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2015

Water pollution in Nigeria: engineering social change

25 May 2015

Professor Joe Akunna – a water and environmental engineer here at Abertay University – is Co-director of our Urban Water Technology Centre.

An internationally recognised expert in anaerobic digestion processes for the production of biofuel, he also specialises in the treatment and management of pollution from industrial activities - particularly water pollution from oil and gas operations and petrochemical industries.

In his Professorial Lecture on Wednesday 27 May, Joe will discuss water pollution in detail, outlining some of the techniques that companies can invest in that will not only save them money in the long term, but also ensure that everyone has access to clean, safe drinking water.

Having grown up in a land-locked rural town in post-war Nigeria where water could sometimes be quite scarce, this is a subject close to his heart.

Here, he explains what inspired him in his career and how he became an expert water engineer.

The Biafran War

“I grew up in a post-war era, in a rural Nigerian town called Omuma, which is in the Orlu region of South Eastern Nigeria.

“The Nigerian Civil War – or The Biafran War as it is known here in Scotland – raged for two and a half years from 1967 to 1970 and over two million people died.

“In Omuma – which was then in the Biafran region – there were no easily accessible natural sources of water. Groundwater aquifers were over 60 metres deep, so growing up, the main water source was rainwater.

“This is still the case today, although boreholes are now used by some more affluent people – at a cost of at least £3000 per borehole.

“Although more people can afford this sort of thing now, they are still not the norm. Certainly when I was young, I was not aware of any family that had a private borehole."

Rainwater

“Some families had sophisticated water storage systems for rainwater harvesting, equipped with pumps that were powered with electric generators. These storage systems supplied water all year round – enough to last even when the dry season arrived.

“Most people in Omuma now have these types of rainwater harvesting assets and they share the water they harvest with those in the community who are less well-off and cannot afford systems of their own.

“However, when I was a child, far fewer people had the ability to store large amounts of water in this way, so it wasn’t possible to share it out."

The river and waterborne diseases

“This meant that during the dry season poorer families were reliant on the river, which was located about 10km from my town. This long journey was made mainly by foot and bicycles and because the water was not clean, it often made people sick – waterborne diseases were common.

“The local hospitals and clinics were ill-equipped in all sorts of ways to cope with even the commonest of these diseases. The infant mortality rate was high and the burden of disease from contaminated water was obvious.

“In my view, at the time, provision of safe water supplies would save as many lives as improvement of medical facilities – if ever that was envisaged."

Poor sanitation

“In terms of sanitation, I did not observe any cause for concern while growing up. However, when I was in secondary school – which was a boarding school located in a city about 100 km from my rural town – I became aware of the enormous environmental and sanitation challenges in urban areas.

“In addition to poor water supplies – worse than I had experienced in my rural hometown – there were other problems such as poor solid and human waste management and poor surface water drainage systems. Rainfall – which in rural areas was regarded as a blessing – in urban cities turned out to be a source of devastation. Flooding was rampant due to blocked drains."

Oil exploration

“With increased oil exploration activities in the late 70s and 80s in Nigeria, the environmental effects became immediately obvious. It was clear that a time bomb was in the making, with water pollution the chief concern of the coastal areas where the activities were taking place.

“The regions most affected by the environmental degradation of oil exploration were neighbours to mine so I could see it happening right before my eyes.

“All of these things contributed to my decision to study civil engineering as an undergraduate and to then specialise particularly in water and environmental engineering when I gained a scholarship to pursue my Masters and PhD in France."

Improving water quality and people’s quality of life

“My overall aim was to improve the quality of life for people forced to live in environments like those where I grew up, where the water is polluted and causes so much human suffering.

“As I progressed with my studies, it became clear to me that the quality of water is directly linked to the quality of the surrounding environment – the latter being informed mainly by human activities.

“To tackle this requires combining both technical and social engineering – making people aware of their responsibilities towards maintaining a clean environment."

Abertay expertise creating cost-effective solutions

“The global aim now is to break the link between human activities and water pollution, and here at Abertay we specialise in devising cost-effective technological and scientific ways of managing the environmental pollutants resulting from human activities.

“My special focus is on the identification, characterisation, manipulation and modelling of microbial interactions that are associated with biodegrading pollutants in municipal and industrial wastewaters so that we can optimise existing, and develop new, pollution abatement technologies.

“We work closely with industry, and apply our research expertise to specific projects which we can then use as models to implement similar energy- and cost-saving systems and technologies in other parts of the world."

Access to clean water is a human right

“It makes economic and environmental sense to use these kinds of techniques. There is no reason that anyone should be subjected to the avoidable, devastating effects of contaminated water in this day and age – access to clean drinking water is an internationally recognised human right and we have the knowledge and skills to make unsafe water a thing of the past.”

The lecture – Pollution, Pressure and Play – will begin at 6pm on Wednesday 27 May in the Main Lecture Theatre at Abertay University.

In addition to Joe’s talk, we will also hear from Professors Carl Schaschke and Gregor White.

The event is free, but booking is recommended. Please book your tickets on Eventbrite.

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