Scrap environmental protection agencies, expert tells South-East Governors

Posted by Boniface Okoro, Umuahia | 7 September 2016 | 5,588 times

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Mazi Ogbonnaya Akoma (JP) is an environmental health expert and retired Director of Pollution Control & Environmental Health. He is also a former Secretary  of the South-East Zone of the Environmental Health Officers Association of Nigeria (EHOAN) and also a Fellow of the Society for Environmental Health of Nigeria. In this interview with Regional Editor BONIFACE OKORO, Akoma calls on South-East governors to scrap Environmental Protection Agencies and replace them with Environmental Sanitation Authorities to achieve effective and sustainable environmental sanitation in their states. To this end, Akoma wants the governors to stop politicising environmental sanitation issues but rather copy the model introduced by a former governor of old Imo State, the late Chief Sam Mbakwe in waste management. Excerpts:

News Express: As an expert in the field of environmental health and sanitation, what is your take on the poor sanitary condition of the states in the south-east zone of Nigeria?

Mazi Ogbonnaya Akoma (JP): To start with, the current structures that are in place in the South-East zone of Nigeria and, indeed, in many parts of the federation, may not yield the required improvement in the sanitary condition of the zone and Nigeria. What I think the South-East governors should do in particular  is to copy the example of what the political sage, the late Chief Samuel Onunaka Mbakwe, governor of old Imo State, did between 1979 and 1983. When Dee Sam came on board as governor, he was desirous of keeping Imo State clean. What he did was to seek the services and expert advice of those who were trained in the art and science of environmental sanitation and general disease control measures. By this, I mean he collaborated with Public Health Superintendents (as environmental health officers were called then), and held a meeting with them at Imo Concorde Hotel, Owerri. Chief Mbakwe had asked them what he would do to ensure that Imo was kept clean. In reply, the public health officers then told him that for him to succeed, he should set up a structure to collect refuse, engage the services of a technical partner to handle the collected refuse; and that advice was accepted and implemented. That became the magic wand Mbakwe’s administration needed to realise a clean Imo State. A German firm, SULO, was the technical partner on refuse management in Imo State then.

Mbakwe subsequently set up a structure called Imo State Environmental Sanitation Authority and not what we have now – protection agencies – in these states.

ASEPA, for example, as it exists today in Abia State, is almost a parallel organisation with Abia State Ministry of Environment. Professionally speaking, protection agencies in the states are parallel organisations with the state ministries of environment in their operations. The two should not exist hand-in-hand because it is a duplication of functions. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency, FEPA, gave way with the creation of the Federal Ministry of Environment in 2002. In the same way, state protection agencies should give way in the states that have created ministries of environment by any name. This is the right thing to do. Again, environmental sanitation duties have been over politicised since 1999 to the detriment of public health in the zone; and this should stop now. What should be in place in the South-East and the other states should be sanitation authorities (or agencies).

The word ‘protection’ should be removed because it is holistic and all-embracing. Each state in the South-East should establish environmental sanitation authority to manage refuse generally and which should be headed by sanitarians like what obtained in Imo State when Chief Osita Nwosu (a sanitarian from Arondizuogu) was chosen to head ISESA where he gave professionally excellent services. Chief Mbakwe did not choose any type of politician for the job; he went for a professional. 

Again, when Chief Sam Mbakwe established ISESA, he went further and established zonal offices of the authority in Aba, Owerri, Umuahia, Okigwe and Orlu, and all those offices were headed and managed by seasoned and experienced sanitarians and not non-sanitarians! In the area of education in Abia state, for example, ASUBEB is always headed by seasoned teachers, just as other relevant professionals have always headed such professional bodies in the state as BIR, HMB, ABPHCDA, ABSACA, Water Board, etc. In the same manner, the environmental health professionals should head all environmental health and sanitation outfits in the state, including ASEPA, RUWASA, etc. I, therefore, suggest that each state in the South-East zone should establish an environmental sanitation authority, the way Mbakwe did, and appoint professional sanitarians to head such authorities. This will enable the agencies to tackle the environmental sanitation duties effectively and realise the objective of government in this area. This is because people can only give what they have in knowledge, etc.

Are you, in essence, advising Abia State government to scrap Abia State Environmental Protection Agency?

Not Abia State Government alone. I advise the South-East governors to scrap all environmental protection agencies in their states and replace them with environmental sanitation authorities, with professional environmental health personnel as their heads. Quacks can never handle environmental sanitation satisfactorily as what obtains in the zone today. They must copy the enviable example of Chief Mbakwe in this regard. Protection agencies do nothing today except politicising environmental sanitation - a job that should be handled by professional sanitarians (environmental health officers in our midst).

