INVESTIGATION: How industrial effluents threaten public health, food security and environment across Nigerian communities

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Decades-long discharge of harmful industrial effluents by leather industries in Kano, the industrial hub of northern Nigeria, has denied multitudes of artisanal fishermen their only source of livelihood as well as posing great dangers to public health, food security and environment

A fisherman fishing on Lake Chad Source: World Bank
A fisherman fishing on Lake Chad                                       Source: World Bank

By Adam Alqali

When forty-year-old Habibu Abdullahi withdrew his fiber-woven fishing net from the water near the bank of Wudil offshoot of the Kano River, to his irritation he was yet to make any catch. “You see what I told you,” he said with a deep sense of frustration.

This was the seventh time in a row Abdullahi had cast and deepened his fishing net into the river only to remove it as he had put it: not with a single fish on it!

Like his parents and great grandparents before him, Abdullahi’s livelihood and that of his family of 3 wives and 11 children is entirely dependent on artisanal fishing; he has been fishing on the Wudil tributary of Kano River for as far as he could remember.

Until around 2000, life was good for him and other members of the Wudil fishing community; in fact, they were economically much better off than other community members engaged in crop cultivation and other income generating activities.

“We’re now helpless,” he laments. “Effluents released by industries in the city [Kano] kill big and small fishes, their eggs as well as other smaller creatures in the river; the big fishes feed on the smaller ones as well as other aquatic beings. Therefore, the lifecycle is automatically disrupted.”

Decades-long irregular discharge of harmful industrial effluents by tannery, textile and plastic industries in Kano, the industrial hub of northern Nigeria, have denied Abdullahi and a legion of other artisanal fishermen from rural Wudil, located 45 kilometers northeast of Kano, their only source of livelihood.

As a survival strategy and despite several threats to their lives, the Wudil fishermen now travel hundreds of kilometers to fishing communities on and near many tributaries of River Niger situated around Benue, Kwara, Niger and Kogi states in central Nigeria to ply their trade.

“Other than the cost of travel to these far-flung places and the cost of fishing gear, we have to contend with prohibitive taxation by the host communities as well as security threats occasioned by the perennial farmers-herders clash in the region and armed kidnappings,” says Abdullahi who had just returned from a fishing expedition around Shiroro dam situated on the Kaduna River in Niger state.

Beginning from the 1970s through 1980s, Kano, Nigeria’s second city, witnessed a proliferation of leather industries as fallout of the implementation of strict environmental regulations in Europe which made production of particularly wet-blue leather expensive. It is estimated that about 14 million pieces of hides and skin are processed every year in Kano, which is said to be home to 70% of tanneries in Nigeria.

The Nigerian leather industry is said to have the potential to become the country’s second largest foreign exchange earner, after oil and the Nigerian leather has overtime gained a reputation for being of high premium thus of high-demand when exported to Morocco and reprocessed as Moroccan leather for further export to Europe.

 

Polluted water sources

The huge economic value of the leather industry in Kano comes with even greater negative consequences to food security, public and environmental health; effluents being discharged by the industries pollute rivers and streams in the area – which serve as both the source of drinking water for riverine communities and also the main source for irrigating their farmlands.  When they sink deeply into the ground reaching water table, the effluents end up also polluting ground water.

Abba Shehu, a 30-year-old teacher is a resident of Sabuwar Gandu, a community located on the edge of the Sharada industrial area, one of Kano’s 3 major industrial estates with about 40 industries, 16 of which are wet. Shehu has severally suffered bouts of diarrhea as a consequence of either drinking from the contaminated water or even inhaling the intensely repulsive odour of the effluents.

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“I am naturally prone to diarrhea therefore always sick as a result of either drinking of our water or inhaling the offensive odour of the effluents. I have been hospitalized on several occasions,” reveals Shehu who only few days ago was hospitalized at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital (AKTH) for a case of diarrhea instigated by inhaling the effluent’s irritating  odour.

Dr Usman Ibrahim of the department of community medicine at AKTH explains that such effluents, which contain heavy metals, were very dangerous to human health.

“Human diseases can be traced to physical, biological or chemical agents; if chemical substances are released into the water they affect the ecosystem; when humans take contaminated water, the effect can be immediate or long-term in the form of infertility for those affected or even their offspring.”

