Thought Leadership

Living In Dirt: Nigeria’s waste crisis requires urgent action

4 Mins read

Editor’s Note: In this Thought Leadership Piece, Nigeria Health Watch Health Events Manager, Thelma Thomas highlights the breakdown of sanitation in Nigeria and how this is contributing to the country’s public health disease burden. She outlines potential measures that should help manage Nigeria’s waste crisis if taken into serious consideration by the necessary authorities.
A few weeks ago, I boarded a public bus on my way home from work. Another passenger seated close to me had a plastic bag of groundnuts and a bottle of soft drink. When he was done with his snack, he flung the groundnut shells and bottle out of the window. I was irritated because of his disregard for the environment, but when I thought more about it, I realised that there was no dustbin in the bus. Still, I felt he could have held on to the trash until he found a dustbin when he got off the bus.

Despite years of support for sanitation efforts in Nigeria by international partners, a lack of ownership through substantial funding by the Nigerian government has kept most parts of Nigeria in a perpetual state of uncleanliness.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

This is worrisome because, according to the World Bank, over 90 percent of waste in lower-income countries are dumped openly and untreated, as these nations often lack adequate disposal and treatment facilities. Unfortunately, the nation known as the Giant of Africa falls under this group.

Although there are existing environmental laws as well as efforts by the Nigerian government to improve sanitation and reduce the high rate of indiscriminate waste disposal, Nigeria is on the verge of becoming a refuse nightmare.

A complicated situation
Across various Nigerian cities, heaps of refuse dumps line the streets, creating a habitat for parasites that carry disease. The issue of low collection coverage, and irregular collection services, has pushed most households to rely on young boys for the collection and disposal of their refuse. Not only is the waste not properly disposed of, but these boys are also constantly exposed to health risks and exploited as child laborers. Generating waste is unavoidable, but if it is poorly managed the environment suffers and it can constitute public health threats.

Children on the street who are refuse collectors end up dumping the refuse indiscriminately. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

In addition to the indiscriminate refuse disposal, most drainage systems in Nigeria are clogged up because people are constantly dumping plastic bottles and bags in them. Staff of the Abuja Environment Protection Board (AEPB) are sometimes seen accompanied by heavily armed security officers, chasing hawkers and beggars off the streets but paying little or no attention to the illegal dumping of refuse which should be their primary responsibility.

Over the last three decades, the exponential population growth, coupled with increased commercial activity, have increased waste generation in Nigeria. A lack of proper collection and disposal of this waste poses a threat to both humans and the environment at large. Due to improper chemical waste disposal, some communities in Nigeria are faced today with issues of soil, air and water contamination, while other communities are faced with environmental degradation.

Moving the sanitation needle
To overcome this growing ugly trend, we must re-examine our actions and inaction. We must begin by asking the question of what has worked in the past and where we need to urgently improve. As a country, Nigeria cannot afford to continue living in dirt. We must take urgent and deliberate steps to change this narrative by adopting a multisectoral approach, bearing in mind the social determinants of health. To do so, the following issues should be addressed:

i. Improving solid waste management: Government at all levels must be willing to support sanitation and give it the urgent priority that it deserves. We must take a cue from the strong leadership taken by the government of Rwanda in tackling waste management. The country’s ban on the use of non-biodegradable plastics bags and packaging materials, earned it capital, Kigali, a prestigious badge, as one of cleanest cities in Africa by UN Habitat in 2008.

ii. Waste recycling: Recycling is an excellent way of saving energy and conserving the environment. However, for recycling to be effectively done, the Federal Government must take the lead in driving waste recycling activities in Nigeria. Provision should be made for the collection of different categories of waste such as glass bottles, plastics, papers and cans. A national strategic recycling plan and actionable steps for improving recycling in Nigeria will definitely go a long way in achieving this and supporting the work done by companies such as WeCyclers, Chanja Datti, and Recycle Points.

iii. Poor sanitation in hospitals: Studies have shown that hospital-generated waste is poorly disposed of in spite of their potentially hazardous and harmful nature. However, Federal Medical Centre Ebute-Metta in Lagos is changing this narrative through the support of PharmAccess Foundation’s SafeCare program. The SafeCare model, ensures that hospital waste is collected and disposed of properly. This they do by using colour-coded waste bins to collect different types of hospital waste.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

iv. Behavioural change: Placing waste bins in strategic locations is not enough. The government must take further steps to educate Nigerians about the dangers of indiscriminate dumping of refuse and the importance of maintaining a clean environment. While the plastic industry has provided employment for many Nigerians, it is time to think outside the box and begin to provide the sector with biodegradable and reusable material for their work, considering the negative effect of non-biodegradable materials on the environment.

v. Prompt evacuation and management of solid waste: Government agencies such as the National Environmental Standards Regulations and Enforcement Agency (NESREA), Ministries of Environment and Water Resources, should work with environmental health officers at the local government level, to ensure generated waste is evacuated quickly and disposed of appropriately. More resources such as vehicles, trucks and manpower should be deployed to meet the daily growing demands of waste collection and disposal.

Despite signs like this, many Nigerians still dump refuse on the street. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Finally, to ensure that support by international partners and efforts of the government towards sanitation yield the desired results, governments at all levels must take ownership through substantial funding and adopt a more organised refuse disposal and collection management. They should ensure that environmental laws are enforced at all levels. Communities must also learn to take responsibility and maintain a culture of cleanliness for their homes and the environment.
Although sanitation infrastructure can be expensive, the return on investment in terms of disease prevention, beautification of the environment and job creation is priceless in the long run. The alternative is to continue to live in communities that are unhealthy, that increase our chances of falling sick and spreading disease, and that ultimately reduce our already shortened lifespan in Nigeria.
Are there other ways Nigerians can promote a clean disease-free environment? Let us know in the comment section or on our social media platforms.

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