I don’t want to narrow my advice to a particular state, but the point I want to make here is that states today make use of varied politicians who are not qualified to handle environmental sanitation duties. This is wrong and is the reason for the high level of filth in these states today. Until the idea of using square pegs in round holds in environmental health/sanitation sector stops, no state will achieve clean environment. They should copy the Mbakwe ‘miracle.’ The late Chief Mbakwe used sanitarians to achieve effective environmental sanitation in his days and not all manner of untrained politicians and political associates of those in power; and that was why Imo State then was voted the cleanest state in Nigeria and Umuahia, Abia State capital today, the cleanest city in Nigeria before the military took over power on 31st December, 1983. Because of the cleanliness of Imo State then, all other states were trooping to the state to learn and copy the ‘magic’ employed by Imo state government then before the military struck. In the area of environmental sanitation, the structure put in place by Imo state government under Dee Sam remains the best option for sustainable cleanliness.

Today, Nigeria is rated one of the dirtiest countries in the developing world and the solution is the use of qualified sanitarians to head and manage health and sanitation outfits, and put in place a technical partner that will manage the generated wastes instead of dumping them around living areas thereby encouraging the multiplication of communicable diseases in our midst. If care is not taken, the recent eradication of polio achieved in Nigeria may become utopian because of the continued dumping of refuse here and there in what is technically called dispersal of refuse; we should not disperse refuse - we should dispose of it instead. Refuse dumps encourage the breeding of mosquitoes (such as aedes eqypti species that inoculate what causes poliomyelitis).

What is your advice to the residents of South-East states given the present sanitation situation in the country?

In refuse management, residents usually follow government structures on ground. When I was trained in this profession, what we had was the pilot system of waste disposal whereby sanitary officers went to people’s houses to collect refuse and put the refuse in their refuse vans that were available then. That should be the practice now and not what is in place now. Dust-bins should be provided at various homes and the authorities concerned should ensure that they collect and evacuate the contents at least every two-day period. The residents will always like to pay voluntarily for such services rendered to them. Today, people pay for sanitary services that are not rendered to them, even as many others are ‘terrorised’ in the name of sanitation. If you don’t go to people’s houses and residences to collect and remove refuse, the people will throw such refuse items into nearby gutters and surroundings, and go ahead to lifter the environment the more, apart from blocking the drainages.

Remember, environmental sanitation remains a social service governments all over the world should render to the people. But here, it has been turned into a revenue-generating venture of government, and this is bad. In the same measure, public officers should make sanitary conveniences in their work-places easily accessible and open so that people can have access to them. If toilets are locked up always, people will go to the nearest bushes and secluded areas to defecate and urinate. This is another way of making the environment dirty and odorous, disease-filled. Diseases are spread through promiscuous defecation and urination.

Let me add in particular that since Abia State was created in 1991, not more than three sanitarians (environmental health officers) have been employed into Abia State Civil Service. When I served as the secretary of the state chapter of the Environmental Health Officers Association of Nigeria and registered all the EHOs in the state, I had noted this. I, therefore, want to use this medium to reiterate my earlier appeal to Abia State government to employ more sanitarians (EHOs) and make use of them in the prosecution of environmental health and sanitation duties in the state. If more sanitarians are not employed in the state now, all the serving ones will be retiring in the next twelve months. To be specific, by 2017, the State Ministries of Environment and Health will have less than seven of these officers in all, and that will be precariously dangerous for the state. This should not be so because the services these categories of officers render to public health are invaluable and life-saving. As I speak to you, some of the services these officers should render are not rendered to the people because of the infinitesimal number of these officers.

As the Zonal EHOAN Secretary between 2003 and 2006, I was a signatory to the letters the association wrote to the five South-East governors then on the need to employ more EHOs in the zone then. In the end, only Chief Achike Udenwa of Imo state listened to us – he employed about two hundred of them in the state then. No other governor did same –that is why today, Imo state has the highest number of environmental health officers (EHOs) in the South-East zone

Do you envisage the outbreak of cholera and other diseases as a result of the dumpsites, particularly the one by the expressway in Umuahia South?

Yes; that dump-site and others around are dangerous because human beings who go near these dump-sites inhale all manner of effluvia and come in contact with all manner of rubbish from them. Cholera has to do with improper disposal of human waste, eating of contaminated food items, vegetables and fruits, and drinking of unwholesome water. In sanitation, the most important thing is the final disposal site and the management of the collected refuse. This is where the problems lie. Currently, what obtains in the zone and some other states is what we call refuse dispersal and not refuse disposal. If you don’t manage waste very well, what you will get is the prevalence of communicable diseases such as mumps, chicken pox, cholera, polio, measles, tetanus and the like which will, in turn, affect the people, whether we want such diseases to affect them or not.

I like to point out that the more we politicise environmental sanitation, the more we endanger public health; and no government worth itself should play with the health of the people. To do that will always amount to a complete disservice to the people.

South-East governors should, therefore, copy the structure put in place by the Mbakwe Administration on environmental sanitation and keep the zone clean in the interest of public health therein.

•Photo shows Environmental expert, Mazi Ogbonnaya Akoma (JP).

Source: News Express

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