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Fed up with the fumes

Dirty air in Nigeria takes a huge toll on lives and livelihoods. But civil society is not short of ideas for change, as Michael Simire finds out

New Internationalist
Child’s play: A boy jumps across boats wedged on a mixture of crude oil, water and sand, near Bojo in the Niger Delta. Oil production is a major pollutant in the area. Photo credit: Petterik Wiggers/Panos

Damilare Akintokun lives in the Ogba area of Lagos State. He is certain that the smoke emitted from the generator located just outside his house is affecting the air he breathes, but he relies on this source of energy to run his home and frozen-food business.

“If solar energy were affordable for all, with good electricity supply, most Lagosians would not be dependent on generators for their power,’ he says. ‘The truth is generators are not convenient at all; the noise and the fumes can be unbearable. But we need light, so we have to cope with the situation.”

Akintokun suffers from catarrh but does not know if he has any other health complications as he has not been for a medical check-up.

If Akintokun’s health issues are related to air quality, he’s not the only one. Nigeria – the giant of Africa, with a population of about 200 million people – ranks fourth highest in the world for deaths caused by air pollution. Air pollution is rising in Lagos, fuelled by an increase in population and industrial growth accompanied by a dwindling in the quality of its public power supply.

Bad management of waste and fumes from power generators all contribute to the dirty air. There are over five million cars and over 200,000 commercial vehicles.

The Niger Delta region is another blight on Nigeria’s air-pollution record. Port Harcourt in Rivers State and adjoining communities are at the receiving end due to soot pollution caused by illegal crude refining, gas flaring from oil and petrochemical installations and other industrial activities. Another contributor is the open burning of tyres in abattoirs to roast raw cow skin to make ponmo, a local delicacy.

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Think of The Children

Fynface Dunamene Fyneface, executive director of the Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre, says that black soot in Port Harcourt has been part of everyday life for many years: “It mixes with air and falls through the windows onto the floors. It’s very visible in the morning. If you wipe your hands on a car parked outside overnight, they turn black.”

According to James Harrison of Prime Initiative for Green Development, a local NGO, the soot problem has led to an “exodus” of people leaving the city over the past five years. “Some of these people have moved their businesses out of the state as well. Tourist attraction to Port Harcourt has been on a downward trend to zero,” he explains.

Health workers also bear witness to the consequences. Ailments emanating from air pollution are among the top five leading causes of morbidity and mortality in Nigeria, especially among children.

Chiemezie Chikadibia Georgewill, a health and safety officer in the Rivers State Department of Environment, says that children are particularly prone to respiratory tract infections, which has led to increased infant mortality in Port Harcourt.

“Currently, most parents avoid outdoor activities for their kids, especially during the dry season, due to health issues,” he explains. “The residents of the state are not happy as some spend large sums of money on medications.”

The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) established monitoring stations as a pilot scheme to gather data on air pollution in Port Harcourt. ‘We planned to establish 35 stations across the entire state,’ says NOSDRA Zonal Director Cyrus Nkangwung. “But then the state government showed interest and set up their own committee, so we have had to put our plan on hold.”

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Access to high-tech equipment and monitoring systems to collect and analyse data on air quality is extremely limited across Africa, so knowing the scale of the issue and forcing effective policy change can be difficult.

Whose Responsibility?

Folashade Adeboyejo is co-founder of PolyBriq Technologies, a tech start-up working on durable, energy-saving building materials for low-income housing. She argues that responsibility should rest at all levels – individuals, organisations and governments. All should adopt measures to alleviate the air-pollution situation, including banning the burning of household, industrial or forest waste. She also wants the exhaust from generators and plants to be checked to meet with environmental standards.

“It is quite ironic that the Lagos government has placed restrictions on commercial motor-powered tricycles” (rickshaws). Apart from tricycles engines being more efficient than cars, they occupy less space. The space occupied by a wagon is enough for four tricycles,’ she says. “We need to implement solutions that take more cars off the road, such as trains, and encourage ride sharing and cycling activities.”

Adeboyejo also wants buildings to be constructed with materials that are energy efficient and action to enable cleaner cooking.

Smoke from open cooking with firewood is a major air-pollution issue in Nigeria – albeit in the rural areas. Over 120 million people cook over open fires and, according to the WHO, smoke from them causes more than 98,000 deaths of women and children annually. After malaria and HIV/AIDS, this is said to be the country’s third-largest killer.

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Fyneface says that civil society has a role to play but needs support from government. His organisation is educating young people about how activities that contribute to environmental pollution lead to the loss of livelihoods for fishers and farmers, as well as damage to aquatic life.

“We train the Kpofire Boys (youths involved in small-scale refining of crude oil) on alternative livelihoods… We train them in fish and rice farming and climate issues,” explains Fyneface, adding that his organisation also runs courses on establishing small-scale renewable-energy production.

Dominica Una, co-founder of the Sustainable Builders Initiative, argues the case for properly monitored and effective environmental impact assessments. “Companies are either not being truthful or the assessments are not really ‘pro-environment’,” she says. “It is only when there is credibility in these assessments that we can talk about nipping the soot problem in the bud. More stringent penalties should be stipulated for offenders and those who pollute our air.”

Research suggests that by 2030 there could be nearly 50,000 deaths per year in Africa from power plant and vehicle emissions alone. Individual actions can help but ultimately political action is what will make the biggest difference.

Until then, it’s a problem that’s not going away.

This article is from the April 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
The entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription can be accessed here »

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