One afternoon in September 2011, a metaphorical darkness engulfed Ogale Community. Many wished it were an eclipse of the sun. Sadly, it was not. Instead, for animists, it was the materialization and manifestation of an omen previously heralded by the hoots of owls and a menacing flight of vultures over the community. These images from Ogale cosmology appositely capture the malevolence of groundwater pollution, announced at the time by the United Nations Environmental Protection Agency (UNEPA). According to the UNEPA report,

The most serious case of groundwater contamination is at Nisisioken Ogale, in Eleme LGA . . . where an 8 cm layer of refined oil was observed floating on the groundwater which serves the community wells. Of most immediate concern, community members at Nisisioken Ogale are drinking water from wells that is contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline.1United Nations Environmental Protection Agency, “Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland” (United Nations Environment Programme Report, 2011), 3,

Following this report, the River State government declared a water emergency in Ogale (see figure 1) and sealed off wells and boreholes (see main photo). It supplied about five liters of water per person per day during the emergency, increased to seven liters in the post-emergency phase. The community has since been thrown into perennial water scarcity, intense water commoditization, and virtual water importation.

Narratives of resource control and ownership in the Niger Delta have not adequately addressed its water crises, especially with respect to a newly emergent neoliberal water market, social justice, and development; instead, most studies of the region have focused on oil.2C. Obi, “Oil Extraction, Dispossession, Resistance, and Conflict in Nigeria’s Oil-rich Niger Delta,” Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue Canadienne d’Études Du Développement 30 (2010): 219–36; M. Watts, “Righteous Oil? Human Rights, the Oil Complex, and Corporate Social Responsibility,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources; 30 (2005): 373–407. This essay, therefore, draws on a four-year ethnographic study in the region to examine how the emergent water market, driven by an “invisible hand,” reconfigures contours of social justice and development in the affected communities.

The Invisible Hand in Nigeria’s Waterscape

The “invisible hand of the market,” a coinage of Adam Smith, is the mantra of neoclassical economists for articulating ideas of free market and neoliberal policies.3R. L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, 6th ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999); J. B. Wight, “The Treatment of Smith’s Invisible Hand,” Journal of Economic Education 38 (2007): 341–58. It reflects “the self-regulating nature of the marketplace in determining how resources are allocated based on individuals acting in their own self-interest.”4Financial Dictionary, Contemporary advocates of this ideology view the market regulated by the invisible hand as a sure path to development and justice in every sector of a given economy, including water management. The premise of their assumption is that, as water is a scarce resource, efficient pricing and management are required to ensure its availability. They argue that the private sector’s self-interest, which is driven by profit and accountability to shareholders, would not only ensure efficiency but would also put potable water on every table at the right price.5D. McDonald and G. Ruiters, “Theorizing Water Privatization in Southern Africa,” in The Age of Commodity: Water Privatization in Southern Africa, ed. D. McDonald and G. Ruiters (London and Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2005), 13–42. For the advocates, removal of obstacles to the market would allow the invisible hand to bring justice to water management.

The removal of obstacles to a free market in water management is not new to Nigeria. Torrential forces of neoliberal market orthodoxy began to inundate the country’s waterscape in 1993, when a military junta led by the late general Sanni Abacha enacted Water Resources Decree 101, which abolished communal water ownership and removed local communities’ rights to challenge water polluters. In 1995, the World Bank stated that solutions to water crises in the Niger Delta of Nigeria lay with the invisible hand. For the Bank, water in the delta region was underpriced, and efficiency was therefore imperative.6World Bank, Defining Environmental Strategy for the Niger Delta, vol. 1 (Washington DC: World Bank, 1995).

The neoliberal waterscape was entrenched further in 1999 by an amendment to Nigeria’s constitution that relegated the government’s role of protecting the environment and water and air to Section 6 (6) (c) that could not be subjected to direct litigation in a court of law.7O. Oluduro, “Oil Exploration and Ecological Damage: The Compensation Policy in Nigeria,” Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue Canadienne d’Études Du Développement 33 (2012): 164–79. The implications of the Water Decree and the constitutional amendment have been that no citizen can restrain polluters or compel the government to regulate water management. Thus, all the actors in Nigeria’s waterscape are at liberty to pursue their self-interest, as the proponents of the invisible hand have suggested. It was in pursuit of its self-interest—through both onshore and offshore oil explorations—that Shell Petroleum Development Company caused the groundwater pollution reported in Ogale Community in 2011.

Efficiency over Equity: The Retreat of Social Justice

Water scarcity arising from the groundwater pollution caused by Shell Petroleum Development Company finally opened up Ogale and other affected communities to a water market driven by the invisible hand. Individuals who hitherto got water outside the market were converted to appropriately obedient customers. They were stripped of their citizens’ rights (i.e. right to be owners of unpolluted wells) and were left with only consumers’ rights. As the people of Ogale lost their rights to own wells and become wholly dependent on the market, the invisible hand then set a new equilibrium price per liter of water, which resulted in a 500 percent increment.8V. O. Okorie, “Living with Oil: Pollution and Politics of Loss and Plunder in Postcolonial Nigeria” (PhD diss, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2013). The increment represents the efficiency of the invisible hand at work, allocating correct prices to right quantities of water. However, it falls short of equity and signals the retreat of social justice, especially for families that bear the brunt of the new water price.9Findings based on fieldwork conducted in 2014 as part of author’s African Peacebilding Network research grant. The project was titled “From Oil to Water Wars? Unpacking the Brutal Violence of Living with Polluted and Commoditized Waterscapes in the Niger Delta of Nigeria.” As the masses pay more while the brutal logic of the market filters through various relationships embedded in water, the need for justice and equity that necessarily gets beyond the mantra of market efficiency becomes more imperative, because efficiency without equity results in a quagmire.


The story of the groundwater pollution indicates that a market solely driven by the invisible hand not only creates some degree of social injustice, but also lacks solutions to some of the inequities it has prompted. Applications of the invisible hand’s solutions to the groundwater pollution only account for the monetary value of water. Even so, such value may become an economic burden on the masses. Besides this, the solutions ignore other forms of value embedded in the water. The invisible hand certainly fails to address how social and material practices—in relation to water—are a way of remaking and preserving Ogale community through a socialization process. Social justice demands that these forms of value, which exist outside the boundaries of economic calculus and algorithms, be sufficiently addressed, perhaps through the lens of the anthropology of loss. In the context of the Ogale water crises, social justice calls for a comprehensive documentation of the biography of water as it flows and mediates various realms of human sociality and spirituality.

Women and children queuing for water in the wake of the water emergency (Photo credit to Victor Ogbonnaya Okorie, 2013.)
Figure 1. Women and children queuing for water in the wake of the water emergency. (Photo credit to Victor Ogbonnaya Okorie, 2013.)

References   [ + ]