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Forbidden waters: colonial intervention and the evolution of water supply in Benin City, Nigeria


The history of pipe-borne water supply in urban areas of Nigeria, such as Benin City, illustrates how critical decisions affecting land tenure, residential segregation, and public investment in water supply laid the foundations for present-day inequality. In cities across the world, millions lack access to potable water. Networked infrastructure does not change at the same pace as political leaders or discourse around development. Colonial government decisions made under prevailing ideologies impact present day-water systems. The purpose of this paper is to show how such choices marked the start of disparate and inadequate investments in piped water needed to serve a growing city. This is attempted through an exploration of two critical periods in the city’s history that affected subsequent public water provision—the introduction of piped water along the Ogba River leading to water rate protests that ended in 1939 and the commissioning of a new waterworks along the Ikpoba River in 1987. The colonial legacy of unequal distribution of services continued throughout the postcolonial period and into the present day, in which universal provision of basic services has not been achieved.

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Fig. 1


  1. The details of the colonial history of urban infrastructure in Benin City as presented here benefited greatly from the extensive research on Edo culture, traditions and history by Dr. Ekhaguosa Aisien. Dr. Aisien is a medical doctor and internationally recognized historian of Edo-speaking peoples. I was fortunate to meet him in 2005, when he provided me with copies of five of his books on Edo history and culture.

  2. The Osiwu are the traditional surgeons of Edoland, who have kept and passed down the practice of Iwu (body marking).

  3. The odiunwere is an Edo word designating the oldest male resident of a street. Often the street will bear the person’s family name, as they were the first to settle in an area. It is not a hereditary position, but operates similar to a chieftaincy, as the odiunwere will often be called upon to settle disputes, represent the neighborhood, and serve as a leader around whom the neighborhood can organize to resolve problems and disputes.

  4. The monarchy was restored in 1914 and a new Benin palace was subsequently built.

  5. These whites-only settlements were originally termed “European Segregation Areas”, then “European Reservations” followed by “European Residential Areas” and eventually, “Government Residential Areas.” (Olukoju 2003b, pp. 275, 284).

  6. Ikun describes a pre-colonial style of architecture in the Benin kingdom, featuring specially designated ikuns, or self-contained rooms, facing a central square. Each ikun was used for special purposes such as religious worship or entertaining guests. According to Aisien (2001), p. 146, the current palace of the Oba of Benin is the best remaining example of Ikun architecture.

  7. Edo state did not exist until Bendel state was divided into Edo and Delta states on August 27, 1991.

  8. Enogholase 2009. No drop of water in Osunbor’s N98 m water project—Oshiomhole. Vanguard, January 19. Available online at: Last accessed April 21, 2011.

  9. 1 m3 is equal to 1,000 liters.

  10. Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2007 Revision,, Last accessed: February 22, 2012.

  11. This amounts to 1 staff per 6,400 in Edo state as a whole.

  12. I was able to meet with Edo State Water Board staff who provided a history of the Ikpoba River Water works, a tour of the facility and a discussion of the challenges in managing operations.


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The author is very thankful to Heather Hoag and two anonymous referees for their very helpful comments that have greatly improved this work. In addition, the author is thankful to the UCLA Globalization Research Center-Africa and Graduate Division for financial support to carry out this research as part of my doctoral dissertation. The author is especially grateful to Dr. Ekhaguosa Aisien, who generously gave his time and collection of historical books on Edo culture and the history of Benin City. All errors and omissions are my own.

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Correspondence to Charisma Acey.

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Acey, C. Forbidden waters: colonial intervention and the evolution of water supply in Benin City, Nigeria. Water Hist 4, 215–229 (2012).

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  • Africa
  • Colonialism
  • Nigeria
  • Urban history
  • Water supply