Sewage treatment plants are part of modern efforts geared at solving waste management problems across the world. Unfortunately for some Lagos residents, it has become a living nightmare that haunts them daily. In this report, ALFRED OLUFEMI chronicles the pathetic plight of a community under the chokehold of a state-owned dysfunctional sewage plant that yields bountiful profit to the detriment of residents
From the beckoning voices of commercial motorcyclists scouting for passengers trying to outwit each other, to the roadside sellers plying their trade unhindered, there is no doubt that the boisterous, giant gate leading to the Abesan Low-Cost Housing Estate, Ipaja, in the Mosan-Okunola Local Council Development Area, is a converging point for those serious with the business of making a living.
Going by this scenery, life appears normal but it does not depict the dark, agonising reality on the ground, which plays out daily inside the estate.
Behind the façade of well-laid residential homes is the Lagos State Wastewater Management Treatment Plant, a thriving, hazardous business process threatening both humans and the environment.
Based on PUNCH Investigations findings, the nauseous smell from untreated wastewater, discharged frequently by operators of the facility, which hangs thickly in the air throughout the day, has made life a torment in and around the estate.
This is even as the wastewater has permeated and polluted water bodies.
Beautiful turned ugly
The sprawling Abesan Low-Cost Housing Estate is acclaimed to be one of the legacies of the first civilian governor of Lagos State, the late Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande.
Like others commissioned in the 80s, it was designed and built to ensure that low-income earners have a place of their own upon retirement.
For effective sewage management, treatment plants were constructed at Abesan, Oke-Afa, Amuwo- Odofin and Iponri Low-cost housing estates to serve as central sewage systems rather than have individuals construct their sewage.
The Lagos State Wastewater Management Office, the agency responsible for the proper disposal of wastewater, on its website, noted that the plant in Abesan and others were constructed to usher in an era of contemporary wastewater management in the state.
“Sewage has for a long time been known and considered a potential health risk and environmental nuisance in Lagos State,” it stated.
Also, in a handbook published by the agency, it was stated that Lagos state, with a population of over 23 million people generates an estimated 2.21 million cubic metres of untreated wastewater daily, which poses a health risk.
However, the inability to adequately manage this hazardous human waste was boldly admitted and documented.
“Currently, there is a huge deficit in meeting the wastewater treatment in the state and so a lot of wastewater is being discharged into the environment daily,” the handbook revealed.
How sewage treatment, management works
Sewage, also known as wastewater or effluent waste, is a polluted form of water generated by human activities that include faecal matter from the toilet faucet, urinal, kitchen, bathroom, laundry and soak away leachates.
According to Britannica, a website that contains carefully edited articles on significant topics, sewage treatment facilities use physical, chemical and biological processes for water purification.
It further noted that a treatment plant is where wastewater is filtered, disinfected and converted into purified water for use, adding that once properly treated, it can be used for irrigation, fire-fighting and groundwater recharge, among others.
In a research published by the University of Montpellier on its website, countries like Australia, California, Cyprus, Spain, Florida, Israel, Jordan, Malta and Singapore, have set a target of meeting 10 to 60 per cent of their water needs through the reuse of treated wastewater.
A journal published by the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology in China, noted that since wastewater consists of a high quantity of inorganic and organic wastes, it is pertinent to have it treated before being discharged into water sources.
The article, likewise, highlighted various stages of wastewater treatment, starting from the preliminary to the tertiary stage.
It explained that while the preliminary treatment has to do with the removal of large materials or coarse solids usually found in raw water, the primary, secondary and tertiary stages, focus on disinfecting and processing the wastewater for reuse.
“The efficiency of primary treatment is to remove around 60 per cent of suspended solids from sewage. Secondary treatment takes place after the removal of floating and settled materials from the sewage which aims at removing suspended and dissolved biological matter.
“The efficiency of secondary treatments is to remove around 90 per cent of suspended solids from sewage. The tertiary treatment takes place after secondary treatment and aims at removing those sewage constituents which were not removed in prior stages,” the research stated.
