Despite efforts by the Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA), a significant portion of waste remains uncollected, cluttering sidewalks, open spaces, and waterways.
As Lagos rapidly expands, with over 15.9 million residents, it faces a significant challenge in managing the growing amount of waste generated by its increasing population. In recent years, the daily waste generation in Lagos has steadily increased from 9,000 metric tonnes in 2014 to 12,000 metric tonnes in 2018, with an individual generating an average of 0.5 kg/day and 0.72 kg/day, respectively. Currently, Lagos produces between 13,000 and 15,000 metric tonnes of waste equivalent to about 490 trailer loads daily, with each Lagosian generating an average of 1.2kg/day, a figure expected to rise to 1.4kg in the next 15 years.
Despite efforts by the Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA), a significant portion of this waste remains uncollected, cluttering sidewalks, open spaces, and waterways. This growing crisis in waste management not only poses a threat to the environment but also significantly impacts the health and well-being of Lagosians. Without effective solutions and attention, Lagos faces the risk of becoming overwhelmed by its own waste.The unseen impact of landfills
Landfills, often overlooked, are more than just mountains of trash; they’re significant sources of harmful gases that contribute to climate change. Every day, tonnes of waste from homes and businesses in Lagos find their way to landfills. Here, amidst a mix of discarded food, plastic, and other refuse, a silent but harmful process is at play. As this waste breaks down, it releases gases, notably methane, a gas that is over 25 times more potent in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
A World Bank report highlighted that solid waste management was responsible for about five per cent of global emissions in 2016, with methane emissions from landfills being a key contributor. While sectors like agriculture, oil, and gas are well-known for their methane emissions, the waste sector also accounts for 20 per cent of human-related methane emissions. Waste emits methane when organic waste, like food, wood, and paper, decomposes under anaerobic conditions in landfills. Lagos, with 62 per cent of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) being wet, biodegradable, and organic, faces a unique environmental challenge. This situation is further aggravated by a lack of proper waste disposal education, leading to an increasing trend of organic waste being improperly mixed with recyclable materials in landfills. This mix accelerates the production of methane during the decomposition process. The science is clear: organic waste mixed with materials like plastic triggers methane release, making landfills potent contributors to climate change.
Before we delve further into this report, let’s understand a few key scientific terms:
Anthropogenic Emissions: These emissions are the result of human activities that significantly contribute to climate change like Methane (CH4) and Carbon dioxide (CO2).
Methane: This is a powerful greenhouse gas, produced during the decomposition of organic matter, with a substantial warming effect.
Waste Methane: Specifically, this is the methane produced from the breakdown of organic waste in landfills and dumpsites.
The Igando Landfills Saga: A Firsthand Account
In the heart of Lagos, the Igando landfills, namely Solous 1, Solous 2, and Solous 3 stand as a glaring testament to the city’s escalating waste management crisis. Operated by the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA), these landfills are very massive in scale, covering over 16 hectares, an area even larger than the famous Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS). They are also strategically located within the densely populated Alimosho Local Government Area.
Daily, they receive about 4,000 tonnes of waste, making them the second-largest landfill complex in Lagos, surpassed only by the Olusosun dumpsite in Ojota. Initially, these landfills coexisted relatively unnoticed by the local populace. However, as the city expanded, residential areas, businesses, and critical infrastructure like the Alimosho Medical Centre edged closer to these dumpsites. This proximity has turned the landfills from harmless landmarks into significant health hazards for the neighbouring communities. Residents in Igando now wake up to the pervasive and unpleasant smell of decomposing waste, a stark reminder of the growing environmental challenge at their doorstep.
In 2017, there was little hope that the government might close these landfills due to the escalating complaints about the odour. However, a 2019 follow-up revealed little had changed. By 2022, LAWMA’s managing director Ibrahim Odumboni announced plans to relocate the landfills due to the increasing population and continuous grievances. Yet, during my visit in October 2023, the reality on the ground was starkly different. Waste trucks continued their operations as usual, and the overwhelming stench was palpable long before reaching the landfill site. As I neared Abule-onilu, known as “hotel,” about 10 minutes from the landfills, the odour grew even more intense. Covering my nose was futile. Interestingly, the locals, including drivers, residents, and traders, seemed unfazed by the stench, a telling sign of their reluctant adaptation to this harsh reality. This experience was eye-opening, especially considering the impact of such living conditions on vulnerable groups like children and the elderly.
The Hidden World of Igando’s Landfills Scavengers
As I ventured into the landfills, it felt like entering a different realm. Here, amidst the towering piles of refuse, were the waste scavengers, the heroes and hidden residents of this landfill city. Right at the entrance, some were gearing up for the day, while others delved deeper into the waste mounds, scavenging for anything of value. Surprisingly, a few had even set up makeshift homes within the landfill, blurring the lines between work and personal life.
Contrary to official statements claiming that these scavengers only operate during daylight hours, my guide, an anonymous local familiar with the intricacies of this place, revealed a different story. Many scavengers not only work here but also spend their nights, creating a unique community that thrives in the shadows of waste. Wandering deeper into the landfills, I discovered a bustling underground market. Amidst the debris, people sold various items from grilled meats popularly known as “suya” to chilled drinks.
A particular spot drew my attention: a collection of plastic waste neatly packed in sacks, ready for sale. These transactions, often bypassing official channels, deprive the formal waste management system of valuable resources. It is a secretive world, with participants reportedly avoiding the media spotlight. As I attempted to document this hidden economy by taking pictures, I faced resistance.
