As President Muhammadu Buhari begins a second term and governors roll up their sleeves to set to work in pursuit of their promises, it is important to quickly remind them that the issues of the environment, which appeared to have been missing in their campaign promises, must be brought back to the fore. Why this clarion call? This is because of implications of environmental issues on our health and the need to truly tread the path of sustainable development for inclusive growth and development.
Environmental issues have fallen off the radar at national and state levels. It started some time ago and we can say it became more noticeable when our affable and hardworking Minister of Environment, Ms. Amina Mohammed, left for New York in February 2017 to serve as Deputy Secretary-General of the UN. Not long after, her deputy, the Minister of State for Environment, Mr. Ibrahim Jubril, crossed over to Nasarawa State and opted to preside over his people as the Emir of Nasarawa in December 2018. The Minister of State for Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Suleiman Hassan, was subsequently announced to oversee the affairs of the Ministry of Environment. But with an absence of direct political will and a full-time leadership, things appeared not to have gone very well in the environment sector.
Indeed, our crisis of environment is reflected in the mountain of wastes across our cities and rural areas. It is evident in the degree of land degradation ravaging the land. It is also evident in the poor quality of air circulating in our environment. The latter is thanks to millions of generators competing for noise and air pollution dominance. With all of these, our health and environment are under assault. How and why did we backslide after showing signs as a nation determined to tread the path of sustainable development and environmentally sound management of our environment?
Before answering that, let’s take look into history a bit.
The UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden, from June 5, 1972, was a landmark event that brought to fore the need to pay attention to issues of the environment. Notably, conservation of natural resources and wildlife, reduction of air pollution, environmental education, recognition of connection between ecological management and poverty were the focus of attention. At that epoch making event, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with headquarters in Nairobi, was created as the focal point for environmental issues within the United Nations system and indeed globally. In June 1992, 20 years after Stockholm, due to emergence of new environmental problems, the world headed to Rio for the International Conference on Environment and Development.
That conference, also known as the Rio Earth Summit, adopted Agenda 21, geared towards a green world in the 21st Century. Perhaps most significantly, Rio was the beginning of a major paradigm shift towards Sustainable Development, which called for due attention to social development, economic development and environmental protection. The conference also adopted what we now know as the 3 Rio Conventions: the Convention on Bio-diversity, (CBD) the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and the UN Convention on Desertification (UNCCD). The latter inspired our very own Dr. Newton Jibunoh on his epoch journey across the Sahara Desert to raise awareness about the crisis of desertification and its potential for conflict and its interconnectedness with poverty.
The various conferences also led to the creation of the relevant environmental agencies and, eventually, the Federal Ministry of Environment in Nigeria. Environment issues were hitherto being handled by an innocuous unit in the then Ministry of Works and Housing. But with the high profile international processes, we followed the trends of events and established the Federal Environment of Protection Agency, which was subsequently upgraded to a full-fledged Ministry of Environment. The various international environment conferences and their outcome documents also served reference points in the drafting of our National Environment Agenda in 1999 and, subsequently, in 2017.
Despite achievements of the past, the present times can testify to the fact that environmental issues have since fallen off our radar. This in no way helps the nation grow economically and socially as ignoring environmental degradation only sabotages any nation’s effort at development. So, how do we start?
I believe the place to start is with a clear strong signal of political will and commitment to tackle environment issues by immediately appointing an experienced professional as Minister of Environment. There is need to also strengthen implementing arms such as the National Environmental Standards and Regulation Enforcement Agency (NESREA) to enable creation of standards and enforcement of our environmental laws. The same action needs to be taken at the state levels with appropriate institutions and mechanism. Each state needs to draw up its programme of action in accordance with its peculiar environmental problems. Some key issues, which deserve attention, include the following:
• Management of solid wastes: This is the most visible aspect of failure of our environmental crisis. We must pay more attention to this by using the 3 R principles: Reduce Reuse and Recycle.
• Land degradation and erosion: This is a pervasive problem across the country and requires immediate attention. Indeed, in some areas, they deserve special intervention and emergency action.
• Air pollution: Population growth, urbanisation and the crisis of the energy sector are huge sources of air pollution and we must take necessary action. Our laws including those on noise pollution should be effectively implemented.
• Hazardous and electronic wastes: Despite our spirited efforts, Nigeria remains a digital dump and our Ministry of Environment needs to ensure that the National E-Waste Policy is given the required backing.
• Inclusion of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) in the curriculum of Students of Chemistry in our Universities.
• Identification of abandoned factories and chemical dump sites across the countries for possible remediation work possibly within the framework of the SAICM.
• Creation of a corps of young professionals in the field of environment who would become the pool of experts required in the area of environment.
The foregoing are certainly not exhaustive but an indication of some of the things we need to pay attention to as we struggle with environmental sustainability. But before ending this piece it will be apt to say a few words about Lagos State for obvious reason. With its population and reputation as the economic capital of Nigeria, it is always in the forefront. Its capacity or lack of it to cope, especially with its municipal solid wastes shames the city. Not too long ago, we had the Annual Lagos Climate Summit. Somehow, it went off the priority list of a new administration. It is strongly recommended that the new administration should reconsider bringing back such a forum as one of its strategic options to find enduring solution to the environment problem of Lagos as a mega city. Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has hinted at bringing back the monthly environment sanitation day, where the residents are forced to clean their immediate environment. Such a once-in-a-month perfunctionary exercise is certainly not the answer to the problem of municipal solid waste in Lagos. It requires a more strategic and more comprehensive approach which I am sure can be found after due consultations at an appropriate Lagos State Environment Forum with environment experts from some of our universities and other stakeholders in the civil society camp. After all said and done, the simple message of this piece to our newly elected leader is: Please, bring back environment issues to the centre stage!
•This article was written by Amb. Ayo Olukanni. He is the vice chairman of environment NGO, Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE) in honorary capacity and current director-general of the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture.