Winter (Green) Cleaning in Lagos, Nigeria

Winter (Green) Cleaning in Lagos, Nigeria,” UN Dispatch, 7 January 2009.

What to make of environmentalism in Africa’s most populous nation.

dscn1292IBADAN, NIGERIA — The last Saturday of every month in Lagos is reserved for a governmentally mandated “environmental holiday.” Citizens are barred from leaving their homes until noon that day, and instead are directed to clean their homes. In a country where the adage “cleanliness is next to godliness” can be found printed on buses and street murals, this is no great surprise. Sincere but unintentional, this odd form of individual “environmentalism” does have some appreciable collective benefits. Abundant petroleum, subsidized to a price of 70 Naira (50 cents) per litre, plus a lack of efficient transport alternatives, ensures that, left unbothered, everybody drives everywhere — all the time. By keeping cars off the road in congested, cacophonic Lagos (much like Beijing in the days before the Olympic games), the one-day policy produces a substantial improvement in local air quality.

Due to a spot of confusion as to whether the last “environmental” of 2008 was canceled due to the holiday season, I was on the road during the deserted hours, which set me thinking about the potential for green, smart growth in Lagos-a city of 15 million that George Packer once brilliantly described as “the archetype of the megacity, perhaps because its growth has been so explosive, perhaps because its cityscape has become so apocalyptic.”

It is easy to see apocalypse in the stacks of plastic bags and bottles that cluster or burn by the side of the road — the more so because these materials are made from the same petroleum that is Nigeria’s most abundant natural resource, accounting for 90 percent of its GDP and bloody conflict in the Delta region.

But there are silver linings when it comes to city planning, particularly because of the “explosive” nature of the city. Recent, large-scale land reclamation schemes have made intelligent city design a distant possibility. They’ve also stirred up legitimate environmental controversy.

Construction of the Fourth Mainland Bridge, at the heart of Lagos, and expansion of the Lekki peninsula, essentially a Long Island-shaped growth off the shore of the city itself, are, just a few years into development, still virgin ground. Both projects can be designed to minimize traffic congestion and efficiently transmit electricity, improvements that could be a much-needed instruction to developers in the rest of Lagos. New constructions can take advantage of efficient building materials and solar technology, now cheapened by the drop in the price of silicone, under the brilliant Lagosian sun.

In his must-read piece, Packer discusses a 1970s plan for Lagos that included a series of bridges and tunnels that were never built. I’d love to see such a blueprint amended for today, and significant incentives for infrastructure development attend any international deals for aid or for oil (Nigeria reimports crude because many of its refineries are in disrepair). Emerging economies have a narrow window through which they can leapfrog developed nations like the US; Africa’s satellite cellular technology, for example, is more efficient than the American network of stationary towers. While land reclamation has been derided as a controversial intervention into marine ecology, I look forward to seeing if Lagos has the wherewithal to make that kind of environmentalism work.

Dayo Olopade

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