Salisu Kadawa, 43, is another resident of Sabuwar Gandu who has lived in the area for now 15 years; he claims his wife had many times suffered miscarriages as a result of excessively inhaling the offensive odour.

“All our efforts to get the government to provide a solution proved abortive; my house and that of many of our neighbors had been on sale for years but no one wants to [buy and] live in this area. Sometimes, if the effluents are discharged we have to vacate our houses until the odour wanes,” narrates a visibly angry Kadawa.

Dr Baba Sani of the crop protection department at Bayero University, Kano (BUK) explains how the effluents manage to get into the soil and as well contaminate underground water sources: “The effluents [negatively] affect water cycle because as the chemicals sink down into the soil and they reach the water table they could also affect the underground water which through seepage is consumed by humans through boreholes and earth wells.”

  

Effluents killing fishes

Untreated industrial waste discharged into streams which drain into interconnected rivers that form the Kano River Basin has in the last 2 decades resulted in the killing of fish species in the basin’s rivers, particularly the Wudil section; Wudil and neighboring communities have for centuries relied on artisanal fishing as the mainstays of their economy. The industry has now almost totally collapsed.

Dr Ibrahim Lawal is an environmental biologist at Bayero University’s department of biological sciences who affirms that industrial effluents being discharged into water bodies, in and around Kano, were harmful to aquatic animals such as fish in the short term, and may be toxic to humans in the long term.

“The industrial effluents which are petrochemical products are very dangerous to the food chain of the water ecosystem. Fishes are sentinel organisms which are used to detect changes in water condition and also because they have bigger metabolic systems; if fishes can be killed after ingesting the effluents, it means even larger organisms such as humans with a more sophisticated system of detoxification will also have to struggle to survive,” cries Dr Lawal.

“When fishes ingest the chemicals and humans take the fish, the effect may not manifest immediately due to the sophisticated nature of the human metabolic system but if the concentration of chemicals becomes high in human body, the system becomes incapable of dealing with them and will manifest in the form of liver damage, kidney failure or any other complication.”

Dr Sani adds: “When humans consume a contaminated fish and later passed it out in the form of faeces, the feaces goes into the soil to be absorbed by crops which will be consumed by humans again. The cycle continues like that until the effect manifests in the form of diseases such as cholera.”

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Contaminated crops

Beyond endangering aquatic life in water bodies, activities of the leather, textile and plastic industries of Kano constitute a major source of various forms of environmental pollution threatening public health safety, degrading agricultural land and jeopardizing economic livelihood of riverine communities, into which the effluents find their way.

Thus, decades of unregulated release of crude and dangerous industrial wastes into the Kano River have succeeded in not only polluting the waters of the river – which is also used for irrigation by farmers in the river’s adjoining communities – but also means low yield for farmers and even where crops managed to grow they are contaminated.

“Crops production along Wudil area is negatively affected by different chemical compounds which affect water and nutrient absorption of plants. These affect water movement in plants which renders the plants inactive or even dead which later results in poor yield,” says Dr Sani, the crop protection specialist.

Dr Luka Buba, head of BUK’s department of environmental management agrees.

“The water for irrigation downstream in Wudil area has suffered serious discoloration; it is no longer fit for irrigation. If the water is used for irrigation the plants don’t grow well, and in cases where they manage to grow they don’t do so well.  So, the chemical effluents result in not only contaminated crops, which are hazardous to health, but also low agricultural yield,” he expounds.

Dr Usman Ibrahim of AKTH states: “If substances such as lead are released into the soil through industrial effluents and crops are planted in the soil, it is very likely that harvested crops will contain lead substances. And no matter how much you cook heavy metals they will not be neutralized, they will continue to be in one’s system for a long time.”

 

Dead soil; degraded environment

The negative impact of the industrial effluents in and around Wudil community is beyond polluting water bodies, killing of fish species as well as reducing agricultural yield and contamination of crops – it also kills agricultural soil which subsequently leads to environmental degradation.

Usman Indabo, 50, is a farmer who has lost nearly half the original size of his farmland located off the banks of the Wudil tributary of Kano River, as a fallout of erosion which is a consequence of a degraded soil; these has led to not just low agricultural yield on his farmland but also contaminated crops.

