Agricoltura Green River Project Nigeria

Where Africa’s future flows

Let's discover how clean water and wells built by Eni and FAO in Nigeria and Ghana can be a starting point for the rebirth of local communities.

by Davide Perillo
09 April 2021
9 min read
by Davide Perillo
09 April 2021
9 min read

Green River Project: Eni and FAO in Nigeria

The tap is made of green plastic, with an orange handle. It sticks out of the stone wall, in a row with another seven. These are strong vivid colours, just like the ones worn by the women who come and go from the wall, with a water can in their hands and often with a little head popping out of a kanga baby carrier. Emily Ademola has her youngest son with her, strapped to her back as she comes to fill her water can. "It was very hard before. I used to walk 15 kilometres a day in search of water. And our children sometimes got sick because we couldn't wash them". But as she said, that was before. Now, there is clean water in this suburb of Michika in Adamawa State, in north-eastern Nigeria. As there is in Bama, Biu and Damboa. It came through the wells drilled by Eni and FAO.

Eni's work for the people of Nigeria is nothing new. The Green River Project, a plan to promote advanced agriculture and food security in the country, has been up and running since 1987. It has brought new crops, education and resources to the Niger Delta. "We decided to take action here because of the water emergency in Lake Chad, which was supplying water to the whole area but is increasingly drying up," Valeria Papponetti tells us. He is an advisor on sustainability projects who has been in Nigeria since 2017. The emergency has generated a mass movement of people, with almost 4 million people migrating to other parts of the country. Many have moved to the suburbs of Abuja, the capital, where entire districts of displaced people have sprung up. Here, among the many problems one can imagine, the water problem has also become more acute. Already stretched to the limit for the city's 1.5 million inhabitants, water is now in short supply.

This is why the decision was made to try to help, and to do so in a new way, working with FAO, the UN agency leading efforts to defeat hunger, through a Partnership as provided for in SDG 17 of the 2030 Agenda. "These are two very different organisations, who think and work in different ways, brought together by a common goal. We know how to dig wells, FAO has deep roots in the area and has been able to help us with relationships and in choosing where to work" says Papponetti. The result is 22 clean water wells in as many locations, five in the Abuja territory and 17 in the Northeast, in the states of Adamaua, Yobe and Borno. "They take water from 100 to 140-150 metres underground and are powered by photovoltaics with tanks that hold between 15 and 50 thousand litres" explains Papponetti. Enough to meet the needs of a population that is difficult to count (there is no official census in Nigeria, and many of the wells are in places where there is an influx of displaced people), but which can be estimated at around 70,000 people. These wells don’t only allow people to draw clean water, but they also act to strengthen and sustain the community. Indeed, each project is a complete water system with a well and several water access points, which allow for domestic use, agricultural activities and livestock breeding.

Translated into Development Goals, this results in a series of positive effects in relation to fighting poverty and hunger (SDGs 1 and 2), gender equality (SDG 5) and health (SDG 3). But also access to clean energy (SDG 7), climate action (SDG 13) and partnership, all linked to the positive contribution that wells make towards goal number 6, clean water. Of course, none of these problems have been entirely solved, but we are moving forward one step at a time. To better understand the scope of the project, we can use another keyword and that is “Engagement. The population must be involved, not just helped. We are going into situations of great hardship, with displaced persons and poverty. It’s crucial to clearly explain who you are and what you are doing. Training people in maintenance techniques and how to use filters, and FAO's help is indispensable in this too, because the wells are often run with the help of volunteers" says Papponetti.

Like Goni Shariff, a bricklayer from Chibok. He proudly talks about how his work helps everyone. He manages the well, turning the pumps on in the morning, turning them off in the evening and cleaning the filters. Yau Abdul Karim, on the other hand, lives in Garin Mai Jalah, in Yobe, three and a half hours' drive to the north. Here the land is even more arid. But the well brought water that changed the lives of the farmers and something else, light. He is a breeder and farmer with around fifty cows and a hundred chickens. Now, he has a third job in the evening, he’s a barber, with an open-air shop under the plant's LEDs. A job within a job. It is more or less the same for Emily, who not only gets water for cooking and bathing her children from her green and orange tap, but also for watering the small garden behind her house and growing the tomatoes she sells at the market.

Fred Kafeero, a FAO representative in Nigeria, calls this micro-cropping, which many families are involved in. This is what it means to build water wells in Africa. "Agriculture in Nigeria has enormous potential," says Papponetti. But in the end, what is more striking than the numbers is the people, their faces and their lives. "The thing that has stuck with me most since we started the project is seeing a little girl, who must have been about four, walking behind her mother, dragging her empty can. She was tiny. And the can was huge. I can still remember her face”. And now? "You see people’s amazement that they have water and have it for free, which is not at all a given. They can turn on the tap and it comes out. To them, it's like a gift they didn't expect.”

Drinking water also for Ghana

A gift that other pipes, in another corner of Africa, have carried to the ocean shore. A similar project exists in Sanzulea, a fishing area in Ghana. The Offshore Cape Three Points fields are located here. They went into operation four years ago and produce oil and supply gas for the local market. On the nearby land, a handful of villages, the largest being Bakanta, had no water supply. The total population of these villages amounts to at least 40,000 people. "We talked to institutions and locals and realised there were no plans to connect them to the public water supply system, at least not in the next few years, so we agreed to bring the water ourselves," says Baluri Bukari, sustainable projects manager for Eni Ghana.

The source is a deep underground aquifer, which provides a safer water supply now, where previously inhabitants used hand dug wells or bought in water from private entities. The rest is done by the filters and reverse osmosis purification, and the tanks and pipes that carry it to four distribution points. All this, of course, is powered by clean photovoltaic energy. The whole system was built very quickly. "Six months in total, it was a very quick project," Bukari explains. But it has had a profound impact on people's lives. "I save a lot of money because I no longer have to buy water elsewhere," says Elizabeth Ackah, 45, a fisherwoman from Bakanta: "And everything I cook now tastes good." Stephen Owusu is around the same age and is a carpenter in Krisan. He also appreciates that "this way the food is better and I have more time for myself, because I don't have to walk a long way to look for water". 

Kodzo Akluviah, also a fisherman, but from Anwonlakrom, adds that "the water from the well is not as salty as the water we used to use". "Since I started using this water, I haven’t been sick once" says Francis Aboagye, 52, also a fisherman from Sanzule. "It's true, we are focussed on all the SDGs and we know that along with water, the other key objective here is health" Bukari confirms. "When we studied the area, we saw that all the reports noted a high rate of diseases caused by undrinkable water. One of the objectives was to reduce these problems, not only by opening wells, but with a health information campaign, carried out in meeting places, such as churches and schools, and door-to-door. "The figures we have now tell us that the incidence of disease has already dropped significantly."

The author: Davide Perillo

Journalist, he currently deals with sustainability, social issues and Third Sector. He was director of Tracce magazine for 13 years. He is a member of the editorial staff of the Rimini Meeting (an international event for which he has managed numerous meetings), he was editor-in-chief of Sette, a magazine of Corriere della Sera newspaper and covered the economy section for L'Europeo. He has a degree in Philosophy and a master's degree in Journalism.