produced in a hygienic way.

Wow! Having head all that you have said, what is water treatment – because we are also thinking of how these things have been bottled, whether the bottlers maintained proper hygiene in their bottling? So we would like you to explain to us what water treatment is, and how important it is to treat the water we use.

Well, water treatment is just getting rid of substances, chemicals and germs (impurities) in the water that could be injurious to health. So it is very important that what you consume is rid of such contaminants as mentioned.

And there are different ways of treating water; it could be by filtration – physical filtration, it could be by chemical treatment; like the use of chlorine – boiling is another way of getting rid of germs in contaminated water – and of course there is the solar treatment of water, where just the energy from the sun can reach the water that is contaminated with bacteria and kill them after about four hours exposure.

Wow! That’s quite incisive. Then, again, talking about all sorts of water, because sometimes we have what we consider our drinkable water,for instance it may have been boiled. What is the implication of storing drinkable water in a container for too long? Would it still be fit for consumption after an extended period of time?

When you store water I assume you opened and close the container periodically to take water from it.

Sometimes we may have the water we are using in different containers. Some are stored far not too long while the other ones are used for an extended period.

Well, studies have shown that when water is stored for a long period, if for any reason there was just a small amount of bacteria in that water, studies have shown that they multiply over time, which afterwards contaminate the water you think you have stored.

It’s also good to fore warn us about one thing, because somebody once told us on radio that when you have your bottled water in your car, and it’s in a very warm place for a long time maybe due to tight traffic under the sun, that you don’t need to take or consume it again, you can discard that and then get fresh water to drink.

I think that has to do with a bit of chemistry. What you are saying is that at a high temperature, there may be dissolution of some components of the  plastic materials into the water which may not be ok for consumption.

Ok. How do you rate the sanitary lives of the average Nigerians? Let’s even look at our attitudes towards our environments and the things we eat including water of course. How do you rate our attitudes towards that; the average Nigerians’ attitudes?

Well, I think the attitudes vary, some people don’t even understand that food stuff can be contaminated, especially fruits. They just buy it and eat it. When you say “wash it”, they would say “oh! You are just doing Oyibo”. They don’t really believe that germs are everywhere therefore what should get straight into your system should be sterilized. Your hands should be properly washed with soap, under the nails, in-between the fingers, the palms and the back of the palms. A lot of people do not practice effective hand washing simply because they are ignorant of the transmission of germs from the environment to the body. So there is a lot education that should be done to enable people practice proper hygiene. Having said that, the other challenge is that the facilities are not there all the time.

Yeah. I was actually going to bring you to that when you mentioned education, saying that people should be mentored, I now began to think in the way of also something more organized like for instance, the Government. So i was going to ask you what ways the different tiers of government have actually improved the environmental sanitation in Nigeria.

Well, like the water supply and sanitation facilities, the Federal Government is in charge of managing the resources, providing the facilities. Then the state Government is supposed to make sure that these provisions are there in the urban areas and are used and maintained properly. And then the local Government and the rest of the community are supposed to be able to also use the resources at the rural areas, monitor and maintain the facilities; that’s how it’s supposed to be – but whether it happens, I can’t really say – it’s left for documentation and data to be obtained for us to know. But on the surface we know that whatever is being done is not adequate.

Does that include the monthly environmental sanitation, for instance here in Lagos every last Saturday of the month, and every Thursday of the month are considered sanitation days for dwellers?

Well, for people who appreciate the importance of keeping the environment clean, they make efforts. Saturdays you see some residents, they come out, clean up their gutters and heap the waste on the side; so you could find them 2 – 3 days still there not being removed (the wastes) and if there is rainfall, these wastes go back into the gutter. So sometimes thi cause the peoples’ attitudes to change; – what are they worrying themselves for? Since  the Government or the people who are supposed to take away the wastes don’t play their role. So it’s like they just wasted their efforts, because what they have removed from the gutters or their houses still come back to them. So I think if there is improvement in disposing these wastes, people would be more interested in cleaning the environment  – and besides, it doesn’t have to be once a week that people do this.

So if they are made to appreciate and understand the relationship between dirty environment and infectious diseases, maybe the attitudes would change. Generally, most of our people think that when somebody is sick, it’s some black magic somewhere that is responsible. So if that idea is a bit clipped down, and they know the mode of transmission of germs, like malaria when you have pools of water, you have the larva of mosquito growing in into a large mosquito; mosquitoes would bite and leads to malaria, a lot of people would then appreciate keeping clean environment. When a child is sick, it is believed that it is one wicked in-law or somebody that is responsible for the ailment instead of looking closely into its cause.

In fact, the Ebola situation and Lassa fever also made a lot of Nigerians become more aware of the importance of washing their hands. But let’s even look closely to the environmental conditions in the schools and learning institutions in Nigeria.

How do you really rate their situations?

Well, the stories I hear from children in school, especially secondary schools is very depressing, demoralizing; because I remember back when I was in school – I mean there was water everywhere, there were good toilets, facilities – all these things were there so that if you are asked to wash your hands with soap every five minutes, you should be able to do  it. But what I am told is that many schools don’t even have running water, some don’t even have the toilet facility. When you go about saying,“wash your hands! Wash your hands!”

You are just saying it to the mountain because the water is not there for them to wash their hands; yes, I think conditions in schools have deteriorated.

Is there any suggestion you may offer towards promoting clean and healthy living in the society?

Yes, I think a lot of advocacy has to be done. Funds should be made available to schools,so that these facilities are put in place, and then enlightenment programmes – and I don’t think it should be left to the Government alone; several people who have the interest of reducing the disease burden in Nigeria should gear up and help the Government – private organizations, NGOS, I also know of Heartwells.

I was going to ask you because I also gathered that you are behind Heartwells, and that you are doing a lot of advocacy in this direction. Could you tell us more about that?

Well, the Heartwells complimentary health service group is an organization, like I said, promoting healthy living through nutrition and good hygiene practice and many other health matters. So far, they have gone to schools such as: Queen’s College, King’s College, and Grenge all in Lagos.They had enlightened the students and the teachers on this same topic; healthy and good living, what they eat. And from the information we gathered, most of their practices are good, but then there are gaps. We found that the students from these three schools knew about the existence of worms, but they didn’t really know they needed to get de-wormed. Those that had an idea of de-worming thought the frequency was maybe once in two years or once in a year.

The information of the de-worming programme was a bit lacking in these schools. Also, less than 50% of them thought that fruits should be washed before consumption.

The Heartwells group is right now trying to go to many morem schools in Lagos, having found out that there is gap in the knowledge and practice of students in these three schools where the survey was conducted. The group is just waiting for approval from the Lagos state Government.

We also gathered in the past that the Lagos Government has also approved the activities of Heartwells in this direction. So, would you also suggest that other state Governments should be advised to encourage such organizations that have shown interest in this field?

Yes. I think Lagos is known to be centre of excellence; so if we could find students here in Lagos who didn’t really know much about de-worming, other states which are not as exposed as Lagos state, may have very little or no knowledge about healthy living. So I think it would be very appropriate if other state Governments can key into it including the Federal Government because there are other Federal Government schools everywhere in the country, not just in Lagos. We target students  because the knowledge they will imbibe, they will take  back home share it with their parents, neighbours, and friends and even on the social media so that whatever information we want to use as an intervention to what we have found out, will go down well; because the ultimate is to get the knowledge wide spread and better living, healthy living and thereby reduce this huge disease burden that we have in our country Nigeria.