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Nigeria: How Plastic Waste Disrupts Aquatic Life in Rivers’ Waters

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The negligence of Nigerians and the disinclination of the government to control single use of plastic is exposing marine life and the ecosystem to hazards.

Behind the suburban Amadi-Ama community in southern Port Harcourt is a vital inland water body. This is the Amadi Creek, an estuary which lies on the north of the Bonny River, upstream from the Bight of Benin.

Aside from the destructive oil spills, the waterway is also struggling with the swirly toxicity of plastic junks, exposing the fauna to more harm.

Peter Daniel, an energetic and muscular man in his 30s, sits on an abandoned brick amidst a vast chunk of plastics. Living as a fisherman in Amadi-Ama community, Mr Daniel spends a lot of time fishing at the creek.

This places him at the forefront of the marine scourge, one of those outrightly disturbed by the water.

Having lived in the coastal community for over 20 years, Mr Daniel understands how disastrous the unappealing build-up of debris in the waterway is to fishing grounds.

“Plastics are the most abundant debris found in this environment,” he said.

“It also comprises more than half of the garbage in the creek. The garage never reduces. At first, they persist at the water surface before making their way offshore. It makes fishing a difficult task and often tampers with our fishing net.”

Plastics are accumulating in mass across the country. Its viability is increasing just as its negative impact on the surrounding environment and human health is becoming noticeable.

Amadi-Ama is not an exception.

Garden City

Port Harcourt was once referred to as the garden city of Nigeria as a result of its neatness and the enormous existence of vegetation in its metropolis. Now, the narrative is different. This is because of the presence of refuse dotting the entire city.

The city lies at the mouth of the River Niger, one of the major depositors of plastics into the ocean according to a study by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research.

The United Nations has identified the contamination of water bodies with plastics and by-products as a complex and multi-dimensional environmental hazard.

“Plastic waste is one of the biggest threats to the world’s oceans,” the UN says. “More than eight million tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean each year – the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck of plastic every minute. Plastic waste harms wildlife, damages marine ecosystems and causes adverse impacts to human health.”

Nta Wogba stream

The Nta Wogba stream is another freshwater body exposed to this environmental disaster. Situated in a town with dense human settlement and massive non-biodegradable waste problem, the stream cuts across Diobu and three other local government areas. It flows beneath several highways and empties into the Bonny River.

Oto Obasi is standing close to the bank, beside a group of flowering plants. The small-scale gardener would rather plant his flowers in a vase than directly in the soil even though he had intentionally chosen that spot for planting.

Plastic wastes have a direct effect and implication on the coastal environment. They contain particles as small as a virus that has an ecological effect.

Planting in a plastic dedicated zone is disastrous and Mr Obasi has learnt this. He kicks back an empty can of coke lying a few inches away and then begins to speak.

“Plastic wastes are channelled into the stream through underground gutters after a heavy rain pour. This garbage is mostly abandoned by the bank for a very long time. I don’t plant so close to the stream because the plastics wastes will disturb my planting and this has always been a problem.

“Despite that, planting close to the river bank means I have to clear plastics on the surface of the soil before planting the flowers. This location is important because of its nearness to the highway and the easy access to water,” he said.

Another hazard in Nta Wogba stream is the pronounced deterioration of the water clarity and quality. The turbid water which is highly concentrated with wastes always appeared cloudy, murky and coloured, affecting the physical look of the water.

This also affects the depth to which plants can grow, the level of dissolved oxygen and water temperature.

The aesthetic value of the stream is also not spared. With aquatic trash strewed all around the coastline, the environment is an eyesore and it reeks of a despicable odour

“Nta Wogba stream changes its colour as often as possible. It can be brown, black or green but mostly the colour is green. When the stream flows back, it comes with a very bad odour that upsets the stomach. Living behind a polluted creek filled with different kinds of plastic waste isn’t total health. The plastic is always there by the shore,” says Alfred Samuel, a resident who lives a few kilometres away from the riverbank.

Mr Samuel has spent over eight years living and working a few kilometres away from the stream. For him, the pollution majorly exposes residents to health-related risks, particularly malaria and some water-borne diseases.

“Water treatment here is mandatory although we use borehole water for cooking, bathing and other activities. The water isn’t stable, it comes and goes very often. When it does, the environment becomes very uncomfortable. The water is also very harmful to some species of fishes so they are rarely found around here,” he said.