A decaying plant
Based on interviews with environmental experts and government officials, coupled with findings from credible research works, PUNCH Investigations gathered that the Abesan plant was designed to treat wastewater from different sewer lines from the estate up to the secondary level, which involves proper disinfection.
To achieve this, a large oxidation ditch and machines were provided.
However, residents told our correspondent that as of 2014, most of the machines installed for sewage treatment had broken down, leading to the pollution of groundwater and the release of nauseous pollutants into the air.
“They stopped processing the waste. Before, the water that comes out of the plant was clean. Now, the waste is just discharged directly into the river. We have complained several times to the state government but no one cares to listen,” said Deborah Ayeni, whose wine shop is located close to the plant.
The 34-year-old, who revealed that she has been living in the estate for over 10 years, lamented that the poignant air which usually envelops the environment was unhealthy for humans.
Further describing the discomfort residents have endured over the years, Ayeni said, “By the time they start to discharge the waste, it will be difficult to stay outside. Just imagine if this is done during the dry season when, because of heat, people have to stay outside to get fresh air.”
Collapsed sewage plant
President of the Abesan Estate Residents’ Association, Elder Michael Kehinde, corroborated Ayeni’s claims about the total collapse of the plant.
He noted that residents, who ordinarily should benefit from the wastewater plant, have resorted to digging soakaways to adequately accommodate waste.
Kehinde revealed that most of the sanitary sewer lines had been blocked, thereby causing an overflow of wastewater.
He said, “Let me state that the sewage system in this estate has collapsed. If you go to some parts of the estate, you will see effluent waste flowing everywhere. The leaks caused by blockages are so many and people are complaining.”
According to Wikipedia, a sanitary sewer is an underground pipe or tunnel system for transporting sewage from houses and commercial buildings to a sewage treatment plant or disposal. Sanitary sewers are a type of gravity sewer and are part of an overall system called a “sewage system.”
During a tour of the estate, our correspondent discovered that further deepening residents’ woes, is the fact that the plant has been turned into a dump site for wastewater collected from areas outside the estate like Agege and Egbeda, despite its dysfunctional state.
Speaking on this, the estate residents’ president said, “The terminal is not functioning as it should, but it has not stopped sewage trucks from dislodging human waste brought from other areas.”
Kehinde chronicled how attempts by the state government to revamp the moribund treatment plant worsened their plight.
He said, “There was an attempt to carry out repairs on the plant during Fashola’s administration. The work was awarded but the contractor didn’t complete it. I don’t know why. As a result of that, it became worse than it used to be.”
Checks by PUNCH Investigations showed that the state government had pledged to rehabilitate sewage treatment plants across the state, including that of Abesan, but reneged in its promise.
According to a 2014 report published in a national daily (not PUNCH), the Fashola-led administration announced plans to build new treatment plants and have the old ones revamped.
“The former governor revealed that aside from upgrading the existing wastewater treatment plants at Abesan in Ipaja; Oke-Afa in Isolo; Iponri in Surulere; Alausa in Ikeja and Amuwo-Odofin, 5, 250 kilometres of sewers need to be laid,” the report stated.
Providing insights into how the Abesan treatment plant became decrepit, Olufemi Adesogan, a lecturer at the Civil Engineering Department, University of Ibadan, blamed it on poor maintenance culture.
Adesogan, had in 2015, surveyed the state of sewage treatment facilities across the country.
He said, “The infrastructural breakdown of sewer lines and the plant is due to man-made factors and epileptic power supply. You can’t talk about sewage treatment without water and electricity. They are interwoven. They were not properly maintained.”
During the course of this report, PUNCH Investigations, while carrying out the spot assessment of the wastewater plant, was able to, with the use of spyware, assess the extent of the decay at the facility and witnessed an illegal mode of operation, detrimental to humans and the ecosystem, in place.
It was learnt that while the state government remained the owner of the treatment plant, its management was contracted to a private company.
However, this change of ownership, according to residents, only worsened the state of the facility and turned it into a shadow of its former self.
Surrounded by thickets, structures inside the plant appeared old and had weather-beaten, grey-coloured paint.
