As the rain comes, floods take over our popular city centres and roads; garbage and other forms of waste dominate the surfaces of these waters with utmost disgust and frustration. These are evidence of our historic irresponsible disposal of waste, and the continuous failure of the State and Local governments to provide a reasonable waste governance structure for the population. It is a norm for a large population of Nigerians to simply dispose of their household waste on street corners, drainages or simple pass their waste to informal waste collectors who dump these waste in similar locations; open landfills or sub-urban market corners, close to freshwater bodies that feed farms, dams and community streams.
The World Health Organization estimates that 58% of health burden or 842,000 deaths per year, is attributable to a lack of safe drinking water supply, sanitation and hygiene (summarized as WASH). For a country like Nigeria, where environmental health and hygiene is an afterthought, the coming of the rain implies expected to increase in water-borne diseases and infections such as Malaria, Amoebiasis, Giardiasis, Toxoplasmosis, Cholera, Typhoid Fever, Food Poisoning, Hepatitis A, B and E, Diarrhoea, Dysentery, Polio, Meningitis and Flu-like the Corona Virus (COVID-19) etc. These Illnesses are caused and highly transmitted by microorganisms and pathogens in untreated waters and/or contaminated environment.
Our poor urban planning, poor waste disposal practices and negligence of the State and Local government in waste governance compromises our public health safety, as our water bodies get polluted with industrial waste, human waste, animal waste, garbage, untreated sewage and chemical effluents. A waste audit exercise or mere observation of waste on floodwater surfaces shows that single use-plastics (that blocks our drainages and walkways), as well as medical waste (from human biological and other pharmaceuticals waste), dominate the entire wastebasket.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 and legitimate preventive measures to curb the spread of the virus put in place, the production and generation of single-use plastic waste have increased tremendously; in the form of used sanitizers bottles, plastic face shields, plastic and fabrics face masks, and plastic hand washing containers etc. When 7 million people suddenly start wearing one or a couple of masks daily, single-use gloves and hand sanitizers, the amount of trash created is going to be substantial. Already used facemask, aprons from isolation centres, hand gloves and empty sanitizers, are already flocking parts of our neighbourhoods within the reach of children and into Community Rivers.
In a country like Nigeria where individual, household and industrial waste are untreated and disposed of indiscriminately by individuals, organizations, contracted private waste collectors and even the government, more plastic pollutions and waste will end up in our rivers, streams and water dams. This will further trigger diseases that are more waterborne and the spread of COVID19 or other similar diseases and infections.
The Guardian on 8 June 2020 reported that the coronavirus pandemic could spark a surge in ocean pollution – adding to a glut of plastic waste that already threatens marine life – after finding disposable masks floating like jellyfish and waterlogged latex gloves scattered across sea beds.
French Divers affiliated to a non-profit Opération Mer Propre, whose activities include regularly picking up litter along the Côte d’Azur, described as “COVID waste” – dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitiser beneath the waves of the Mediterranean, mixed in with the usual litter of disposable cups and aluminium cans.
Another recent survey in Hong Kong showed a large amount of discarded single-use masks washed up to a 100-meter stretch of seashores. Gary Stokes the director of the Ocean Asia NGO, reported that his team has seen a few masks over the years, but now they were spotted all along the high tide line and seashore with new deposits coming with each current.
Aside the bacteria loads associated with these kinds of wastes that can end up in drinking water sources, these plastic materials are many times ingested by fishes and other aquatic animals and later consumed by humans, causing possible life-threatening challenges.
Back home in Nigeria, in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Stewards of the Environment for Sustainable Change Initiative (SESCI) popularly called Stop Don’t Drop, working with the FCT Water Board, pioneered scientific research that identified the presence of microplastics and medical waste in the lower Usuma Dam that provides freshwater treatment for the FCT residents. While the residents of Abuja source their water from the FCT Water Board, the water remains safe, as a result of improved water treatment technology of the Water Board. The same cannot be said for other Nigerians across the states that depend on untreated groundwaters, boreholes, rivers and community streams for household use and even commercial sales, especially in flood-prone states, areas and communities.
As a recommendation to mitigates these challenges, citizens must be more conscious of the health dangers associated with rains, floods, and pollutions of groundwaters. Citizens must call forward and challenge their elected representatives and officials of the local governments and state governments for actions that are more responsive and provisions to cater for these pollutants. Excuses on why the local governments and state government cannot address the twin problem of waste and flood management must no longer be tolerated as long as citizens and residents continue to pay levies and taxes to the governments. As regards waste management, the local governments and state government should actively consider stringent polluter pay policies especially on single-use plastics. Producers, suppliers and consumers of single-use plastics must be made to pay factions for plastic pollutions and the proceeds should be channelled into provision and support of waste facilities and clean-up. Such strict polluter pay policies for single-use plastic is necessary, now that alternatives to single-use plastics exist and a ban on single-use plastic is considered impractical at the moment.
Lastly, local governments and state government need to be more fiscally prudent in their spending and make adequate provision for waste management in sensitive locations like water bodies and landfills. While breaking existing oligopoly in the contracted private waste collectors. This can be done by easing the entry barriers and bureaucracy required to register smaller private waste collection companies in local governments and states governments.
The time to act was yesterday…Today is another opportunity.
Aisha Agyeno is the Researcher and Programs assistant at Stewards of the Environment for Sustainable Change Initiative (SESCI)Stop Don’t Drop.