Walk through the inner streets of Lagos – the pot-hole ridden, narrow streets with cars double-parked and lined up close to each other like an unruly crowd waiting in line for tickets at the cinema – and you will quickly notice the dirty gutters on either side. The gutters seem like an afterthought, like they were carved out after what was once a dusty wide footpath had been converted into a more travelable road for cars and motorbikes. These ill-thought-out gutters have become secondary dumping sites for whoever lives on or passes by those streets. They are full of thick, green, sometimes, black water, old plastic bottles, transparent nylons and the occasional empty biscuit or Gala wrapper. Stick around the street long enough, observe the behaviour of the people that walk through it and you will notice how little they care about their surroundings. Well, until it rains, at least.
When rain falls for a prolonged period of time, the water level in the area rises and the gutters start to overflow and vomit the hellish things that have for so long held in their bellies. Then the people start to pay attention. And when they do, they begin to lament the state of their environment. Soon enough, after it has been moved around for a while, the blame cap lands on the head of the Lagos State Government. It is the government that is responsible for the flooding, it is the government that carved out the ‘supposed’ gutters, and it was the government that filled those ‘gutters’ with dirt and empty bottles. Not the people, the government.
Perhaps you’ve been on one of these streets for a while, why not walk into one of the compounds? What do you notice about the floor on which you’re standing? Think about this for a minute. Notice that majority of the floor is concrete? Did you know that it’s more difficult for water to percolate through concrete than it is through the soil? Or, maybe you haven’t thought about it. It is more likely that you will see a concrete floor when you walk into a compound in Lagos, and several other places in Nigeria, than a green lawn divided into two by a driveway. But these are some of the housing designs and choices people make in Lagos without truly considering their impact on the environment.
July in Lagos has been wet. It has rained a lot this month and so, several places on the mainland and island have experienced flash floods – social media is overflowing with pictures of flooded streets and houses. On one hand, the government has been blamed, and rightly so, for poor town planning and its weak, nigh-nonexistent, enforcement of environmental regulations. The manner in which certain estates and streets are constructed makes you wonder if the people sitting at office desks in the Lagos State chapter of the Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development truly understand the importance of their jobs. On the other hand, we have the negligence of the people and their general lack of environmental consciousness.
In his piece for The Guardian titled ‘The poverty of Lagos urban planning’, Bongo Adi explained that “Every city experiencing heavy downpour will certainly have some areas submerged underwater as the rains gather in intensity and duration, but what determines the extent of damage is the availability of appropriate and adequate provision for surface water runoff after such heavy downpour.” So far, the Lagos State Government hasn’t done well in that department. It hasn’t done enough to provide appropriate channels that will direct the water to “artificial or natural receptacles such as canals, lakes or even the nearby sea as in the case of Lagos.”
But the blame is not with the government alone, it rests with the people as well. The average Lagosian is not very environmentally conscious and doesn’t have the luxury of contemplating ecology. Lagos is a frantic city – one minute you’re asleep, the next you’re jumping danfo and getting stuck in traffic. Most people are too busy trying to get by to be bothered about their environment, but ignorance is not always bliss, and ignorance has its repercussions. Indiscriminate dumping of refuse, the consideration of self before the collective (which reflects in how people build their houses and go about seeking approval from individuals within the government), all of these factors affect the coastal city that is Lagos.
Lagos is prone to flooding, more than several other states in Nigeria, because of its geographical location. But what is happening in July can change, if the government and people are willing to make it right. If not, it is difficult to see how Lagos can truly become the megacity we want it to be – safe, well-planned, and unsunken.