Oct 10, 2023 6 min read

Flooding crisis a threat to public health in Lagos

Flooding crisis a threat to public health in Lagos
Motorists struggle to navigate the potholes covered by rainwater after heavy rainfall in Maza Maza, Lagos. Photo: Precious Williams

Lagos, a multicultural metropolis in western Nigeria, hosts 25 million residents and shines as Africa's thriving business hub. However, rainy seasons unveil a crisis, endangering 8 million people – nearly a third of the city’s populace – as flooded roads cause accidents and water stagnation leads to mosquito-borne diseases, writes Precious Williams.

Fifteen years ago, Amina Yakubu migrated from northern Nigeria to settle in Lagos' Satellite Town. Her home, situated between multiple military bases, was meant to be a haven for a young woman in an all-female household. Yet, as the month of March approaches, nature becomes a threat, turning streets and major roads into waterlogged streams.

Yakubu's daily commute to work becomes an obstacle she must overcome. As rain falls, buses and tricycles avoid their usual routes for fear of damage. Consequently, she resorts to taking a motorbike.

Yakubu mentions that the heavy downpours obscure potholes on deteriorated roads, resulting in numerous personal injuries and accidents.

"The water fills up the road, so you do not know where to follow. As I entered on the bike, when we got to one point, the bike man and I fell into the water. He entered the wrong part, and we fell. I had to go to the hospital where they reset my broken knee," says Yakubu, recounting her experience with the roads.

This problem is not unique to Satellite Town. There is a flooding crisis in Lagos, Nigeria, and the consequences are far-reaching, impacting both public health and safety in Lagos.

This flooding is the result of a flawed drainage system and poor city planning, according to Chidinma Onyeiwu, an expert in environment, social and governance strategies.

"I wouldn't outrightly say that the Lagos drainage system is nonfunctional or not effective, but there are some fundamental issues that stem from poor planning and poor regional planning that do not maximise its use," says Onyeiwu.

In Yakubu’s home, similar to many other homes in Lagos, a network of ground gutters collect wastewater from residential areas and channel it through roads into larger canals. However, this existing system proves to be inadequate in managing and containing the rainfall and floods that the city experiences.

Ayodele Olowoporoku, a researcher specialising in urban planning and disaster mitigation, asserts that the increased volume of water due to climate change necessitates the widening of these gutters. He also says that the size of the gutters and the disjointed drainage system in streets are inadequate.

The Lagos State Urban and Regional Planning Development Law mandates that the responsibility for creating a pathway for wastewater from residences to nearby street gutters or roads lies with landlords and homeowners. Nonetheless, many people must resort to shallow pathways incapable of containing substantial rainfall collected from rooftops, leading to water backflow and exacerbating local flooding.

Poorly managed, filled and blocked roadside ground gutters on a major road in Mile 2, Lagos. Photo: Precious Williams

The infrastructural problems

Poor oversight in building planning and inspection by the Lagos State Town Planning Department in various local government areas is a significant contributing factor to the drainage dilemma, experts in the field say.

This lack of oversight has led to the construction of homes without adequate wastewater channels and in some cases, houses are being built on drainage pathways and close to wastewater canals.

"People are building without authorisation. We have some buildings that are being built on gutters and canals. This causes the problems we are experiencing with the drainage," says Onyeiwu.

The health impact of a flawed system

The stagnant water created by the unattended drainage system poses a significant public health risk. The local government's inefficiency in maintaining and repairing street drainage systems has led to gutters filled with liquid waste, plastic waste, shopping bags, styrofoam plate packs and other commercial waste products, posing severe health hazards.

Locals often battle with mosquitoes. “The occurrence of mosquitoes gets worse during the rainy season. There is an empty piece of land near my house that has stagnant water. When it rains, the water builds up,” says Mary Jane, a resident.

Large estates with shallow ground gutters, well-designed parking spaces and empty lands that experience frequent flooding become waterlogged mosquito breeding sites.

Controlling diseases like malaria becomes an uphill battle if vector breeding sites aren't eradicated. Ironically, the drainage system established to pave the way toward eliminating wastewater becomes the very problem that hinders a healthier environment for the city.

Canal turned into a refuse dumping site because of its proximity to residential homes. Photo: Precious Williams

The hazards posed by the inadequate drainage system extend well beyond infectious diseases and include risks of injury and fire hazards to submerged cars. During rainy periods, the roads become submerged in large bodies of water, leading to road deterioration and the formation of potholes. Despite the risks, cars have no alternative but to navigate through these waters, putting drivers at risk of accidents and causing potential damage to their vehicles.

Ephraim Annotie, a former Uber driver, recalls a troubling experience: "There was a night I was on the road, on my way to Elegushi, heading towards the beach to get someone. The rain was so heavy and my car stopped. The water entered my car. I was stuck on the road. I had to look for a mechanic to repair my car."

Drivers incur significant costs for repairs and maintenance, exacerbating financial burdens. The waterlogged roads severely restrict transportation accessibility, leading to disruptions in daily commutes and hindering emergency health service delivery.


Flooded and damaged road after a moderate rainfall in Lagos. Video: Precious Williams

Hope for solution amid corruption and policy implementation hurdles

In a bid to curb blocked drainage systems, the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) and Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) utilise social media and radio campaigns to pave the way for a sustainable environment by promoting effective waste management practices. However, the problem persists.

Olowoporoku, a flood risk and mitigation expert, asserts that resolving Lagos' drainage issues requires more than enforcing environmental cleaning rules.

"Addressing Lagos' drainage challenges surpasses the enforcement of cleaning regulations," he says.

He highlights the absence of a comprehensive plan for the city, underscoring deficiencies in the state's blueprint that fail to provide adequate structural specifications for local drainage, roads and sustainable environmental infrastructure.

Olowoporoku identifies numerous obstacles, including poor compliance with building planning laws, implementation and enforcement of regulations by urban planning agencies due to limited technical and financial capabilities. In Lagos, local governments hold the legal responsibility for maintaining local government area drainages, roads and highway waste. However, they are constrained by limited financial and technical resources, which hinders effective management of urban and environmental systems and exacerbates flooding challenges.

Olowoporoku encourages officials to equip their staff and bolster their technical capabilities to design and uphold drainage systems within their respective localities.

In 2021, the outgoing president, President Muhammadu Buhari, signed an executive order that sought to appoint financial autonomy to the legislature and the judiciary in the 36 states. This move could potentially improve local government autonomy and access to funds for environmental health and community welfare. However, the order's future stability is uncertain as the state governors contest it in court.

A call for change

Many residents remain sceptical about the possibility of improvement in Lagos, a city of over 24 million people. Chidiebube Chizaram, a resident of Amuwo Odofin, says that there is a need to decongest Lagos and develop neighbouring cities as viable alternatives.

Chidinma Onyeiwu, an environment, social, and governance strategy consultant, and Ayodele Olowoporoku, a researcher specialising in urban planning and disaster mitigation, unite in their perspectives. They conclude that eradicating disease, preventing injury and enhancing public health in Lagos demands a comprehensive approach, encompassing multiple sectors: population, environment, politics and community-centered strategies. Both expert voices emphasise the importance of investing in the well-being of the people as the best hope for Lagos' enduring growth and sustainability.

This story was originally supported and published by the Pulitzer Center.

Precious Williams
Precious Williams
A global health epidemiologist and researcher, dedicated to using data and research to strengthen healthcare systems and improve health outcomes in low- and middle-income nations.
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