opinionBy Hannatu Musawa
Mother Nature could be beautiful, kind and nurturing, but it has dark sides. Floods, droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes, cyclones are all natural disasters that have the gargantuan capacity to destroy communities and indeed cities.
The biggest most recent natural disaster was the Haiti earthquake in 2010 where an estimated 316,000 people were killed by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and a minimum of 52 aftershocks. As devastating as these events were, they were not preventable because they happened naturally.
But when disasters are caused by man, it is inexcusable. Mankind has frequently created catastrophes that have devastated the immediate environment and taken countless innocent lives. The effects of chemical or radioactive spills are especially horrific to a person's physical and mental state of health. The adverse effects resulting from chemicals are known to evoke a wide spectrum of biological responses in people, depending upon the extent of their exposure and its potential to interact with the person's anatomical structures and physiological functions. These effects could finally result in clusters of disease or instantaneous death.
That is why when I shockingly learnt of the alleged dumping of harmful waste by the Kaduna Refinery and Petrochemical Company (KPRC), the NNPC subsidiary in Rido community of Chikun LGA, Kaduna State, I was appalled. The community of Rido is about half a kilometre from KRPC with an estimated 30,000 people residing there. But between June 10 and 14, 2012, a powdery, dusty substance was dumped by contractors that were hired by the KRPC. Almost immediately, two human deaths were reported with a high death toll of dogs and chickens within the vicinity. At least six more deaths were reported within two weeks of this alleged callous crime; many children were admitted into the community's only hospital and clinic. Many villagers experienced respiratory tract problems, as the fumes they inhaled were toxic and caused incessant, severe coughing. Even though children and animals alike had gone to the waste dump to pick wood and other things, those that did not go near the dump site experienced severe symptoms as the wind blew the powdery substance to nearby distances. The village head, nurses that work in the community and eyewitnesses have clarified the above facts.
The proprietor of Biams Integrated Farms, a farm located 500m from the vicinity of the waste dump, recorded the loss of 700 chickens in less than three hours, within four days of the waste's dumping on their poultry farm. Staff employed at the farm complained of headaches and bloated stomachs. Justifiably, the matter is now in court and it would be inexcusable for the legal system not to take this matter with the seriousness it deserves. KINGS (Kaduna Integrity Groups), an NGO, has on behalf of the Rido community taken the matter up in court and a legal battle has been in the works since last year. Abdullahi Umar Ladan, leader of KINGS, has repeatedly called on the relevant authorities to come to the aid of the people in Rido Community by avoiding another illegal dumping of any toxic waste.
A veterinary doctor of Biams Integrated Farms, Abdul Ganiyu, spoke about the high mortality rate experienced with poultry on the farm. He also described some of the symptoms experienced by villagers, who described the smell of the waste as "having a tear-gas effect". The victims spoke about taking painful breaths from the fumes of the waste.
Despite the fact that the waste has long been evacuated, residents of the community are still suffering from the effects of this traumatic event. The KEPA (Kaduna Environmental Protection Agency) has also confirmed that industrial waste was dumped in Rido community when KRPC refurbished some of its facilities. KEPA had informed KRPC that any waste to be dumped has to be done only with official clearance from KEPA, as industrial waste is a specialised waste and there are usually specific sites where these are dumped -- far away from community settlements. There have been futile promises by the affected government agencies to look fully into the matter but, till date, no impactful action has been taken on behalf of the people of this longsuffering community. The KRPC has continuously denied any misappropriate action taken by them, claiming that any dumping of waste was conducted by contractors. If indeed toxic waste was dumped by KRPC, then there need to be accountability by the organisation as well as adequate compensation for the victims.
Whatever the facts, a chemical incident has resulted as an unexpected, uncontrolled release of a chemical from its containment. The WHO defines a public- health incident as "where two or more members of the public are exposed (or threatened to be exposed) to a chemical." In a majority of cases, it's an acute release where the exposure and dose do not rise quickly and public health measures are not taken so promptly, even though the public- health concern can emerge suddenly and acutely. Chemicals enter our body through the eyes, skin, lung or digestive tract. The rate varies from different chemicals and the concentration of a chemical as well as length of time of exposure can have varying but ultimately damaging effects.
So how do we protect our people and environment from exposure to these chemical disasters? The federal government should set up procedures and organisations to ensure that the public- health management of any chemical incident is effective and comprehensive. In the case of the Rido community, it is apparent that the safety measures put in place were not adequate enough to protect them. At the local level, public- health authorities need to identify situations where chemical incidents could occur and assess the likely risks to exposed people, property and the environment. There should be facilities for emergency plan development and implementation. This means well- stocked pharmacies within a clinic, functional ambulances and highly trained staff attached to the clinics.
Vulnerability assessment, also known as community risk assessment (CRA) in the field of chemical incident management, is an assessment of the potential effects of a chemical incident in the local area. This is composed of four major steps: identification of hazardous chemical sites, identification of possible incident scenarios and exposure paths, identification of vulnerable populations, facilities and environments, and lastly estimation of health impact of potential chemical incidents and the requirements for health-care facilities sensitised on the dangers of such. There should also be proper monitoring of vulnerable areas with emergency phone lines available in preparation for any chemical incident.
In April 2010, a Maesrk Line vessel, "MV Nashville" was apprehended by the Nigerian Ports Authority. It was filled with toxic waste. In June 2010, a ship, "MV Gumel", was detained in Lagos with several containers of toxic waste. Similarly, in 1988, radioactive waste was dumped in Koko, Delta State. The list seems endless. Ironically, in all these cases, the federal government sought substantial compensation for these crimes. There should not be double standard in how the crime of toxic waste dumping is investigated.
Since it is proven that chemical waste has a long-lasting impact on our society and environment, all potential victims are entitled to compensation. Sadly, there can be no compensation for those innocent adults and children that lost their lives in 2012 in Rido community. A community's basic right to coexist in peace and lead happy, healthy and productive lives has forever been blemished by the incident of chemical waste dump.
No matter how powerful or influential an organisation is, no one has the right to play God with innocent people's lives. And if that unfortunate gamble is indeed taken, then, the culprits should be ready to not only face the wrath of God himself but be accountable to the proper authorities within the confines of our judicial system.