Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Challenges before Nigeria's New Environment Minister

By Michael Etta
Expectations are very high that the new Environment Minister, Mrs. Laurentia Mallam, will learn and avoid the mistakes of her predecessors, and take concrete steps to address the daunting challenges bedeviling growth in Nigeria’s environment sector. In this piece, Etta Michael Bisong, x-rays some problems that if genuinely tackled will drastically reduce the increasing impacts of climate change and promote the concept of sustainable development among Nigerians. 
The increasing threats of climate change on every sphere of socio-economic development will continue to hunt and serve as a constant reminder of the fragility of our environment and our responsibility to ensure its sustainability. Scientists warn that if we do not aggressively curb climate change now, the results will likely be disastrous.
While some of these impacts such as loss of biodiversity might be gradual, there are hosts of communities today that are being consumed by flood, gully erosion, sea incursion among others with lives and billions of dollars’ worth of properties being lost annually. The destructive processes are not only continuous but are increasing both in quantum and in rate. This scenario has imposed tremendous strains and stresses on the environment, especially in the past two centuries and put our planet in perilous danger. In Nigeria, both nature and man are at work endangering the environment even as the country presently lack the knowledge, technology, human capacity, financial resources and the political will to remediate it. Nigeria is almost totally at the mercy of nature with very low institutional capacity to respond to environmental threats, problems which are being effectively managed in most developed countries.
One of the most fundamental challenges in the sector has to do with the huge debts of over ten billion Naira inherited by this new minister. It is a known fact that some contractors have already obtained court judgments leading to attachment of the properties especially vehicles belonging to the ministry. To resolve this matter, the minister should as a matter of urgency engage the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to verify some of these contracts. Those found to be genuine should be paid promptly, while those found to be fraudulent should speedily be subjected to face prosecution.
Another worrisome issue Mrs. Mallam must address is the devastating oil spillage that has ravaged the Niger Delta region, particularly in Bonga which has affected shoreline communities in Rivers, Delta and Bayelsa States. Yes, the minister started well by attempting to bring warring stakeholders; Shell and host communities of the shoreline to the table to seek amicable resolution of the problem.  The minister has to pursue this to a logical conclusion.  Of equal importance is for the environment boss and oil companies operating in the Niger Delta region to carry out sustained sanitisation campaign within the affected communities with a view to discourage people of host communities to avoid acts capable of causing oil spillage.  If pipeline vandalisation is curbed, oil spillage can be minimised by 90%.  The people must be made to know the environmental consequences of oil spillage on their lives, crops and health.  Where oil spillage is occasioned by deliberate sabotage, culprits must be apprehended and brought to book, rather than being compensated.  Where operating companies are responsible, prompt and adequate compensation must be paid to affected persons and communities.
The massive erosion threating the entire south-east, and lead contamination that claimed the lives of over 400 children during its outbreak in 2010 in Zamfara state are some of the pivotal issues the minister must also give attention to. Others include the draught and desertification in extreme end of northern, poor implementation of the Great Green Wall project, and challenges facing the national parks and forest management. Of equal importance are issues of pollution control and waste management and environmental health.  Gas flaring must be stopped at all cost, with no shift in date.
The starting point for Mallam is to visit the Niger Delta area and specifically oil installations and production facilities to see for herself the amount of gas being flared into the atmosphere.  This will enable her appreciate fully the environmental consequences of these activities.  She should engage all possible efforts in carrying out a comprehensive National Environmental Sensitisation progrmme to create the necessary environmental consciousness in the citizenry. Issues such as waste disposal, bush burning, vehicular emissions, radiation from refrigerators and related harmful ozone substances, industrial waste disposal, kerosene lanterns, deforestation and afforestation should all be part of the components of the National Environmental Campaign.  The people must raise their voices and not the sea levels.
At the Centre of all of these is poor funding of the nation’s environment ministry and low internally generated revenue.  It is worthy of note that Mrs. Mallam herself has already acknowledged the problem of poor funding when she lamented that the ministry has just Seven Billion Naira for its entire budgetary allocation in 2014.  The time for Mallam to start the fight for the 2015 budget for key projects in the sector is now.  While processing for more funds in next year’s budget, Mrs. Mallam must also press hard to get the federal government to meet her obligation for the counterpart funding of the Great Green Wall and other projects.
While pressing full turtle for funding, the minister should also learn from the mistakes of her predecessors who lost most of the plants they planted under the GGW project to draught and desertification.  These plants died out because there was no maintenance agreement or arrangements which Government would have secured with the various contractors handling the planting for at least 2 years to ensure that the trees are nurtured sufficiently to maturity level before being handed over to the ministry. Now that the raining season is here, Mallam should constantly visit the frontline states of the GGM and join the communities in at least symbolically planting trees.  It will be to the credit of the minister to say that out of the estimated 1,500km to be covered by the project, she alone has planted a 1000km during her tenure. It is also important for her to embark on adequate sensitisation programme for host communities who should also be availed enough tree seedlings to plant.  The host communities should be made to own the GGW Project.  Taking ownership is the best way to guarantee rapid planting, and maintenance of the expected forests that will spring out of the project. 
In summary, resolving or at least tackling these endemic environmental problems requires that Nigeria critically review the root causes of some of these problems as well as the political filters through which they are view. Anything short of this will only skirt the problems or at best tackle the symptoms while the problems fester and eventually develop into catastrophic proportions.

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