Austin Nwangwu, 8 June 2009
All cities in Nigeria are presently fighting a losing battle against municipal solid wastes. This is no hyperbole and can easily be confirmed. It is as true for the Eastern states of Nigeria as for the West.
It is also a common feature in the North as it is in the South. Wherever one goes the storyline is the same – a daunting souvenir of open refuse dumps, sometimes mountains of them, displayed in odious visual ads. Cynical adverts of what we keep accumulating but do not need, assaulting the sight, doing their damned best to portray us as what we are: a stylish population living in slums; a fashion-conscious people having pigsties for homes; modern people in love with squalor!
Perhaps nothing captures the paradox of Nigeria’s romance with modernity as the way we have managed our solid waste. Whatever our governments claim to be doing about this festering sore ends up as expendable rhetoric. Simply put, we have failed woefully in keeping our cities clean, and have added to the long list of our management failures, the problem of solid wastes. As usual, the implications are neither well understood nor sufficiently appreciated at the policy-making levels of governance. An exception has to be made at this juncture for two cities, Calabar and Abuja, which have commendably become exceptions to the rule.
The vivid mementos of failure all over Nigeria cannot be missed. Failure in service delivery. Failure in managing even the most routine things, including our episodic success in sports. The failure in managing the wastes we generate, however, ranks as perhaps the most scathing.
There is, without a shred of doubt, systemic failure in waste management, with morbid consequences gnawing away at our public health status, aesthetics, self-worth and individual well-being. It appears that most governments and regulators in Nigeria see issues of waste generation and safe disposal as intractable. Yet what is obvious is a refusal to adopt commonsensical measures to address the root cause with a management-driven mindset. It is mostly a failure to understand what it takes to address the problem – efficient collection and safe disposal mechanisms. And, of course, commensurate fiscal deployment is imperative. At present it would seem that most governments see expenditure on refuse management as wasted. Without realizing it is a core index of performance for any administration, comparable to any other. And one that yields multilateral dividends.
Waste dumping and accumulation are common features of urban Nigeria, mostly because of attitudinal challenges. Exacerbated by our penchant for confronting first-rate problems, with a second-rate solutions. Many of our decision-makers see waste management as a dispensable option, not deserving of extra effort or focus. Yet, as a scorecard for any administration, it is second to none, as the result is there for all to see. It is one area where success is as glaring as failure. And there is no middle course!
A sanitary environment is desirable and will be easily appreciated by everyone – residents, visitors and tourists alike. And even an obstinate public will cooperate through source-reduction and sanitation tariffs when the governments begin to perform.
For years now, many nations of the world have adopted the integrated waste management approach to great effect. Waste processing has long become an economic endeavour in its own right, through the concept of waste-to-wealth, as solid wastes now become raw materials for industrial production. Biodegradable components are composted to become organic fertilizer and soil amendment. The non-biodegradable parts are recycled in processes of resource recovery. Sensitive solid wastes such as medical wastes are incinerated to safer-to-handle ashen components. Even hazardous fractions are compounded or packaged for safe disposal in well-engineered sanitary landfills. In some of the more modern approaches, solid wastes go through a special kind of incineration that yields electricity through a series of energy conversion processes.
These processes became possible because someone somewhere in societies that value human health, comfort and environmental quality invested time and resources to address waste management. And governments cooperated through grants and funding for research. It is obvious that we are loathsome about advancing research and intellectual rigour, which is why we remain a consuming nation, a copycat nation, grossly dependent on the more proactive and pragmatic economies for even the most basic needs. One then wonders why we prevaricate over adopting management approaches that have been successful in yielding great mileage in the environment sector everywhere else. Approaches that have the potential to conclusively address some of the core areas in which we have continued to score poorly – urban sanitation and employment, for example?
If this attitude does not bespeak laziness, then it must demonstrate the kind of intellectual dolefulness that puts to question the mental health of our policy makers and of those who claim to deliver democracy dividends, long since known to be illusory.
It bears repetition to insist that we have refused to copy, once again, in an area that adds value to society, putting to the fore, for the umpteenth time, our ill-concealed challenge of prioritization. For many governments, it is more hip to build modern estates, all because there are huge contracts to sign, with their pecuniary incentives. And, predictably, most of them become slums soon after, on account of poor waste management components in planning and execution. It is on record that most developments even in today’s Nigeria are executed without the statutory environmental evaluations. Which puts their sustainability in great jeopardy soon after.
One then begins to wonder what the regulators such as the Federal Ministry of Environment and the state equivalents are doing as our environment continues to experience accelerated degradation.
The answer is simple enough. It is found in the motive of those who award contracts. Their interests wane once they cut their deal. They shift their gaze to the next contract to reap from, rather than bother about the fate of previous ones. This level of neglect is boldly written on subsequent phases of project cycles: construction, commissioning, operation and abandonment. Only the contract signing phase matters. The scant regard given to commissioning is only cursory. To score political points, period!Other phases elicit no interest.
To be sure, no long-term development planning not fathomed with a full complement of environmental conservation principles will succeed. We, therefore, obviously labour in vain over the MDGs 2015, Vision 2020 and the Seven-Point Agenda. They all fly in the face of logic and common sense, because they are not founded on sound environmental frameworks.
It would appear that the many warnings about global warming and climate change are yet to hit home here. For most Nigerians, they are merely far-fetched fantasies of the developed world. Yet the impacts are becoming incrementally recognizable companions on these shores. This might be difficult to make out, though true: a modern solid waste management approach is a key way to mitigate their dire consequences. If only our governments will become more discerning!