Parts of its perimeter fence had collapsed, while there were indications that the entrance gate was forcefully removed from its hinges.
Parked haphazardly at the front of the plant were 13 sewage-hauling trucks waiting to be hired.
The trucks, our correspondent would later learn, are owned by individuals in the business of sewage evacuation.
As our correspondent approached the facility, it became clearer that the place had been turned into a business hub for Point of Sales operators, food sellers and varying artisans.
Inside the facility, he watched as two men dislodged wastewater from a haulage truck into a concrete box.
Close to the box was a container where nylons, plastics and other solids separated from the wastewater were discarded.
PUNCH Investigations gathered that the box is where the primary treatment takes place.
However, instead of sending the toxic wastewater to the next stage, where it undergoes secondary treatment, it was discharged in its raw state into the Abesan River, which is at the back of the plant and has tributaries linked to several communities.
Wastewater pollute tributaries
PUNCH Investigations discovered that there is a huge pipe through which the wastewater travels from the concrete box, to empty into the river.
However, in order not to arouse suspicion due to the sensitive nature of the report, our correspondent, rather than move closer to the box, left the premises and found his way to the back of the facility, where the Abesan River snakes through.
From there, he observed that about 200 metres away from the concrete box, the wastewater mixed with the flowing Abesan River.
Point where darkened wastewater mixes with the flowing Abesan River, from where it flows downstream. (Alfred Olufemi/PUNCH Investigations)
According to Google Map, a tool used for mapping, the river travels over 10 kilometres through Ayobo, a densely populated community in Lagos, through several communities to Sango Ota, Ogun State.
A 2011 research published by the Journal of Water Resource and Protection, noted that the three metres deep Abesan River flows through residential estates and communities and is used for washing, bathing, cooking, and spiritual activities. Sadly, it also serves as a source of drinking water for some.
According to the World Health Organisation, if wastewater is not properly treated and disposed of, it can serve as an agent for waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid, among other infections.
The UN body also noted that the discharge of untreated wastewater may cause physical, chemical, and biological deterioration of water sources.
“It may also lead to a depreciation of land values, the breeding of insect vectors of disease, offensive smell, the destruction of aquatic life, eutrophication of ponds and lakes, and the eventual curtailment of other beneficial uses of water courses, e.g, recreation, boating, fishing and the cultivation of shellfish,” WHO added.
A former National Chairman of the Association of Public Health Physicians of Nigeria, Professor Tanimola Akande, warned that dysfunctional sewage can contaminate other water sources in the environment.
He said, “Dysfunctional and unprocessed sewage effluent affects the environment. It contains pollutants which can spread diseases and contaminate drinking water sources, pollutes groundwater as well as other major water bodies, thereby, causing adverse effects on the health of animals and aquatic life.”
School not spared
Findings by PUNCH Investigations showed that among those who bear the brunt of the negative implication of the wastewater are students and teachers of Fluorescent Comprehensive Private Academy, a school located about 20 metres from the plant.
A senior staff, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said they operate under a chokehold of polluted air.
He noted that the terrible odour that emanates from the facility becomes particularly unbearable when the operators fail to add pre-treatment chemicals.
“It is a very pungent smell. Most times, it is when the smell has circulated and there are complaints from residents that they pour chemicals into the river to douse it,” the man said.
PUNCH Investigations learnt that the smell has always fuelled health concerns among parents and led to the withdrawal of students from the school.
The staff noted that an attempt to formally complain to the operators led to an assault on some school management staff.
He recounted, “Some parents said they can’t continue to keep their children in such an environment. During one of the school’s Open Day, the vice principal and the accountant were beaten up when they went to complain about the smell.”
The man said he fears for his health, that of students and his colleagues adding, “Although we have not had a fatal case, I believe this thing can kill someday. It is disturbing. They call it effluent waste but it appears to be hazardous.”
Meanwhile, some residents alleged that operators of the plant are known to be violent and can do anything untoward to continue with their nefarious activities due to alleged state government backing.
