Monday, 23 January 2012

Urban Poverty in the Niger delta environment

Joachim Ibeziako Ezeji

The Niger Delta, the world’s third largest wetland, is the main source of foreign exchange earnings for Nigeria. Since 1975, more than 90 per cent of Nigeria’s export earnings have, on average, been generated from the region’s oil resources. However, the Niger Delta as represented by its big cities remain the filthiest and most unregulated in physical sanitation terms.

Today, public health concerns associated with industrial pollution, high population density and poorly managed on-site sanitation systems has become a critical subject. A recent local study conducted in the Niger Delta by RAWDP; a non-governmental organization has revealed that the hydraulic loading rate of on-site sanitation in the Niger Delta is rising rapidly. This negatively impacts groundwater as high hydraulic loading, greater than 50mm per day, caused by on-site sanitation systems and high population density often overcomes barriers posed by vertical separation or soil media.

Most worrisome is the fact that the region is a coastal area with a sensitive ecosystem. This is further worsened by unmitigated industrial pollutions which contaminate water with nitrates, manganese, pesticides, lead, copper, sulfate, heavy metals and unstable pH. The immediate result of this situation is a threatened water supply source (ground, surface and rain) which causes serious ailments to the people and worsens their impaired productivity and environment. Here, 95% of the population depends on contaminated open water sources such as streams, lakes and rivers. 70% of the people are also without access to appropriate sanitation. Also, many households are unable to afford to send their children to school. For those children who are fortunate enough to attend school, 20-25% are often absent due to intestinal illness or caring for the needs of other sick family members. In this part of the country, 20% of children under the ages of five die every year from effects of drinking unsafe water.

The general situation is an irony of water, water, water everywhere but none good enough to drink. Over 10 million people found in the oil-bearing Niger Delta are vulnerable to these concerns. The persistent restiveness and recent hostage-taking in the region underscores the uncomfortable dimension the situation has assumed. The ad-hoc response of both the government and oil companies by sinking different water boreholes has not improved the situation. The fragile nature of the environment, coupled with the flawed process of awarding such water contracts have often resulted in poorly developed water systems that were never sustainable. Few successful water schemes are increasingly becoming vulnerable and problems such as incrustation of calcium carbonates, iron manganese and bacteria slimes on inner linings of casing materials, threats of improperly flushed-out drilling particles such as bentonites and polymers etc, and cuttings from annular space between well screen and formation walls are still persisting.

Other problems such as contamination from leachate plumes and organic growth from oxygen intake during pumping combine to make clean drinking water a scarce commodity in the entire area. As of today many abandoned and comatose boreholes dot the entire landscape.

Presently, the establishment of a waterborne sewerage system is not even a priority to the government because of reasons best known to it, while the environmental regulatory laws have not been well enforced. On the other hand, little efforts are known to have been made to build new latrine or sanitation systems in public places such as markets, motor parks and railways.

Reasons associated with such failure have largely been traceable from environmental and technical shortcomings to insouciance, ignorance, corruption and idiocy. Most worrisome in the entire region is the absence of any functional public utility to meet the water and sanitation needs of the people, where in existence, like in Owerri (Imo state) and Uyo ( Akwa ibom states) ,supplies are epileptic and marginal, depriving millions of households of clean water supplies. The result is an avalanche of water vendors hawking potentially unclean water via kiosks, trucks and carts.

There is no gain saying the fact that after 66 years of oil exploitation in the Delta, poverty remains a serious problem among the people, and social capital is broken. It is an irony that the goose that lays the golden egg stand to miss the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) unless immediate scalable interventions are designed and urgently put in place.

There is no debating the consensus that water is one of the most strategic of natural resources. It is intertwined in everyday life of human beings in myriad ways, and its importance as a driver of health, food security, and quality of life, and as a pillar for economic development is unique.
The following trends involving water are now more or less evident:
1) The scale of the problem is increasing from local to global.
2) As a consequence of pollution of sediment, soil and groundwater, the impacts as well as results of possible remediation appear after a significant delay.
3) At any given location several superimposed problems have to be addressed, which is not an easy task-especially if unforeseen effect are considered etc.

The foregoing is in cognizance of the fact that groundwater is susceptible to coliform contamination which can be caused by effluent from on-site sanitation, septic pits, and latrines, or due to improper handling of livestock manure. In fact, sanitary condition is closely related to coliform contamination. Groundwater contamination by coliform could pose a threat to human health, causing problems such as diarrhea.

In Ho Chi Minh city, recent studies report that coliform has been detected not only in shallow aquifers but also in deeper aquifers. As the shallow and deep aquifers are interconnected at many points beneath the city, coliform contamination can potentially spread into the deeper aquifer under certain conditions. In this regard, both shallow and deep aquifers in the city need to be closely monitored.

Threats posed to public health by the very poor collection and disposal of solid waste and human excreta in the Niger delta states of Nigeria is real. This is heart breaking when viewed against the huge financial allocation/receipts from the Federal allocation in the region. Rivers state government alone, since 1999 has received over two hundred and eighty six billion naira (N286 billion); Imo State has received over N88billion while Delta has over N350 billion and Abia N76 billion etc.

The worsening sewarage situation in Port Harcourt city alone constitutes a great threat to all, whether you live in government house; glass house or sky scrappers. Presently in the city, the hub of the oil rich Niger Delta, and the industrial hotspot of Nigeria, there are no in-built underground waste disposal system. Residents hire private septic tank sanitation operators to dispose their waste. Till now there are no properly designated places to dispose these wastes efficiently. Belated efforts by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) to develop an integrated waste treatment plant around the city are presently enmeshed in legal hiccups between them and the host community. The situation is further worsened by erratic water supply, very vital at impacting effective sanitation, and lack of coordinated planning by the authorities. The result is a sum tragedy of a grossly debased environment that is impairing public health and productivity, and expanding mass poverty.

Yes, urban poverty is real and this from many facets is underpinned by poor sanitation. Painfully, the regulation of the sanitation market, harmonization of appropriate dump site or the establishment of a waterborne sewerage system is still not on the boards. The huge population in Owerri, Uyo, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Warri, Aba Yenagoa etc still relies on scattered initiatives anchored on pour flush toilets, soak-pits and quasi-septic tanks etc.
It is only time that can tell how far this ugly situation could be improved.

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