Urban infrastructure for water, waste and sanitation: the role of civil society

Olatunbosun Obayomi, Lagos Guest Contributor

Rapid urbanization through natural growth and rural-to-urban migration is overwhelming cities in the emerging world — cities which are already struggling to develop their infrastructure. Lagos, where I have lived all my life, is no exception. The United Nations estimates that the population of my city will hit 16 million by 2015, making it the world's 11th-largest urban system. Its population density has already reached an extreme level at 4,193 people per square kilometer. Meanwhile, a combination of official neglect, corruption, extreme poverty, and rapid, largely uncontrolled population growth has led to the decay of the existing urban infrastructure — a key determinant of how livable my city will be.

One glaring example is the infrastructure in Lagos city for handling human waste (sewage), sanitation, and drinking water — which is poorly organized and uncontrolled where it exists at all, and utterly inhumane in its effects on Lagos residents. It is common to see pipes for drinking water passing through open drains — drains that periodically receive human waste when locals open their septic tanks into them or when waste leaks into them directly. In fact, Lagos city does not treat all the human waste generated by its millions of residents each day; instead, it is emptied directly into the Lagos lagoon — with serious health consequences, especially for the city's poorer neighborhoods.

Infrastructure for drinking water is generally very poor, and in many areas is entirely lacking. As a consequence, many Lagosians depend on bottled water, local water vendors, private boreholes, or expensive water filtration units for their daily domestic and sanitation needs. Infrastructure for managing storm water is not properly planned, with no specifications in place and no coordination of urban drainage.

The rain is a nightmare for Lagosians, as frequent floods destroy roads and other infrastructure. The commute into the city during the rainy season — which combines the effects of flooding with the city's already lengthy traffic jams — must be seen to be believed.

On 10 July 2011, for example, Lagos state experienced 24 hours of heavy rainfall. The storm water overwhelmed the poorly designed drains and canals, which were already filled and choked with refuse. Twenty-five people lost their lives, and the existing urban infrastructure was grounded; the government was even forced to declare a public holiday for students. Both rich and poor were affected, as both lacked the basic infrastructure needed to deal with the effects of the storm. One can only imagine the contamination that occurred between storm water, drinking water, human sewage, and the body of water receiving the overflow, and the effects on public health are simply unthinkable.

These challenges, great though they are, should impel us to take the necessary steps to make Lagos a greater and more livable city.

Infrastructure, governance, and the role of civil society

Globalization has changed traditional governance to a tremendous degree. The world is becoming a village faced with a host of urgent issues, and we must work in concert to tackle them. Clearly, the action or inaction of an economic or political actor in the developed world can have a profound effect on the lives of people in developing countries; clearly, one need not be an elected official to have a significant impact on our shared future. On the contrary: in a globalized world, non-state actors within the international architecture have proven that they can build the political will for a new approach to development that integrates environmental and social goals.

Through campaigns and broad outreach, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can alert the public about the urgent issues our cities face. NGOs also can help vocalize the interests of the urban poor, who are not well-represented in policymaking — a fact made obvious by the kind of infrastructure they get.

More specifically, I believe that civil society — especially NGOs — can help to ameliorate the infrastructure for sewage, water, and sanitation in Lagos city and the emerging world at large.

I see a city as a combination of systems, a network of infrastructures. By combining these infrastructures in appropriate ways, we enable that city to move, produce, and become sustainable. I believe that going back to the basics of urban design can help us solve these challenges. A good place to start is the idea of planning and managing the city to limit resource consumption and carbon emissions, and to ensure that core services like potable water, sanitation, and waste management will be delivered efficiently and inclusively throughout the city.

Waste water treatment linked to clean water provision

In my work as an inventor, I have retrofitted the conventional septic tank — the infrastructure for handling human sewage — into a biogas plant: a means of producing biogas, a combustible mixture of methane and carbon dioxide that provides a source of green energy.

By leveraging this invention in combination with city infrastructures, I envision a scenario whereby we can combine the street grid system, water management system, and energy systems to solve these pressing issues. I call this combination "waste water treatment linked to clean water provision."

Assume that the city of Lagos has 80 streets. Those streets can be divided into units of eight blocks of streets each. The septic tanks of eight streets are linked to a central waste system (biogas plant). The biogas produced is then used in running gas engine pumps for water generation from water boreholes and circulation back to consumers in the streets. So we have ten units — in a decentralized and closed system — each independently treating its own waste water, generating green energy, and providing clean water to the people living there.

