“PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT”
By Salihi lIiasu, B.Sc. (Engr.); DPHE (Durham); FNSE
Chevalier de I’Ordre National du Merite (France)
The Environment is all the world we live in, and this paper aims at giving a brief summary of the major problems we are facing as regards the protection and improvement of the Environment as it is today.
The ancients held that the foundation of everything was based on the four elements of Land, Water, Air, and Fire; and we can take the first three of these as the basic parts of the Environment. All human activity takes place either on or under the land, or on or in the seas lakes, and rivers, or in the air, and all human activity effects these parts in some manner, to a greater or lesser degree, and in a manner that may be judged to be to the betterment or detriment of this Environment.
Let us consider the problems first:
As regards the land, we can broadly divide it into rural and urban, having distinctive problems which in some- cases are so self-evident that many of us may never have thought of them as concerning the Environment as a whole. The most important of the land-based aspects of the economy is undoubtedly agriculture, for we must all needs eat. You are all aware of the various campaigns that have been launched in Nigeria to produce more food, and of the various difficulties that have to be overcome.
Quite obviously the initial requirement of agriculture is the availability of fertile land on which to grow the crops, and the husbanding of this land so that its fertility is maintained.
Here we come against what is probably the biggest environmental problem in Nigeria, and that is Land Erosion. Wind and water are the enemies. In the northern parts of the country the Sahara desert is encroaching at an alarming rate, you have only to see the top soil
being blown away by the Harmattan wind to realize the enormity of
the damage being done every year. Even in walled compounds some foundations of buildings are being exposed by up to one centimetre per annum. Elsewhere in the country the main cause of land erosion is the uncontrolled run-off of surface water during the time of heavy rains:
whilst it is true in general that the contours of the land are fixed, in the particular case of gully-erosion a comparison of the maps of two decades ago with those of to-day will immediately show how much usable land area is being lost by the sweeping away of the stream and river banks. And in the coastal areas we can see how the sometimes very narrow strips are being eaten away by the action of the sea, and at times complete towns are threatened. Keta in Ghana is an example of this.
And even if, after very mighty engineering works such as is required for massive dam and irrigation projects, the land appears to have been made secure against the surface action of wind and water, other problems may arise such as soil salination which renders the land useless for agricultural purposes, as in the immense schemes undertaken in the plains of Northern India.
There is also such a thing as man-made erosion; there is no need to look further than some portions of the Jos Plateau to see the havoc that can be created by the operations of open-cast mining. In a much larger scale there is the depradation caused by uncontrolled felling and burning of the tropical rain forest of our own continent and of Amazonia.
The foregoing might be classed as ‘rural’ environmental problems, but though of much lesser territorial extent, some of the happenings in urban areas possibly affect directly a much larger number of human beings. I purposely use the word ‘happenings’ rather than ‘developments’. The worst of these is uncontrolled urbanization, in all its forms. The creation of shanty-towns, or illegal buildings, needs no explanation. Here in Nigeria we have some shocking examples of this surrounding our larger urban centres, but luckily not on the horrific scale of say Mexico City, Calcutta, or Hong Kong.
Secondly the less obvious problem of ribbon development along the major access routes of cities and towns can cause sometimes insuperable difficulties to future planning, over and above the purely aesthetic one of driving through miles and miles of factory-lined roads after leaving the town centre.
And lastly there is inner city decay. In most cases this refers to the run-down or deserted areas of say New York’s West Side or the dock areas of London and Liverpool; but let us not forget that we in Nigeria have also got ancient cities (my own included) whose re-newal, daily becomes more pressing.
So much for the land, now what of water? Here our first difficulty is, broadly speaking, to the right amount of water in the right place at the right time. In the case of the seas, this generally means keeping it out and stopping erosion of the land and uncontrolled flooding. Fresh water problems are directly connected to the very existence of the human population, for without fresh water for drinking and growin b g food we cannot survive. The very unpredictability of the weather necessitates that the machinery exists for storing water in times of lack and for controlling its ravages in times of surfeit. In our own area in the last few years we have experienced both drought and flood on a devastating scale.
The first requirement for water then is quantity control, and the second is quality. By this I refer to water pollution, both sea and fresh. Luckily as yet in Nigeria this is not a major problem, but you have only to see and smell the untreated effluent from a tannery or a chemical plant to realise that control is needed. On a global scale the Great Lakes of
America and the River Rhine, filled with years of industrial waste, show how delicate the ecological balance is; already several major sea fish producing sources have been wiped out.