Local boatmen are not spared

In Abuloma, Joel Obinna, 28, is sitting at the edge of his boat waiting on the next passenger to beacon. The turbid brown water is moving quietly, some plastics flowing swiftly and softly along, others merely dangling in the water.

Business at Abuloma jetty is unhindered and so is the coastal garbage on the surface of the water.

The local boatman has navigated the water with his boat a few times before but unlike some other days, his propeller is still in good condition.

One of the adverse effects of plastic junk in Abuloma is on navigation especially since the estuary is recognised as a major means of transportation by people living along the jetty. Plastic poses a severe threat to boatmen.

“Plastic dirt is often responsible for the faults my boat develops. Well, not just me, it is small for every boatman that is based here,” Mr Obinna said. “The plastic tangles with the boat propeller and this disrupts movement. If the damage isn’t a serious patch it becomes an option but if it is, it must be replaced.

“They are in every part of the water, on the surface and even deep beneath it. They are almost unavoidable because they sink, plastics are not always on the water surface. This makes staying clear quite difficult because one can’t avoid the danger they don’t see ahead.

Aside from depleting the oxygen content of the water thus making it impossible for many life forms to survive, plastic debris through dumping, improper waste management is disrupting navigation in Abuloma jetty and local helmsmen are mostly affected by this.

For Kingsley, another boatman, navigating freely requires that he is very cautious and observant. From time to time, he has to put his hand into the water to ascertain that his path is clear.

“I had to devise a means to avoid the recurrence of such an incident. It is usually a loss on my part because it is usually sudden and unprecedented. But I can’t use my boat without a propeller. Now, I just dip my hand into the water when I sense anything around my boat. If there is entanglement, I untangle as quickly as possible,” he said.

Reluctance amidst global challenge

Nigeria is reluctant in the fight to checkmate this desecration by plastics.

Plastics have seen a skyrocketing growth for a good reason, they are durable, cheap and lightweight. Global production of plastic soared from 25 million tonnes in 1970 to 400 million in 2018.

According to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, the demand for plastic doubled since the year 2000 and could double again by 2050. The durability that makes plastic most appealing, it turns out, also makes it an environmental time bomb.

There’s a global battle against plastic waste, particularly when it comes to the single-use plastics.

A global review from the UNEP and the World Resources Institute (WRI) shows out of 192 countries reviewed, 127 have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic.

Africa is leading the world in plastic regulations with 34 countries adopting taxes or ban.

However, Nigeria is yet to adopt any proactive measure to curb plastic despite been estimated as the ninth in the world for mismanagement of plastic waste.

Data released by Our World in Data (OWID), an online science publication estimates that Nigeria generates 5.96 million tons of plastics.

Annually, over 20 thousand tonnes of plastics wastes are littered by coastal populations within 50 kilometres away from a coastline.

In May 2019, the House of Representatives passed a bill banning the use of plastic bags in Nigeria. The Plastic Bag for Prohibition Bill proposed to prohibit use, manufacture and importation of plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging.

“The bill seeks to address among other things, the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging to address harmful impacts to oceans, rivers, lakes, forests, environment as well as human beings and also to relieve pressure on landfills and waste management and for other related matters,” a section of the bill read.

Although the bill mirrors punitive legislations prevalent in other African countries, it is not treated as such.

However, a year after the House of Rep passed the bill, nothing has been heard of its enactment. It is as though the plague is of no particular interest to the government.

Worrisome wave

From grocery bags, straws wrapped food to disposal plastics, plastics have become ubiquitous in the marine environment. This is due to its indiscriminate disposal and poor recycling. These non-biodegradable products are entering the ocean at a rate of about 11 million metric tonnes annually.

The use of plastics is increasingly becoming dominant and production is steadily on the rise.

Since most drains and gutters in Port Harcourt are built to direct all waste into one inland water body of the other, marine litter is unavoidable.

For Mr Daniel, until plastic production is halted, marine debris will continue to be a menace in his community since people will always purchase, use and dispose of randomly. Curbing marine debris is a very difficult goal to achieve.

“The careless disposal of single-use plastics by the residents and even neighbouring residents is largely responsible for the enormous amount of plastics and microplastics you find offshore and the water surface. The accumulation of these wastes is as a result of human negligence. Most drains and gutters are filled with domestic plastics waiting to be washed into the river.”

