When I read the news about the incident of sewage overflow in Enugu State last weekend, I could not control the dark humour that sprang to my mind. I found myself thinking aloud, “The world is full of it!” Yes, crap, that is what we are forced to be swimming in, or walking on, nowadays. It happened in America, then Brazil, now Nigeria.
I could feel the pain of the state’s governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, as he virtually walked on human waste, dutifully serving his people. He was reported to have visited Enugu Prisons to see the source of the overflow of sewage from a septic tank which spilled over the public drainage system passing through the popular Ogbete Main Market. It constituted a potent health hazard to the traders and the general public.
The danger in untreated sewage finding its way into the public space is self-evident. Not only would the obnoxious and stomach-churning stench cause untold discomfort to people in the vicinity, the exposure could cause cholera outbreak, polio, typhoid, salmonella diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis, among other diseases and epidemics.Sewage overflow or spill is obviously what comes with urbanisation and the intricacies of managing human waste in a world that is becoming progressively overstressed.
Even developed economies cannot avoid such eventualities. A couple of months ago, Southern California, USA, had more than two million gallons of raw sewage spill into its tourist friendly waters from a burst utility pipeline some 20 miles away in Los Angeles. The stinky sludge poured onto streets and into storm drains.
Beaches in Long Beach and Seal Beach were closed to swimmers and waders while health officials tested the waters for bacteria to determine whether it was safe. Officials said they were not expecting the collapse of the sewage pipelines as they were due for replacement in two years time.
And then, just before commencement of the recently concluded Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, there was sewage spill into the river where some of the games were going to take place. The world was served with yet another raw material for dark humour. Some swimmers were even told not to touch their face after swimming, because they never could tell when they had “scooped up some poo-poo” while paddling for medals!
Once again, the complications of urbanisation had to be blamed for Brazil’s sewage spill. A particular report said city officials argued that the reason so much sewage was flushed directly into Rio’s Guanabara Bay was that it was too difficult to lay pipes in much of the city. The favelas (Brazilian slums) were crowded and carved into steep mountainsides, and so laying pipes could be dangerous.
However, Brazilian environmental activists maintained that there was not enough political will behind sanitation projects.
As is in Brazil, so is in Nigeria. Recent happenings are waking up our leaders to the clear and present danger of neglected public environmental works.
Last June, it was a harassed governor of Cross River State, Ben Ayade, that came face to face with the mass of rubbish which clogged the metropolis. It was also an embarrassed Minister of the Federal Capital Territory that suddenly sacked all the staff of the Abuja Environmental Protection Authority in one fell swoop, when he realised that Abuja’s environment was literally in a stinking state.
So, when I saw the Enugu State governor stride the eyesore at Ogbete Market, I had a feeling that Nigeria has come full circle. Time has come for us to look beyond ecological disasters and go back to environmental stewardship, as primary as sanitation-consciousness.
Once upon a time, we used to sweep and clean, which is very consistent with most African cultures. Later, we became modern people, urban dwellers, who live in very cosmetic airs, while sweeping realities under the carpet. The only time we used a word close to environment is when we discussed ecological disasters, which had become a bullet point in agenda for sharing the national cake. The ecological fund became a euphemism for slush fund.
But now, who shall we beg to help us pack our own crap? Who shall give us ideas on how to sweep our streets, and make sure the rubbish are well-evacuated? Who shall guide us on how to stop dropping faeces in open places? Who shall teach us to clean our own mess?
Seriously, these are disturbing times for the environmental sector. When the government is talking about tightening belt and cutting down on expenditure, we are sure that the first casualty is the environment sector, because our leaders are in a flux concerning the true worth of environmental infrastructure and governance. That was why, I am sure, the Yobe State Government scrapped its ministry of environment.
Yobe may not witness refuse dumps springing up in its metropolis, or sewage overflowing into its urban clusters – because of its vast rustic land mass – but be rest assured that one day soon, its day of reckoning shall come.
Yet, these could also be heady times for the environment sector. At a time the government, and the people, are scratching around looking for alternative sources of income, the environment could serve as an exit route for all of us. And what is more, this miracle is as cheap as using the rubbish and sewage we have to get the money we need.
I have a free advice for the Enugu State Governor. The sewage spill in Enugu may be a divine nudge for him to be creative in sewage management, and in this fashion blaze the trail, as Lagos State did with LAWMA.
Enugu State can use biodigesters (where anaerobic bacteria eat the waste and kill pathogens) to treat its sewage, and then channel the residual liquid to the neighbouring communities for irrigation in the vegetable growing valley. It has been proved in some other developing countries that it is cheaper than building a whole new sewage infrastructure. I say this because I am aware that Enugu, being an old colonial settlement, must be encumbered with decaying infrastructure that needs total overhaul.
The other ingenious way to utilise sewage is by using it to generate power. The world is evolving fast, and Nigeria must adopt the use of energy mix as other nations are doing rather than relying solely on gas for power generation as we currently do; which is why when Niger Delta militants sneeze, our power sector catches cold.
Waste to energy is the latest trend. China has more than 50 of waste to energy plants; so does India. The thermal and non-thermal technologies are available these days to convert the waste, which are already destined for dumpsites and landfills, to electricity. I have done a rough calculation and come up with an estimate that if all biosolids (sewage) in Nigeria were converted into biomass energy, they would produce at least three million mega watts of power.
Nigeria signed up to reduce its carbon emissions during last year’s COP 21 in Paris, and every day I wonder how we shall achieve that with gas flaring still going on here. But interestingly, we can totally achieve our INDC emissions reduction pledge by simply recycling our sewage and converting it to electricity or to biodiesel fuel.
Greg Odogwu is an environmentalist and popular columnist with Punch Newspaper