Storm water will be properly harvested through well-designed and coordinated drains and used for non-domestic purposes.

Using very conservative figures and taking into consideration the amount of water required for domestic and miscellaneous use by a family of five people, and estimating that a street in Lagos, Nigeria is has an average of 50 houses with a family of five in each, we see that one street block will produce 187.5Kg of sewerage per day, which is far above the required 172Kg per day. There thus will be adequate sewage production for the generation of 1,720 liters of biogas per day — the amount required to run a pump of 1BHP that will produce 31,250 liters of clean water in four hours — enough for domestic and miscellaneous use by 250 people.

Using this model of compact urban development will also help to pave the way for proper road construction planning that will facilitate the collection of refuse from the streets — refuse that currently chokes up the the drains and canals.

The role of NGOs in the development of urban infrastructure

NGOs can facilitate social and environmental change by giving politicians access to competing ideas from outside the normal bureaucratic channels. NGOs also can garner support for knowledge-generating institutions in developing countries — for example, research stations and specialized universities that are dedicated to developing innovative solutions to such urgent problems — and can fund pilot projects based on innovations developed from these establishments. Universities are key generators of knowledge, yet they are among the most under-funded institutions in emerging countries. NGOs are especially well positioned to help spot local innovations that are suited for local conditions, since technology is not globally given. In addition, NGOs often have much better analytical and technical skills and the capacity to respond to these ideas more quickly than government officials. For instance, my work has been recognized by LEAP Africa, a local NGO, and TED, an international NGO.

Since May 2009, the Lagos state government, led by Governor Babatunde Fashola, has aggressively pursued the construction of drains in all areas of Lagos and has cleared many canals. But despite these efforts, which should be applauded, there is still flooding in Lagos streets and roads, not only in the coastal areas but in all parts of Lagos — both mainland and island, slums and wealthy neighborhoods. There are no specifications and no coordination of these urban drains, and the construction contracts might be awarded to upwards of 20 different contractors — which then must figure out how to build systems that are supposed to function together, wasting precious resources in the process.

NGOs have a role to play here as well — for instance, spotting realistic ideas and helping to formulate pro-people policies. NGOs can also help to monitor construction projects and ensure compliance with standards, thus making the state accountable for the limited resources available and acting as a watchdog for the urban poor and for Lagosians in general.

The concerted efforts of everyone within the international architecture can help to bring about the social and environmental changes we want to see in the urban centers of the emerging world. All hands must be on deck.

Finally, in an ideal scenario, civil society would work with international organizations and state actors to help mitigate global climate change while providing locally tailored infrastructure for waste water treatment, energy generation, and drinkable water provision. For example, within the climate change governance circle, it is possible to combine the efforts of Lagos state government (LASG), providing concessions and a conducive working environment; the UN Fund for International Partnerships (UNFIP), which would provide financing; Energy Cities (EC), contributing information and networking; Carbon Rationing Action Groups (CRAGs), to input standards and commitments; and Connected Urban Development (CUD), taking on the construction of retrofitted septic tanks that will treat waste water and generate the green energy needed to pump water to homes around the streets of Lagos.

Olatunbosun Obayomi is a microbiologist and inventor from Lagos, Nigeria. Obayomi's research spans hydrogen biogas reactors, ecological engines, and microbial fuel cells. He is the founder of Bio Applications Initiative in Lagos, which focuses on the production of energy from organic waste, using green biogas technology to solve pressing needs related to energy supply, food production, and sanitation in the developing world. Obayomi has produced simple biogas plants for converting paper, animal, and human waste into energy. He has also retrofitted a conventional septic tank into a biogas plant. A graduate of microbiology from Olabisi Onabanjo University in Nigeria, Obayomi is a member of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). He was a TED Global Fellow in 2010 and a BMW Guggenheim Lab Team Member for New York City 2011. His efforts have been celebrated in Nigeria as well: in 2008 he was honored with the Nigerian Youth Leadership Award, presented by LEAP Africa.


With the increasing human population the needs for the people also increases. Recycling waste not only save our natural resources but also help save energy. By recycling an item or making a basic fix to it, we can save all the energy that would have been consumed in the process of making it.
Biogas Plant in Kerala

Thank you for your comments! Please keep watching this space about innovative solutions for urban challenges being implemented in Lagos city.

It is indeed great to be able to make something that satisfies a basic need such as clean water from waste. Giving the level of waste Lagos produces each day, we hope initiatives such as this would be adopted on a wider scale.

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