Plastics can end up in the marine environment through a variety of pathways. As such, there are often clear patterns between plastics in the marine environment and plastic waste in a nearby site.

The chunks of plastics on the coast of Abuloma are deposited by the flowing river. It is majorly influenced by high tides and the wave pattern. The riverbank represents a major sink for plastic waste due to the wide network of water connections in the city.

When the tide is high, the water flows down with countless plastics and is directed by the wave pattern.

Wastes are moved from distant or neighbouring towns and are abandoned offshore until the tide is high enough to take them back.

“These plastics come from Elelewa, Apajor, Woji and many other communities. When the tide is high, plastic wastes flow down from these communities. Some are abandoned offshore while the others are carried down to the high sea. wastes are abandoned. That’s why these trash cans are all over the place,” Mr Obinna said.

Scavengers worsen situation

Few kilometres away from the coast of Woji river, a neighbouring estuarine to Abuloma jetty, is a group of nine scavengers. The group operated what looked like a local recycling centre and has been in action for close to a decade.

Mercy Samuel has been working with the centre for about two years. She says her pay is small but is enough to feed herself and her little ones. For hours, she sifts through the plastic wastes that fluttered the ground like snowflakes and pick out cans and bottles that are recyclable. She would later bound them together and give them to her boss who sells them out.

“The wastes are brought here after they are collected. My job is to go through each garbage bag and separate plastic cans and bottles from the rest. Those bottles are what we can sell especially to market women. So, I just select them and take them to the boss, he is in charge of the exchange with our customers. I get paid by him as well but that depends on my input in the centre. My pay is based on the number of plastics I can get,” she said.

Though this looks like a great improvement, the reverse is the case. The presence of the group is worsening marine litter in Woji River, Abuloma jetty and other waterways. After sifting through the garbage, non-recyclable plastics are usually abandoned by the riverside where they are washed into the river by rain or high tides.

Sublime danger

Not all plastic wastes are recyclable and this majorly influences marine pollution. These products are usually lightweight and brittle so when littered, they easily break into microplastics.

Unrecyclable plastics are used to fill land areas or piled up with the mountain of plastics present at the centre, Thankgod, another member of the group, explained.

The local recycling firm which has no formal name collects wastes from several households, industries, dumpsites in Port Harcourt and also Rivers state only to dump the collected wastes on the coastline of Woji river.

Ms Samuel cannot fully grasp how this affects marine life but understands the peril of water pollution and the effect of littering on humans.

“Working here is dangerous to the health especially for the children amidst us. They fall sick in turns, this one is sick this month while the other is sick next month. This is common among them because they pick up food items from the waste, drink and bathe in Woji river.

“I do not put on any protective material. Those who wear rain boot and gloves found them in one of these garbage bags. No one originally bought one,” she said.

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles ranging from 5mmm to nano proportion. Once in the water, they are impossible to clean up. Plastic bits are the primary threat to marine organisms. These pieces can enter marine food chains and potentially pose huge risks to the environment and human health. They are easily ingested by fish, mussels and other sea animals.

High population responsible for the plastic plague

When contacted, a senior member of the River State Waste Management Agency (RIWAMA) intervention team said the land-based source accounts for 80% of the total volume of marine debris in Port Harcourt. According to the agency, this is as a result of the increasing population.

The RIWAMA agent, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because members of the team are not permitted to address the press, noted that “the high population and the careless culture of the people have made waste management quite difficult.”

“The population of Port Harcourt is very high and that has affected the indiscriminate disposal of even solid waste in general. Plastic debris is a global problem. It is been tackled all over the world. Human actions are difficult to control and that is why sensitisation is important,” he said.

Disputing the opinion of residents, the agency claimed to ensure the prompt evacuation of wastes and the continuous sensitisation of residents.

“There is always prompt evacuation of waste in Port Harcourt and its environs. We put in that much effort because we are aware that the waterways are major means of transportation. Just like in other countries, RIWAMA consistently carries out sensitisation as we ought to. We are always there to deal with the defaulters. Some are taken to the sanitation court where people who indiscriminately dispose of wastes are sanctioned.

“People are getting more aware by the day. Port Harcourt is getting closer to being a garden city once again. Port Harcourt is neater compared to how it was years back.”