You probably know of instances of water pollution here at home. The effluent from the various textile companies has for long been a cause of pollution of the Kaduna River, especially noticeable in the dry season. The NNPC Refinery now adds its own quota of pollutants via the River
Romi helping to turn what was once a perennial source of clean water into a stinking morass for many miles downstream. There are many such cases of serious pollution, posing a threat to man and beast and devaluing our heritage, in the present-day Nigeria.
The problem of industrial waste takes us to our last element, the air, where the emanations from thousands of factory chimneys has caused immense damage not only in the immediate vicinity of industrial areas but also worldwide. Acid rain destroys not only crops but also buildings, and every day we are accustomed to the media referring to the greenhouse effect and the ozone layer, with prophecies of the doom to come. The Chernobyl Atomic Disaster of two years ago, terrible as its immediate effects were on the Kiev area of the Russian Ukraine, is to-day still affecting both agricultural and animal production in parts of the United Kingdom and northern Europe, all caused by air-spread fallout.
So far you will think that this paper is just a catalogue of ecological catastrophies, but now let us see what we can do about it all, and why. The ‘why’ is fairly simple to answer: it is ensure a better, cleaner, healthier, more prosperous and hence happier life for all of us on this earth. The ‘how’ is a much more difficult question. Now, before it is possible to mend something that is broken, the extent of the damage must be made clear. Neither a motor-mechanic nor a doctor can perform his job until he knows what is wrong. So too far the Environment that we wish to protect.
As just as a lot of our environmental problems stem from twentieth century technology (and note here that in some parts of the world modern medicine has so cut down disease and infant mortality that there arises the new problem of aver-population) so then we must use the same technology to cure, or try to cure, these problems.
The most powerful weapon in our armoury is undoubtedly Remote Sensing from the artificial satellites circling the earth. Basically these satellites take pictures, or in the jargon ‘produce imagery’, which can
high-light a variety of states. The most common of these is of course the ordinary photograph from which maps of all sorts are made. With variation of film and technique many thematic maps can be produced showing for example crop and tree diseases, water temperature, and so on. Up till a few years ago this imagery could only be obtained by putting a camera in to an aeroplane and having it fly over the area of interest; but nowadays the satellites transmit their data continuously so day to day reports can be obtained comparatively easily and certainly much more cheaply. Remember however that this up-to-the-minute pharmacopoeia does not contain all· the answers: no amount of aerial photography can make a population count unless backed up with ground sampling; in all cases the imagery must be consulted in conjunction with already existing data, particularly ordinary maps.
Nevertheless satellite imagery and ordinary aerial photography enable a very good idea of the extent of any of the countless environmental problems to be obtained; topical examples of which might include such problems as illegal felling in forest reserves, overgrazing, desert encroachment, flooding (to go from one extreme to another) and such urban problems as illegal building and traffic congestion.
Perhaps the most difficult part of protecting the environment comes after the assessment of the problem has been completed. Then it has to be decided what is to be done, how it is to be done, and hardest of all in these days of financial stringency, who is going to pay for it?
It must be remembered of course, that no problem stands in isolation. You cannot build reservoirs without resettling the population, nor for that matter can you demolish illegal buildings. So it is essential that some multi-disciplinary master-plan is made, not a rigidly fixed plan but one which is flexible enough to take account of future problems which may either be entirely unforeseen or of a different dimension to that originally envisaged. The emphasis here is on the words ‘multi-disciplinary’ and ‘flexible’. At this stage you may probably think that all this resembles a normal development plan.
To some extent yes, but the emphasis in a plan for protecting the environment must be on these problems specifically mentioned in this paper. some of them like acid-rain or de-afforestization are not going to cause any immediate here-and-now change in the lives of the population but remember that in the end it was lack of firewood within a day’s reach of some of the early huge western-Asian cities in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys which caused those towns to be abandoned, and not the mightier rival cities.
Finally, even if all the steps mentioned are carried out, there still remain the two further essentials of (1) the will to carry out the plan and (2) the necessary legislation to ensure that it can and will be implemented.
All that I have said on this matter can only be a general summary, but I feel that I have made you aware that the Environment is in desperate need of protection, and have. Perhaps increased your resolve to protect it will have achieved something worth doing.