analysisBy Alex Abutu
For the last 40 years, Earth Day has been celebrated around the world on April 22 to call attention to some of our most pressing environmental and social problems, including climate change, biodiversity loss, dwindling natural resources and other devastating environmental hazards which Nigeria has been battling with.
For us in Nigeria, it is an opportunity to call attention to the major ecological challenges facing the country which include erosion in the South East, flooding in the South West and desert encroachment and sand dunes in the North.
What today is known as World Earth Day has its roots to when about 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organised protests against the deterioration of the environment.
Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.
But for us in Nigeria, the celebration of the day only reminded us of the struggle by the likes of Ken Saro Wiwa who died for a course that Nigerians and the international community were to recognise 20 years later.
The day also offers cause for sober reflection, for us to think of the menace of erosion in South East Nigeria where findings have shown that the people are not only contending with erosion but also landslides; a scourge that has brought death and untold hardships to people of the east.
The day, according to stakeholders also presented the country and the leadership the opportunity to take stock of the flooding that not only sacked communities in the South West of Nigeria last year but aggravated the outbreak of diseases which led to the death of many Nigerians.
The North is not left out of the ecological disaster the country experienced in the recent past. The region witnessed flooding in areas hitherto not known to experience such challenges and the rate which the desert encroached into the region was regarded as the fasted in the history of the country.
Omale Adebanjo, an environmentalist is of the opinion that Nigeria can not talk about Earth Day without recourse to the failure of government to implement the report on Ogoniland oil spill.
The Ogoniland report was one of the hallmarks of events and issues that shaped the environment sector in 2011.
Key findings in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on Ogoniland show that some areas, which appear unaffected at the surface, are in reality severely contaminated underground and action to protect human health and reduce the risks to affected communities should occur without delay.
In at least 10 Ogoni communities where drinking water is contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons, public health is seriously threatened.
In one community, at Nisisioken Ogale, in western Ogoniland, families are drinking water from wells that are contaminated with benzene- a known carcinogen- at levels over 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines. The site is close to a Nigerian National Petroleum Company pipeline.
UNEP scientists found an 8 cm layer of refined oil floating on the groundwater which serves the wells. This was reportedly linked to an oil spill which occurred more than six years ago.
While the report provides clear operational recommendations for addressing the widespread oil pollution across Ogoniland, UNEP recommended that the contamination in Nisisioken Ogale warrants emergency action ahead of all other remediation efforts.
Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said the report provided the scientific basis on which a long overdue and concerted environmental restoration of Ogoniland, a kingdom in Nigeria's Niger Delta region, can begin.
"The oil industry has been a key sector of the Nigerian economy for over 50 years, but many Nigerians have paid a high price, as this assessment underlines," he said.
"It is UNEP's hope that the findings can break the decades of deadlock in the region and provide the foundation upon which trust can be built and action undertaken to remedy the multiple health and sustainable development issues facing people in Ogoniland. In addition, it offers a blueprint for how the oil industry - and public regulatory authorities - might operate more responsibly in Africa and beyond at a time of increasing production and exploration across many parts of the continent," said Mr Steiner.
"The clean-up of Ogoniland will not only address a tragic legacy but also represents a major ecological restoration enterprise with potentially multiple positive effects ranging from bringing the various stakeholders together in a single concerted cause to achieving lasting improvements for the Ogoni people," said the UNEP Executive Director.
Despite the urgency with which the UN urged Nigeria to address the spill, the report ended in a committee setup by the Federal Government and nothing has been heard afterwards.
Also in 2011, the National Council on Environment agreed that illegal logging and charcoal export be banned but Nigeria is losing its forest today like never before in its history. Charcoal business has continued to flourish unabated while illegal logging is rampant in all states of the federation.
But all hope is not lost according to the Minister of Environment, Mrs Hadiza Ibrahim Mailafia. She was confident that attitudinal change was all that was needed for Nigeria to overcome the current environmental challenges facing it.
"It is the duty of all Nigerians to adhere to the rules and laws governing the environment. Government alone cannot do everything; government has provided drainages, it is now the responsibility of citizens to ensure that the drainages are not turned into refuse dumps," she said.
"We have in place laws that require everybody, including corporate bodies and government to undertake environmental impact assessment before any project is started in the country, but unfortunately people or organisations hardly abide by these laws, so as a result, we have erosion washing away roads and other projects and constituting nuisance to host communities," she added.
The day, according to John Nwosu, an environmental right activist, should serve as an opportunity for policymakers in the country to re-evaluate the attention accorded the sector. "It is high time budgetary allocation for the sector starts competing with education, defence and health."
As the world marks the Earth Day, it is important for us as a country to reflect on the ecological challenges and possible solutions and more importantly, Nigerians should use the day as a reason to scale up their care for the environment knowing that it is only when we take care of the environment that it can protect us from the vulnerability of the changing climate.