By Olamide Francis
In a place with a mushrooming population like Nigeria, poor sanitation will invariably be at the heart of the environmental challenges confronting it. You don’t even need a University degree in environmental management to know that rapid urbanisation puts pressure on already strained land and water resources – the case of Nigeria. According to statistics from multiple credible sources, Nigeria will become the third most populous country by 2050. With this projection, a byzantine sanitation issue – which will, in turn, contribute to environmental pollution and global warming – is imminent. Not just have our proliferated population caused a surge in the amount of waste we generate and pollutants we release into the environment, the level of poverty prevalent in the country has aggravated the numerous environmental challenges we face. We have a population with no means to cater to them and their basic needs. Poverty and explosive population growth are deleterious twins known to increase the rate of environmental pollution in a country and pose threat to the lives of the citizens.
It will be gratuitous to form a long list of places in Nigeria where open defecation is still ubiquitous owing to a lack of a proper sanitary system. Only someone living in the realm of self-illusion will say Nigeria doesn’t have a poor sanitation issue on its hands. One in every four Nigerian practice open defecation and only 11 out of the 774 local government in Nigeria is free from the practice of open defecation. Nigeria has consistently been behind India on the list of countries with the highest rate of open defecation. While India is gradually approaching its goal to eradicate open defecation, the Nigerian government has only been able to make two promises (2014 and 2019) in the space of six years to tackle open defecation – all of which hasn’t yielded any fruit. There is a huge deficit between promise and action.
While we are quasi-focused on gas flaring, combustion of fuels by automobiles, oil bunkering and others as the primary agents of environmental degradation and climate change, we have forgotten that there are other subtle but devastating catalysts of environmental degradation in Nigeria. This challenge is not asymptomatic to Nigeria as 4.3 billion people over the world have no access to proper sanitation. However, we cannot measure our progress using other countries as a yardstick but our capacity as a nation. Can Nigeria end poor sanitation? Yes, with a sound political will at the centre of the plan.
At the current state of Nigeria, we are in the eleventh hour of tackling the menace of poor sanitation caused by open defecation and the lack of toilets across the country. However, the challenge isn’t ineluctable. We can use ‘one stone to kill two birds.’ Not just should the government intensify efforts to provide proper sanitary systems across the country, sustainability and efforts to reduce climate change effects should be integrated into the toilets. There is a nexus between toilets and climate change and this must be taken into consideration when fighting the sanitary problem that has become a national spectacle. Our toilets must outstrip mere storing and disposal of organic waste products to fighting climate change – one stone to kill two birds. This phenomenon is what is commonly referred to as sustainable toilets.
Wastewater and sludge from sustainable toilets produce valuable water, nutrients and energy. Composted toilet waste is suitable for soil conditioner in agriculture and urine for liquid manure in the garden. Human waste can be enriched into safe nutritious fertilizer pellets. Also, human waste via anaerobic digesters can be used to generate biogas for cooking, lighting and electricity generation. All of these are what sustainable toilets embody. Instead of employing the use of fertilizers with detrimental effects on crops and the environment they are used, sustainable toilets provide alternatives for farmers to produce healthier foods organically. Although, direct use of this waste can be detrimental to crops, hence, the sludge must be treated. We must seek ways to turn our environmental problems into opportunities.
Sustainable toilets will and must effectively capture human waste in a safe and accessible setting. Toilet waste from a sustainable sanitary system must have the capacity to be stored for later collection or to be transported through pipes. The stuff we flush down in our toilets can be transported to a facility where it can be stored in open-air tanks for microbes to feed on, release carbon dioxide (which can be captured by plants for photosynthesis) and the residual water can then be flushed into the sea. These are systems that sustainable toilets are built on.
Any kind of waste is a resource and we must begin to see business and employment possibilities in our waste handling sector in Nigeria. Researchers are tirelessly working to convert human waste into a resource that benefits farmers, create jobs, and generate business opportunities. While human waste management is a challenge, it also offers a business and development opportunity that could benefit millions of poor farmers. If we are serious about lifting millions of Nigerians out of poverty, this is a path we must investigate in Nigeria. Happy World Toilet Day.
Olamide Francis is a Nigerian journalist and writer.