The scavengers were adamant and insisted that I should not take pictures. What struck me most was the sheer lack of protective measures among the scavengers. Amidst hazardous waste and overpowering stench, they worked without gloves or masks, exposing themselves to a myriad of health risks. As I stood there in my safety gear, I was overwhelmed by the smell, which gave me a severe headache, making me ponder the health implications for those who face these conditions daily.
The scavengers’ belief in natural immunity against diseases from the landfills seemed both admirable and troubling, considering the potential risks to the wider community. The Igando landfill’s scavengers live a life of resilience, but their story is also one of neglect and health hazards. Their existence in these landfills is not just about survival; it highlights the dire need for improved safety measures and health awareness in such environments.
The Community’s Struggle for Normalcy
The story extends to the residents living in the shadow of these landfills. For them, each day begins and ends with the inescapable stench of decomposing waste. Close to the landfills, a school stands where young children, as little as three years old, breathe in this polluted air, leading to widespread health complaints like cough and malaria. The school owner, alongside other residents, voices frustration over the unrelenting odour and its health impact, yet their pleas for intervention often fall on deaf ears. The community chairman too shares this distress, highlighting how residents, especially children, are frequently sickened by diseases exacerbated by the conditions of the landfills, with mosquito-borne illnesses being a common affliction. In his words, “Every week, my tenants are battling coughs and malaria.”
The water crisis in this area further complicates their plight. With the absence of effective wastewater management systems, only a couple of houses in the entire community have access to uncontaminated water. Most residents are left to contend with a compromised groundwater supply, heavily polluted by the landfill’s leachate.
Financial constraints hinder the majority from installing proper water filtration systems, leaving them dependent on purchasing sachet water for their daily needs. Additional interviews with residents reveal the worsening situation. One resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “My water was clear when I first moved here, but over the years, it has changed colour and is no longer safe to drink.” Rainy seasons bring additional woes to the community by turning the streets into streams of waste. The community’s already strained infrastructure fails to cope with the increased water flow, leading to severe flooding. This disrupts daily life and forces business operations to shut down.
In extreme cases, the floods unearth remains from a nearby cemetery, adding more distress to the community’s existing hardships.
A visit to Alimosho General Hospital
To grasp the full impact of this crisis, I visited the nearby Alimosho General Hospital, a two-minute drive from the landfills. Workers at the hospital, who asked not to be named for fear of victimisation, shed light on the daily challenges they face. The most pressing issue was the pervasive odour, particularly overwhelming during the rainy and hot seasons, permeating the walls of this place of healing. According to a medical worker, the hospital sees about 500 patients each day. Walking through its corridors, I could not help but notice the look of discomfort on the faces of patients and visitors, a reaction to the ever-present stench. For many seeking treatments here, there’s no alternative; this public hospital offers free healthcare, a crucial service for the community, yet one marred by the landfill’s proximity. The staff spoke candidly about additional problems. Flooding, a frequent occurrence exacerbated by inadequate drainage and the lack of proper facilities to manage runoff from the landfills, regularly disrupts hospital operations. This environmental issue not only impacts patient care but also poses a logistical nightmare for those trying to access the hospital. Moreover, the traffic caused by the constant flow of waste trucks further complicates the situation, turning what should be a straightforward journey into a daily struggle.
Unveiling the environmental crisis at Igando’s landfills
The situation at Igando’s landfills presents a stark example of anthropogenic emissions and their impacts. The most evident sign is the relentless, foul odour that blankets the area, signalling the release of methane and other harmful gases from decomposing organic waste, affecting air quality and the health of residents. The problem is exacerbated by makeshift settlements clinging to the edges of these landfills. The high density of people in these areas leads to an increase in waste, further disrupting the waste layers. This results in an accelerated release of methane, particularly problematic due to the inadequate ventilation in these settlements. The environmental fallout of these landfills extends to the very soil and water that sustain the Igando community. Leachate, a toxic byproduct of waste decomposition, seeps into the soil, contaminating their groundwater. Runoff from the landfills further carries pollutants to nearby water bodies, affecting the quality of water that many in Igando rely on. Lastly, health issues prevalent in the community, such as respiratory problems and malaria, are indicative of the harmful effects of landfill emissions, with stagnant water in this area serving as breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Why should you care?
You might wonder, “Why should this matter to me?” The answer, while straightforward, is deeply concerning. The emissions from the Igando landfills are not just a local nuisance; they’re contributing to global climate change. This means more heatwaves, unpredictable rainfall patterns, and harsher weather conditions, affecting everything from our food supply to our health. Take, for instance, the plight of African farmers, who are already witnessing the effects of changing climatic conditions on their agricultural outputs. Their experiences serve as a real-world illustration of the broader impacts of a warming planet, highlighting the interconnectedness of local environmental issues and global climatic changes.
What’s being done?
In pursuit of deeper insights into the Igando landfills, I reached out to the Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) for their plans and strategies to alleviate the burden on the Igando community. As of now, their response is still pending. But the responsibility does not solely lie with LAWMA and the government; there’s a role for every Lagosian. By adopting simple practices like minimising waste, separating recyclables, and composting, we can significantly reduce the pressure on our landfills. Just imagine the collective impact if every one of us committed to these actions. The story of Igando’s landfills is not just about waste; it’s about our city’s health, our well-being, our climate, and our future. By understanding the problem and actively participating in solutions, we can all contribute to a cleaner and greener Lagos.
This report was sponsored by the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development, with funding support from the Public Diplomacy Section of the US Embassy, Abuja.