Global reports on pollution affirming the country as one of those with the worst indices are frightening. First, the World Health Organisation revealed last year that Onitsha, the commercial hub of the South-East, was the most polluted city in the world. Then this report that says three of our rivers are among the 20 most polluted globally. The affected rivers are: Imo, Kwa Ibo and Cross River.
Plastic materials in these rivers, together with 17 others, represent 67 per cent of global inflow into the oceans. Between 1.15 million and 2.41 million tons of plastic waste are estimated to flow into the oceans. These materials are eaten by marine animals or fish, a source of sea foods poisoning. Ingestion of plastic, experts say produces toxic chemicals.
A study by Nature on River Plastic Emissions to the World’s Oceans noted that Imo River discharges 17,500 tons of plastics at the lower mass input and 36,000 tons at the upper mass input levels; Cross River 33,600 tons (lower mass) and 65,000 tons (upper mass); and Kwa Ibo 92,900 tons (lower mass) and 20,800 tons at the upper mass levels. The danger of it to marine life and humanity was part of the agenda of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Kenya, early this month. China and Indonesia are the biggest culprits.
Pollution has become the world’s biggest killer. Erik Solheim, Executive Director, UN Environment Programme, says “Thirteen million people die from pollution; that makes pollution the biggest killer on the planet and we need to reduce it.” A fatality source that makes annual tragedies from cancer, malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, pale into insignificance, indeed, requires urgent attention.
In Nigeria, environmental regulations are not obeyed and government agencies charged with enforcement are not serious with their jobs either. In fact, plastic materials are more life-threatening than WHO could imagine. For instance, butchers at many abattoirs roast animals with used tyres and plastic materials, just as roadside bean cake (or akara ball fries), plantain and maize are routinely roasted with plastics that serve as firewood. The foods are poisoned as a result.
It is no more an urban phenomenon. Air pollution with carbon monoxide and high sulphate concentration is a major source of lung and cardiovascular diseases, such as asthma and cancer. Lack of potable water is common in most parts of the country, especially in rural communities in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. Therefore, the residents depend on running water heavily polluted with oil spill. Local and international studies have long shown that such streams contain benzene – a carcinogenic or cancer agent, lead and other poisonous substances. As the water is polluted, so is the air. Farmland and aquatic life are also endangered.
Shockingly, a new study reveals that environmental pollution accounts for increasing child mortality rates in the Niger Delta region. Researchers from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland said oil spills that occurred five years before conception doubled the neonatal mortality rate from 38 to 76 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Lancet scientists lament: “Pollution poses a massive challenge to planetary health and deserves the concentrated attention of national leaders, civil society, health professionals, and people around the world.”
This is why in the developed parts of the world, ambient air pollution emissions from industries, automobiles and households are measured to know when the red flag should be raised, says WHO. In the European Union, member-states have individual ceiling limits for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, and non-methane volatile organic compounds as they monitor air quality.
It is better to prevent pollution rather than treating its symptoms. UN says past experience has shown that remedial actions to clean up polluted sites and water bodies are generally much more expensive than applying measures to prevent pollution from occurring. Because of lack of the political will to enforce its writ, international oil companies still flare about eight billion cubic metres of gas in Nigeria annually. Operating business governance in Europe and other no-nonsense climes outlaw such hazardous practice. Deadlines for ending it in the country are shifted with reckless abandon, as if human existence does not matter. Zero Routine Flaring 2030 Initiative, a global campaign, was endorsed by Nigeria last year. But the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu, is optimistic that this is achievable by 2020 with his roadmap. Environmentalists are watching.
The new pollution reality as the world’s deadliest killer means that Nigeria’s ministries of environment at both state and federal levels should redefine their roles and commitment to duty. Funds set aside for making the environment safe should be so utilised, never to be treated as slush funds by government officials, as was rampant in the immediate past.
Without a safe environment, doom stares everyone in the face. It is a cruel reality every Nigerian, rich or poor, is faced with now. Instructively, other countries in African are not as ignorant or indifferent as Nigeria. Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Mali and Mauritania have outlawed the use of thin plastic bags, a trail blazed first by Italy and France in Europe. But in Nigeria, they litter the streets and highways and block sewage. Evidently, these aberrations call for a concerted response from the government and public. In order to achieve effective water pollution control, there is a need for a framework of national policies, legislation and regulations setting the scene for polluters and management authorities. An important element is the formulation of realistic standards and enforceable regulations.