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The Problem with Solid Waste Management in Nigeria’s Low-Income Neighbourhoods

CRISIS - Pollution Crises by Mathias Agbo Jr Africa Aug 23rd 20235 mins
The Problem with Solid Waste Management in Nigeria’s Low-Income Neighbourhoods

In the past 30 years, Nigeria’s major cities have been rapidly urbanising, attracting hordes of people in search of a better life. According to the World Bank, the population of Lagos grows by 77 people every hour, which is a significant increase by any metric. A similar population growth pattern is also seen in other major cities like Abuja, Ibadan, and Port Harcourt. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the volume of waste generated, which has put city authorities under immense pressure to develop more efficient solid waste management systems, especially in low-income neighbourhoods.

The Issue of Solid Waste Management in Nigeria

According to the World Bank, Nigeria currently generates at least 32 million tonnes of solid waste annually, and this number is projected to rise to 107 million tonnes by 2050. However, only 30% of the waste generated is efficiently collected and disposed of, mainly because two-thirds of urban households in low-income neighbourhoods lack formal waste management services, unlike middle-class and affluent neighbourhoods where waste is regularly collected. This reality portends a very dire future for city residents in low-income areas, who are unable to manage the volume of waste they presently produce, resulting in a plethora of health and environmental challenges for these residents.

In the absence of an efficient waste management system, solid waste is typically dumped in illegal makeshift landfills, gathered in heaps and incinerated in situ, or abandoned by highways and street corners, while others end up in open drains and nearby streams and water channels, littering streets and clogging drainage channels. Sometimes, water leaches through the landfill, carrying contaminants into the groundwater aquifer or adjacent water bodies, potentially ending up in the food chain or drinking water sources. Inappropriate disposal of batteries and other hazardous chemical waste results in the leaching of dioxins into the surrounding soil, thus contaminating it. In addition, burning organic waste on the open streets releases carcinogens into the atmosphere, which could potentially cause respiratory problems in humans.

The recent World Bank report ‘Detox Development: Repurposing Environmentally Harmful Subsidies’, ranked Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and India as the top three countries exposed to the most unsafe levels of pollution and environmental hazards, accounting for nearly 50% of the global population of people exposed to very unsafe levels of pollution. 

The multi-level failure in solid waste management in low-income neighbourhoods in Nigeria, particularly, has a direct correlation with the spread of diseases in low-income neighbourhoods, as improper disposal of household waste offers a fertile breeding habitat for mosquitoes, rodents, and other vector-carrying germs and diseases, thus posing a risk to public health. The 2021 World Malaria Report confirms that Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, remains the most malaria-endemic country in the world, accounting for 27% of cases and 32% of all deaths caused by malaria globally.

Over the years, the culture of poor waste management in Nigeria’s low-income neighbourhoods has been enabled and sustained by two key factors.

Firstly, waste collection in urban centres across Nigeria has been outsourced to commercial entities; consequently, these service providers typically view low-income neighbourhoods as unprofitable turfs, hence the reluctance to deploy the requisite agency and resources required to effectively collect and dispose of waste in these neighbourhoods. Yet, neglecting waste management in one area often results in a disastrous ripple effect on the entire city, due to the adjacency of all neighbourhoods to one another. Therefore, prioritising waste management in low-income communities is an absolute necessity to prevent potential health hazards and guarantee a healthy environment for all. Consequently, it behoves city authorities to ensure that waste management in these neighbourhoods is socially driven, anchored on the premise of environmental justice and social equity rather than profits; therefore, the responsibility and cost of managing domestic waste should be borne by municipal authorities as a social service for the greater good of each city.

The second challenge is that most people in low-income neighbourhoods have very low environmental literacy and are unaware of the hazards of improper waste disposal and other harmful environmental practices they presently engage in; therefore, continuous sensitisation of residents of low-income neighbourhoods to better environmental awareness is very essential. Prodding citizens to fulfil their obligations to maintain a clean environment and adopt eco-friendly practices is crucial to promoting social responsibility by providing succinct, accurate, and hands-on information on the hazards of poor waste management, to deter delinquent behaviour while promoting and incentivising behavioural change that promotes waste segregation at source rather than lumping everything together to send to landfills. Consequently, citizens must be incentivised to sort their waste into compostable, reusable, recyclable, and non-biodegradable components. This small but significant shift in behaviour patterns will ultimately lead to a healthier environment. 

What Should Policymakers Do?

Although numerous endeavours are currently being undertaken to combat diseases like malaria in Nigeria, considering the scarcity of resources, it would be more impactful and sensible to utilise resources judiciously, by amalgamating and implementing them with the shared objective of eradicating waste and preventing diseases concurrently. Presently, existing domestic waste management laws are not far-reaching enough because they ignore the socio-economic peculiarities of the constituent communities across towns and cities by specifying a uniform domestic waste management guideline across all neighbourhoods. Therefore, to ensure efficient waste management in these neighbourhoods, policymakers and city administrators must develop a multi-level strategy and blueprint for the collection, management, recycling, and disposal of domestic waste in low-income neighbourhoods that guarantees a healthy environment, access to clean air, and protection of water sources and groundwater aquifers.

Action Points for Policymakers

To address these challenges, policymakers must:

  1. Classify low-income waste collection and disposal as a social service.
  2. Promote environmental literacy in low-income neighbourhoods through mass education and behavioural change campaigns.
  3. Incentivise waste segregation at the source, encouraging residents to sort waste into compostable, recyclable, and non-biodegradable components.
  4. Enforce anti-littering laws and crack down on indiscriminate waste dumping.
  5. Conduct periodic sanitary inspections to enforce baseline environmental benchmarks in all neighbourhoods.

Featured image: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung/Rainer Wozny/Flickr

You might also like: How Waste Management in Germany is Changing the Game

About the Author

Mathias Agbo Jr

Mathias Agbo Jr is a Sustainability and Adaptation researcher and built-environment designer who writes about climate change, African architecture, and urbanism. He runs a design and sustainability, Climate Change research consultancy in Abuja, Nigeria. Twitter: @mathias_Agbojr. .

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