Lagos @50 : 20 Million people shitting in the Lagoon

Lagos then, Lagos now

I was born in the Lagos State University Training hospital in Surulere, Lagos. Lagos was different back then but maybe not as different as I’d like to believe. My family lived on the UNILAG campus a safe and serene environment. As a child I woke up to the sound of birds and went to sleep to the sound of crickets.

Like many resident staff families of UNILAG we enjoyed large gardens and green spaces. I distinctly remember each tree, the mango tree my elder sister planted, the almond tree that fell in a rainstorm, the hibiscus hedge, the casuarina hedge, the avocado tree, the guava tree, the old palm kernel tree that housed a family of squirrels and a few smaller trees I would recognize but don’t know by name. I remember the gardener who worked for us. I clearly remember the things we discussed.

We had an ongoing conversation about if trees were sentient and could feel pain a matter I had discussed with my science teacher at ISL and with my mother ‘a medical doctor’. I of course believed my teacher and mother, who were certain that plants can not feel pain nor are they aware or sentient since they have no brains. The old gardener disagreed however he was certain that all plants think, feel and feel pain. “Why else would the mango tree scar where you cut the bark for agbo” he explained as he gestured towards the scars on the side of the tree. Many years later I found out he was of course right. Plants are sentient and do feel and consciously react to a wide range of stimuli1. Another thing I remember about the gardener is no one once told him what to do. Unlike the average Nigerian blue collar worker nowadays that must often be instructed to move one foot after the other in order to maintain a walking gait. This man knew and loved his job. I suspect he had deeper knowledge and understanding of plants than he dared to share. Our garden was always in pristine condition. He began work early, slept during peak sunlight and picked up his tools again in the evening as the day cooled.

Our garden was home to an array of wildlife : birds, squirrels. Further afield on the campus there were snakes, monkeys ( rumor has it they escaped from the zoo ) and crabs and fishes by the lagoon. The lagoon was crystal clear I caught and ate crabs from that lagoon as a child.

It wasn’t all fun and games though. Like most Nigerian children, my family made sure I was indoctrinated into a dangerous superstition that continues to wreak havoc on our society’s collective psyche to this day.

It’s been awhile since I visited the lagoon front in Unilag but when I returned to Lagos in 2008 it smelled of sewage, the water was black and opaque, no signs of animal life. I still visit other parts of the waterfront further south and to the east. The beaches are littered with plastics. The coconut trees long gone.

I suppose it’s not all bad the streets of Lagos are cleaner. Other than that I’m hard pressed to find any objective improvements in the way Lagos is run.

Lagos consists of islands separated by creeks and the lagoon. The islands are adjoined by bridges and parts of the creeks are sand filled. Maroko, Victoria Island and more recently Eko Atlantic are all sand-filled. Mangrove forests and swamps have given way to coastal development. Towards the east of the all along Lagos coastline there is the land itself is subject to massive open unregulated sand quarries. Construction, land clearing and sand filling goes unchecked. It is unclear just how much sand has been displaced and how much surface area has been filled. The destruction of mangrove forests is significant as they sequester more carbon than any other type of habitat.23

While global warming is an undisputed reality, extrapolated outcomes are arguably contentious. Therefore I will avoid a lengthy discussion about the possible consequences of centenary sea level rise for Lagos. Suffice it to say in other some other coastal countries sea level rise is considered a matter of National security.45

Lagos state boasts 4 waste processing facilities6 all built in the 1980’s with a collective service capacity for 130,000 people there are 115 privately owned sewage treatment units in Lagos7 and 21 federal facilities8. In 2010 LASG committed to building a further 10 plants by 20159. As of 2011 Lagos had a wastewater management deficit of 94% or a capacity of ~ 1 Million residents. The construction timelines and capacity of the private and federal sewage treatment plants are unavailable. Generously assuming that the average capacity for the federal and privately owned facilities are similar to those of Lagos state all 140 sewage treatment plants would have a collective service capacity of ~ 4.5 Million people. It remains unclear if any of these plants use bio-nutrient recovery systems to recover phosphorous and nitrogen.

The remaining residents of Lagos either use septic tanks or do not have access to toilets.10 Soakaways and septic tanks in Lagos are emptied by sewage trucks which discharge their payload into designated dumping sites around the Lagoon. Some wastewater also enters the water system via drains and gutters as a result of building code violations that are the rule rather than the exception.

Lagos state provides some public toilets in common use public areas and there are privately operated public toilets11. However problems with hygiene persist. Chief Isaac Durojaiye (aka Otunba Gadaffi) proprietor of Dignified Mobile Toilets (DMT)12 states in an interview with the Nigerian voice “pride is a disease”13 . A particularly poignant piece of advice for the Lagos polity. Durojaiye has done quite well for himself providing Lagos’s vibrant event scene with mobile toilets since 1996. “Shit business is serious business” is his motto, DMT’s website has not been updated for some time but they have established several revenue streams and have a vision to harvest biogass from human waste. With the right partnerships and support grassroots businesses like DMT could make an even larger impact on the still severely deficient sewage/wastewater management capacity of Lagos.