Making millions at human expense
To find out how easy it is to dispose of wastewater at the plant, confirm alleged government involvement and how much is remitted into the state coffers, our correspondent approached one of the truck drivers, pretending to have an overflowing septic tank that urgently has to be evacuated at his residence in Egbeda.
The man, later identified as Lateef Jimoh, disclosed that it would cost N26,000 for a trip.
Jimoh, who claimed he just returned from his second trip for the day, told our correspondent that if they can reach an agreement, his trip would be the third.
After minutes of haggling, the young man, out of exasperation, broke down the cost of dislodging sewage to our correspondent, noting that N4,000 is paid to the state government for every trip.
A truck driver, Lateef Jimoh, has been into the business of waste evacuation and sees the business as very lucrative. (Alfred Olufemi/PUNCH Investigations)
“We pay N4,000. It used to be N2,000 but it was recently increased. If we come here 20 times, we will pay N4,000 per trip,” he explained.
Some aggrieved residents that spoke with our correspondent, including a youth leader, estimated that daily, the truck drivers embark on an average of 50 trips.
Based on this revelation, PUNCH Investigations estimated that remittance of N4,000 per trip on an estimated 50 trips, would amount to N200,000 daily and N1.4m in a week
Going by this calculation, the state government averagely nets N42m in a month, weekends inclusive.
Oddly, it was evident that no form of maintenance has been carried out at the facility for a long time, as the environment wears the appearance of a pigsty.
During a second visit to the facility, our correspondent approached another truck driver pretending to have a brother, who is a civil servant that is interested in starting a sewage evacuation business.
He further explained to the driver, who identified himself as Sikiru that his brother just purchased a truck and needed a trusted person that can efficiently run the sewage business for him.
Excitedly, Sikiru jumped at the offer and took the time to explain the nitty-gritty of the business to our correspondent.
He noted that the business used to be quite lucrative until more individuals joined.
“Despite the competition, you will still make money,” he added with a smile.
“Per trip, you can make over N25, 000. Look at that truck, it got here last month, you can see that it is new and the owner is making money,” he said, pointing at one of the septic trucks parked outside the facility.”
Asked how much it would cost to register a truck, Sikiru gave our correspondent a breakdown of fees expected to be paid to several unions and the state government.
Sikiru told our correspondent that his brother would need to pay N300,000 as a registration fee to the Sewage and Wastewater Dislodgers Association of Nigeria, an umbrella body for operators.
It was learnt that a percentage of the fee will be paid to the Lagos State Wastewater Management Office, to serve as a parking permit.
Sikiru further explained that apart from the N300,000, truck owners must pay N15,000 for an annual permit to the LSWMO.
He, however, advised our correspondent to hasten and pay the registration fee before the end of the year, to escape a hike in the registration fee that will take effect in 2023.
“N200 must be paid by the driver daily to the association. Our President has said that by 2023, the registration fee will no longer be N300,000. It will be increased to N400,000. Tell your brother to hasten up,” he advised.
Curiously, PUNCH Investigations learnt that the facility manager in charge of the Abesan plant, Chief Tunde Afodewu, is also the president of the association of septic truck operators.
Traditional ruler groans
The community head of the estate, Baale Buari Adeleye, decried the unregulated activities of the plants’ operators, noting that it has continued to contaminate the Abesan River, which still serves as the only source of potable water in the area.
He also accused them of desecrating the river, which he described as ‘revered’ and once served the spiritual needs of residents.
Adeleye, who said has lived in the community since the 90s, revealed that the Abesan River was once known as Alasuwa River.
“There is no sickness or infection that can’t be healed once one enters the river. The sewage spoilt everything. Their action encouraged people to turn the river into a refuse dump,” he lamented.
On steps taken to address the wastewater contamination, Adeleye said he once wrote a letter of complaint to the Lagos State Commissioner for Environment, who later visited to assess the situation.
He said despite multiple visits by some government officials, including lawmakers, nothing significant has been done.
Needing government intervention
A youth leader in the community, Ehis Ero, said the state government must take decisive action as the facility is in a comatose state.
A distraught Ero recalled residents’ several engagements with government representatives and noted that they are being pushed to the wall.