“If the effluents are discharged into the river and the river water is washed over our farmlands it doesn’t only kill the plants, soil insects and microbes but also turns the soil sandy; it is the plants that keep the soil compacted. Sandy soil doesn’t support crop cultivation which makes it prone to being washed away by erosion. Many farmers have lost half of their farmlands which have been washed off by water, along with existing trees,” Indabo explains with a sense of agony.

 

Lost economic opportunities

Decades of unrestricted discharge of untreated industrial waste by tannery, textile and plastic industries of Kano’s 3 major industrial zones of Sharada, Challawa and Bompai have not only resulted in disastrous environmental and public health consequences for many communities in and around Kano; instead, it has also wrecked serious havoc on the economic condition and livelihood of hundreds of families in the area.

Sixty-five-year old Sabo Ayuba is a fish trader at the famous Wudil fish market, one of the biggest markets for fresh and dried fish in the region. Ayuba, who has been plying his business in the market for now over 3 decades, says he had been adversely affected by the discharge of effluents into the river which means low and low fish catch from the river.

“The effluents have affected the amount of fish in the river; I was buying fish worth up to NGN200, 000 from fishermen who fish on the river, daily. Now, I hardly get NGN20, 000 worth of fish from them. We have to go to as far as Hadejia [Jigawa state] and Baga [Borno state] to buy fish; the fish is more expensive over there since we also have to pay for the cost of transportation,” complains Ayuba.

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Weak enforcement of regulatory laws

At the heart of the reasons why the menace of discharge of untreated industrial effluents into the Kano River has persisted for decades is the failure of the government to effectively enforce its regulatory measures against the multitudes of leather, plastic and textile industries operating across Kano’s industrial areas.

Whereas 80% of the industries are said to have primary treatment plants, majority rarely bother to treat their waste before discharging it into streams that drain into various river tributaries of the Kano River – with disastrous public health, environmental and economic consequences on riverine communities around the Kano River.

“On one hand, there is a failure on the part of the government to regulate the activities of the industries even though it has an agency [the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency] that is supposed to ensure the enforcement of its environmental laws,” said Dr Buba. “On the part of the industries, they need to understand that it [their activities] is not just about making a living but also safeguarding the environment. When you make money at the expense of people’s health, it becomes blood money.”

Responding to the allegation of the government’s failure to enforce its own environmental regulations against the industries, Mustapha Mohammed, director in charge of pollution control at the Kano State Ministry of Environment claimed the industries were discharging the effluents at ‘odd’ hours hence the failure of the government to take appropriate disciplinary measures against them.

“The industries release the untreated waste at odd hours making it difficult to determine which industries to hold accountable. We have marshals that monitor them unfortunately they don’t work at night. We want to build a huge secondary plant i.e Decentralized Wastewater Treatment System (DEWATS) for each of the industrial areas but the challenge is funding as each will cost around NGN5 billion,” says Mohammed.

Abdullahi Edward, an activist for the interest of the Wudil community believes there is “lack of sincerity on the part of government officials at the federal, state and local government levels. This lack of sincerity manifests itself in the inability of government officials to enforce relevant state laws regarding proper water treatment at the source – the tanneries.”

The German nonprofit, Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA) –whose aim is reducing poverty in the developing world by providing decentralized sustainable technologies and social measures for water, wastewater, energy and waste – had since offered to assist the building of a Decentralized Wastewater Treatment System (DEWATS) at Challawa and Sharada industrial areas – the source of the pollutants.

Although the proposed DEWATS seem to hold the long-awaited solution to the intractable problem of toxic waste bedeviling several Kano communities, discussions between BORDA and the Nigerian government through its Ecological Fund Office is yet to yield any positive results; the government is still foot-dragging even though BORDA has offered to bear a significant percentage of the cost.

“This system, once established will clean up the water and all the effluents contained therein on a permanent basis which means that in the not so distant future some of the effects of the contaminated water will be reduced considerable and eventually removed altogether,” assures Edward.

Nigeria is signatory to many global conventions on environment including the Rio Convention and Paris Agreement, among other international legislations, thus it needs to enforce these myriad of laws by ensuring that human and industrial activities do not continue to pose great dangers to food security, public and environmental health and  economic livelihood of the people.

 

 

 

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