In Slums in and around Lagos open defecation is the norm. But many Federal and State universities also have intermittent water supplies leading some hostel residents to resort to “short put” ( The act of defecating in a plastic bag and throwing it away). Surprisingly the Lagos state waste water management board advises against construction of pit latrines14 :

“A pit latrine is a dry toilet system which collects human excrement in a large container. Pit latrines ranges from simple slits trenches to more elaborate systems with ventilation.  The usage of pit latrine leads to contraction of diseases.”

Which is simply factually incorrect. A properly built pit latrine will not lead to spread of disease15. There must be some middle ground between open defecation and closed water closet systems. Surely pit latrines are better than random open defecation.

The Lagos state wastewater management body should have guidelines about how to build pit latrines and could engage communities in slums illegal or not to manage sewage and other types of waste in better ways. Lagos state has made commendable efforts to address these issues16 but a lot more can and should be done urgently.

Aside from the obvious detrimental impacts to the ecosystem. Dumping sewage in the Lagoon removes significant amounts of phosphorus from the nutrient cycle, fanning the flames of the most serious existential/environmental threat that mankind faces today. Unlike the energy crisis or global warming there is no alternative to phosphorus, it is one of four elements of which deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is made. It is vital to all life forms on earth and we are running out17. The world will hit peak phosphorus production in 2030.

Long Time Ago …

Notably public and mobile toilets in Lagos come in a variety of configurations. Among them are sitting and squatting toilets. For most of the few hundred thousand years in which the anatomically modern human has lived mankind would squat to defecate only around 5000 years ago, relatively recently has sitting become more fashionable. This new trend brings with it some challenges.

Studies show that squatting is a faster and healthier way to evacuate the bowels. As the thighs exert pressure on the sides of the abdomen less strain is required on the core and pelvic floor muscles. It is stipulated that sitting toilets may cause and exacerbate hemorrhoids, appendicitis and other ailments of the digestive tract18. The appendix serves as a probiotic reservoir for the digestive system. Irregularities in the gut flora are associated with depression and obesity. Also typically when squatting there is no contact between the posterior of the operator and the toilet unlike in the sitting position. Therefore for public toilets or toilets shared between large numbers of people, properly designed squatting toilets are the better option to mitigate transfer of pathogens through skin contact. Squatting toilets consume less water and are cheaper to build. There may be a few porcelain tile manufacturers in Nigeria like Nispo Porcelain but I am unaware of any porcelain toilet manufacturers. Steel panels for squatting toilets could easily be manufactured here.

More interestingly steel toilets can be brass or copper plated to incorporate their inherently antimicrobial properties into the toilet19


    1. Build more waste processing plants close to existing dump sites around the lagoon. It is anomalous that Federal and privately owned facilities outnumber Lagos facilities. 
    2. Foster partnerships between companies that import and install modular sewage treatment facilities ( that are now required for new construction projects by law )and Lagos state polytechnics and universities to reverse engineer and build sewage treatment units here. It’s not rocket science, it really is not.
    3. Engage any of the dozens of steel panel work companies in Lagos to build steel squatting toilets.
    4. Engage a steel/iron working company to build dustbins20.
    5. Enforce a no littering policy21.

    6. Run public awareness campaigns to promote squatting toilets.

    7. Establish realistic recommendations for construction of pit latrines and operation of pit latrines in Lagos slums.
    8. Engage companies like DMT to expand access to public toilets.
    9. Engage companies like DMT to run awareness campaigns in slums promoting the construction of pit latrines
    10. Explore the viability of biogas recovery from sewage as proposed by DMT this does indeed appear to be a potentially viable solution22
    11. Engage a qualified 3rd party to execute an Environmental impact assessment of
    12. phosphorus lost to sewage dumping in Lagos
    13. cumulative and ongoing impact of destruction of Mangrove swamps by sand filling, clearing and sand quarrying.
    14. Mandate tertiary institutions in Lagos state to produce usable thesis material by graduate students that is useful for the state ministries and parastatals i.e environmental impact assessments.

Pending Issues 

The following requests for information are hereby issued to LASG under the 2011 Freedom of Information Act

  1. How many people does Lagos state employ ?
  2. History of sand filling in Lagos
  3. total mass of sand displaced
  4. total mass of other material used for land reclamation
  5. #sand filling interventions/locations
  6. locations of dredging sites

A prayer

Let us say a prayer for the good of all mankind.

That we may seek each day to refine our intent.

That we may not dwell on our differences.

That we will seek to understand rather than judge.

That we may know our true friends.

That we may see the error in our ways.

That we will read many books.

That we will see many places.

That we will ask countless questions.

That our eyes shall be opened and we may know the mysteries of the universe.

That we shall walk in strength.

That we shall act and speak out of love.