Saving Lagos

Lagos, with 22 million people, is one of the most populous cities on Earth. It is also one of the most polluted. On top of the low life expectancy caused by extreme poverty (which afflicts well over half the city’s population), pollution results in an estimated 11,200 premature deaths each year, 60% of which are children under the age of five. The main culprit in both cases is corruption – Nigeria’s Transparency International ranking recently fell by three places to 149 out of 180. According to a 2018 World Bank report, all the main drivers of pollution in Lagos can be traced back to failures of governance: ageing vehicles spewing sub-standard fuel imported from abroad without proper checks, factories (mainly cement, chemical and steel) which are allowed to operate with minimum oversight, overdependence on generators in the absence of steady electricity from the national grid, and deeply inadequate waste infrastructure.

The Guardian recently reported that ‘international dealers export to Nigeria around 900,000 tonnes a year of low-grade, “dirty” fuel made in Dutch, Belgian and other European refineries’ that vastly exceeds EU pollution limits and sulphur standards. Nigeria ‘is having dirty fuel dumped on it that cannot be sold to other countries with higher and better implemented standards’. Yet for all that, nobody would guess that the country possesses four domestic refineries, which collectively operate at about 6% of capacity despite the almost $400 million expended on turnaround maintenance in recent years. This is because the lucky few licensed to export crude – who are among the 29,500 millionaires of a population of 211 million – not only benefit from the contracts that they don’t execute but have an interest in those low-grade refineries abroad for that reason, thereby eating from both sides, at huge cost to the country.

Meanwhile, companies in the organized private sector are forced to produce most of their own energy, with damaging environmental consequences. Despite the billions of dollars thrown at the power sector over the years – $16 billion between 1999 and 2007 alone – the national grid is still only able to cover a third of the country’s needs. As a result, Nigeria has the largest number of private generators of any country in the world (entire factories in China are dedicated solely to producing them for the Nigerian market). These machines spew out black carbon, causing fatal respiratory and cardiopulmonary diseases as well as constant low-level noise, which one only becomes aware of when the generators are occasionally switched off and one feels a sudden release of tension.  

Lagos’s environmental depredations have led to rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall, along with more frequent storms. Until five years ago, my compound was served by a ten-foot deep well, because Lagos State Water Corporation (‘Sustainably meeting potable water demand through international best practice’, as its mission statement puts it) only reaches one third of the city’s households that are registered for state tax purposes – if they are lucky. In 2015 the well ran dry for the first time a month or so ahead of the rains in April. Every subsequent year this happened again, the water drying up progressively earlier until eventually there was none left before the end of January, whereupon we were forced to dig a borehole (as have two-thirds of Lagos households, irrespective of whether they are also served by the Corporation). In theory, this meant that we now had cleaner, perhaps even drinkable water. In practice, the indiscriminate digging of boreholes without government approval – there are no clear laws on the matter – means that many of them contain unsafe levels of E Coli in a city where the use of septic tanks is widespread.

Boreholes are the source of the ubiquitous, non-biodegradable sachets of ‘pure water’ relied on by eight out of ten Lagosians – packets which, together with other non-recyclable waste products amounting to 10,000 tonnes daily, have become another major pollutant. The name ‘pure water’ is misleading. One study found that, of 50 sachets bought from hawkers in all 20 municipalities of Lagos State, 58% were unfit for human consumption, containing a mixture of parasites and impurities. (The only alternative, however, is the vastly more expensive bottled water from the likes of Nestlé, whose chairman emeritus, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, once ridiculed the ‘extreme’ NGOs ‘who bang on about declaring water a public right’.) 60 million of these 50cl sachets are disposed of daily in the country as a whole. They are tossed into the open gutters, clogging drains and causing flooding when the rains hit; into canals that sweep them into the Atlantic, contaminating the fish we feed on; and from the windows of passing vehicles onto the roadside. The majority of Lagos’s inhabitants come from rural villages to which they will one day return. Their time here is transitory: working for poverty-wages so they can eventually retire back home. Consequently, they do not have much attachment to the city. If it is unkind to them, they are likely to reciprocate.

Ironically, it is the state government – the most progressive in the country by some way (although that may not be saying much) – which has apparently shown more concern for Lagos’s environment than its citizens. It is now over a decade since the Lagos State Waste Management Authority established a series of waste banks in strategic areas as part of its zero-waste initiative. According to Titilola Adeeyo, the then recycling manager,

We buy the pure water sachets for N5 per kilogramme provided it is clean and moisture-free. We buy the plastic bottles at N20 per kilogramme. We give the recycled bags to people who need them. The idea behind putting money value to pure water sachets is to discourage people from flying them all over the place thereby degrading the environment . . . The idea behind the buyback project is to create a job market for people just as unemployed Lagos residents can tap into the recycling business.

The state government also embarked on large-scale tree-planting initiatives. Since trees trap significant amounts of water, they can be used to clear storm-water runoff, which is reduced by one million gallons for every 1,000 trees. All told, 9.6 million were planted in Lagos between 2010 and 2020. Additionally, every compound was encouraged to plant at least one tree, although judging by my own neighbourhood few seem to have heeded the call. Indeed, first-time visitors to Lagos will be struck by how generally denuded it is of vegetation, as if covering everything in concrete were necessary to hold back the ever-threatening wilderness lurking just beyond the city limits.

That said, much of this is too little and in any case subject to the same corruption as elsewhere in the system. Both these initiatives occurred during the tenure of Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola (2007-2015) but have tapered off somewhat. Some of the waste banks have fallen into disrepair, many trees are dying due to lack of attention and the canals are in the same sort of shape that originally galvanised Fashola into action. Meanwhile, there are some who dedicate their lives to combatting the city’s environmental problems. One of them, Desmond Majekodunmi, runs the Lekki Urban Forestry and Animal Shelter, founded in 2013 on 20 hectares in what was once the wilderness but is now an oasis within the expanding city. It seeks to preserve the ‘natural habitats in urban areas for use as a field laboratory to interact with and learn from nature’, to ‘address the issue of limited green spaces in urban areas like Lagos’, and to ‘enlighten the populace to clear the ambiguity of climate change through practical learning’. As with Omobola Eko’s Urban Tree Revival Initiative, which organises an annual tree-planting day, emphasis is placed on environmental education for children, who comprise not just the city’s but the country’s largest demographic, numbering around 90 million.

In this context, it should also be remembered that it was these same young people who peacefully demonstrated over two weeks last October in what became known as #EndSARS – initially a protest against police brutality but that quickly extended to bad governance generally. The old men in government initially tolerated them because we were now a democracy and peaceful protest was a constitutional right, but eventually lost patience and ordered soldiers to shoot them at two rallies in Lagos. This appeared to work. The protestors disbanded and everybody went home. But the movement is rearing its head again and is threatening to stage another peaceful rally at one of the two venues – Lekki Toll Gate – where one brave soul known as DJ Switch (now in exile) filmed the killings as she lay on the ground, expecting any minute to die. The point is that they have no choice. The entire rotten edifice must be dismantled if we are to have any chance of not merely stopping but reversing the calamity we appear intent on visiting on ourselves.

Read on: Matthew Gandy, ‘Learning from Lagos’, NLR 33.