“We have been to the plant several times and discussed with those in charge. How can they go all over Lagos State, pick up wastewater and bring it here to discharge? Each truck can go on four trips and you have like 50 trucks there. They must come up with a solution,” he said angrily.
Continuing, he said, “What happened to the machine meant to be used there? They said it got spoilt. That place was contracted to somebody. It is like an abandoned sewage plant. When it is not well managed, the government is supposed to intervene.”
Elusive 2023 hope
Abesan Estate’s residents are full and hopeful that their plight will be addressed in 2023 and they would enjoy a burst of fresh air.
According to estate president, Kehinde, members of the Lagos State House of Assembly Committee on Environment, paid a visit to the plant in October 2022 and concluded that the situation on the ground was terrible and promised to help.
“They promised that provisions will be made to address the situation in the 2023 budget. We have kept reminding them not to forget us,” he said.
Kehinde noted that executives of the estate have scheduled a reminder meeting with the lawmakers, adding, “I hope that by this year, attention would be given to us.”
Facility manager speaks
When contacted on phone, the facility manager of the plant, Tunde Afodewu, claimed the state government was well aware of activities and developments at the plant.
He, however, questioned PUNCH Investigations’ interest in the matter and insisted on knowing those that reported the pollution.
“Did they write a letter to you? You can call wastewater management or the ministry of environment to ask them about this plant. Their officers are always present to monitor and carry out tests at their labs.
“As I am talking to you, we use chemicals. You can come and see how we use the chemicals. We are not discharging it into the Lagoon. Even the governor is aware of what we are doing here,” he said.
He later referred our correspondent to the state government and abruptly ended the call.
Commissioner confirms development
When contacted, General Manager in charge of the Lagos State Wastewater Management office, Adebola Matanmi, blamed the decay of the sewage system and treatment plant on the consistently increasing population inside the estate.
He said, “Engineering devices have a limited lifespan. When Jakande constructed the estate, it was projected for 60,000 persons. Now, the population is over 200, 000.”
He noted that the state government, rather than renovate, has planned to expand the plant to meet up with the sewage needs of residents.
He referred our correspondent to the state government’s call for proposals to expand the facilities, which was published in 2021.
“The request for proposal has been submitted. The bid has been opened. By the grace of God, next year, work will commence there,” he promised.
Reacting to the allegations of dislodging wastewater into the Abesan River without proper treatment, the commissioner said that it was a temporary measure.
He said, “What we do is called pre-primary treatment but it is not enough. I must be sincere with you. It ought to be taken to the secondary stage. It is because we discovered that upgrading and expanding will take some time, which is why we put up with that.
“We don’t dump it raw. It passes through the boxed concrete where we add some chemicals to it. Those chemicals will kill some of the biomass in it.”
When our correspondent drew his attention to the fact that the wastewater was still toxic, he said, “I’m not telling you it’s not (toxic) but it is limited. It won’t be as toxic as it should be if it were raw.”
When PUNCH Investigations shared its findings on how the moribund plant has been turned into a money-making venture for the state government, he responded, “Yes, the money we are making is not the problem.”
He explained that the government is not interested in making profits but to provide better welfare services.
He admitted that the facility is under the management of a private company but with oversight functions from the LSWMO.
He, however, refused to disclose the name of the company involved or the terms guiding its engagement.
“I don’t think that information is necessary,” he said, dismissing our correspondent.
Experts proffer solution
Adesogan, the University of Ibadan lecturer, advised the state government to embrace the use of biological methods for the treatment of wastewater.
He said, “Ordinarily, we can use biological treatment but it needs perfect monitoring. Most mechanical treatments will not work in Nigeria because of the situation we have found ourselves in,” he said.
The biological process, according to him, involves the use of weeds and some plants that can feed on the waste.
He noted that the use of chemicals is also hazardous to the ecosystem and humans.
On his part, Prof. Tanimola said urgent steps should be taken to ensure that the Abesan sewage plant starts functioning properly.
He also urged residents to mount pressure on the relevant government agencies to do the needful and to avoid making contact with the wastewater.