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City of Banjul
Friday, June 18, 2021

Urban environmental problems of the City of Banjul, the public health challenges and where lies the solution

By Abdoukarim Sanneh, London UK

The spatial and land use planning of the city Banjul, date back to colonial days and this led the genesis of lands office now known as the Department of Physical Planning in colonial protectorate area. The development planning of the city of Banjul with the introduction of streets and their names, sewage and drainage facilities, electricity, pipe- borne water etc. was the beginning of Towns and Country Planning in the country. Gambia’s planning laws is the extension 1948 English Towns and County Planning legislation into the colonies. Every legal instrument embodies into this legislation determines modern spatial geographical planning limited to only enforcement and development control. United Kingdom as a whole has moved away from 1948 land use planning laws with local government reforms, land use classification and decentralise decision making and citizens participation in democratic decision making and public consultation in their biophysical environment. With shortage of trained man power and lack of putting in place functional and participatory multiparty local government democracy and decentralisation, there is no consultative citizens’ participation in land use designation and democratic planning decision making.

The city’s urban planning in those days suits the development challenges of that time. For many years before 1994 takeover of government, Banjul has been an attractive place to live, study and work but all of a sudden, this unique environment is just degrading beyond our notice. What is the problem? After two decades in United Kingdom, my recent visit in the Gambia and Banjul as an environment and social development expert prompt me to write this article. What are the public health and environmental challenges confronting Banjul and Gambia’s urban landscape? There are many factors that are the cause and result of the dereliction of Banjul but the aim of this article is to look into the lenses of urban environment degradation nexus and environmental health and sanitation.

Banjul, like many islands and Island cities are confronted with the challenges of global environmental changes. Mitigating and reducing the impact some of these global environmental/climatic changes requires cost and benefit analysis in technological development to reduce hazards and human suffering in the event of natural or human-induced climatic change. Gambia National Climate Change Adaptation Plan and Gambia National Environmental Action Plan do not properly look into the city’s urban environmental problems beyond sea level rise and coastal erosion and other linkages to bio-physical environment.

The City’s Local Government Authorities seemingly lack the local environment and developmentalist planning agenda, vision and practical action about how to save the city’s natural heritage and built environment from further dereliction. There is no strong link between the Local Government Authorities, Utilities, Local Businesses, Civil Actors and the country’s Environment Agency in decentralising, the building and development of capacities at Local Government level in identifying local environmental problems and solutions. Banjul’s urban environmental resources are degrading in both quality and quantity and this has an impact on quality of life and wellbeing of the inhabitants.

One of the major urban environmental problems of Banjul is its outdated drainage system of household waste water. The capital needs a modern waste and sewage water treatment facilities. For years since colonial days, lot of untreated household waste water in the city is released into River Gambia Estuary with high concentration of Biological or biochemical oxygen demand. Eutrophication or high concentration of nitrogen for years continues to reduce the flow of drainage water in the main water channels and this is visible with blue-green algae and foul smell due to the presence of high cyan bacteria activities between Saint Augustine’s High School and Gambia High School, Wasso Warf, Tobacco Road etc, all the way to Bund Road Polder Station waste water facility.

The human settlement of Banjul for many years was also surrounded by dense mangrove habitats. This habitat and its ecosystem service to the human settlement is important for protecting against flooding by acting as buffer in the events of flooding, provisioning of food and fuel food, regulating the natural processes etc. Significant portion of the land surrounding the capital is below sea level and the composition of the soil along the mangrove habitat is clay or loamy clay soil. The characteristic nature of this soil type is such that when it rains, without proper drainage the land surface and its surrounding are prone to flooding. Banjul has gone through significant spatial land cover change because of physical, natural and human induced degradation of the surrounding mangrove vegetation for both fuel wood gathering for domestic energy and uncontrolled planning for human settlement. Mangrove habitat is a unique biota and has its physical and natural process, lack of which leads to dieback, habitat loss and fragmentation.

There are adverse effects of climate variability and climatic change on biophysical processes such as salinity, erosion, sea level rise, flooding etc. With our capital and its major infrastructure below sea level, there is a need to use a significant amount of our GDP and pledge for development aid in financing the development of durable structures to build our adaptive capacity and resilience in mitigating global environment and climate change. This can be possible if the Government take development and democracy seriously. The discourse narrative from the science of climate change adaptation literature highlighted building communities, their resilience and adaptive capacity through democratic participation in National Adaptation Action Planning.

The removal of mangrove vegetation, lack of development control and environmental planning is major challenge in all highly densely populated settlement in many urban local government areas in the Gambia and with environmental/climatic change, Gambia Government needs to come with strong regulatory regime especially in low land areas along the River Gambia Estuary and the Atlantic Coastline because of rise in sea level. With either increase or decrease in rainfall, the fact of matters is that because of land cover change, increase runoff during rainy season, the removal of habitat and lack of proper drainage infrastructure will occasionally cause flooding during rainy season. In 2012/13 rainy season, flooding affected many residents in Banjul and Greater Banjul area. There is a serious health hazard to flooding during the rainy season because most of our raw sewage waste water is untreated. There is a need for contingency planning in the event of outbreak of water-borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid during the rainy season.
Around the 1980s, PPP Government through donor development technical assistance contracted SOBEA Company to improve Banjul’s environmental hygiene standard and sanitation through the redevelopment of Sewage System. A major work was undertaken in all the main streets to improve the drainage system for connecting homes and businesses to modern sewage system. After undertaking this infrastructure development project not much is done after 1994 change of government. For many years, we continue to dump untreated raw sewage waste in the water and mangrove ecology along Bund Road Ponder station and not much study is done to determine its environmental impact to the marine water ecology and the surrounding mangrove habitats. The Bund Road Ponder Station is link to river estuary and both habitat and its ecosystem are breeding ground for fish and other crustaceans. Untreated waste water always contains heavy metals which can act as bio-accumulators in fish and can pass into our food chain without notice. Heavy metals into food chain can cause cancer. Untreated sewage waste water also contains high percentage of nitrogen and the rate of eutrophication is thus contributing to the degradation of mangrove habitat.

With our growing urban population, Gambia needs long term urban environmental development programme to address urban sewage infrastructure. For example the untreated sewage water, daily dump into the River estuary at Bund Road Polder Station could even serve as a source of electricity for many homes in Banjul. There is a need for both public and private financial investment in Environment and Energy Sector of the country. There is a need to modernise National Water and Electricity Company through public and private, national and international share holding scheme to enable the company to venture and invest into long term environmentally friendly technologies such as modern sewage infrastructure using biological waste treatment technologies which can generate electricity from our urban household sewage waste water before releasing into river Estuary as untreated waste.

Many African countries are moving into environmental friendly technological investment beyond fossil fuel economy. In the Gambia, our only source of electricity supply is derived from petroleum power generators and with its constraint, continues to impacted regular electricity supply and distribution to homes and businesses. The development of modern sewage treatment infrastructure can further increase the diversification of energy source; improve public health and the environment. The Gambia Government along with NAWEC and National Environment Agency should take a lead. For many years we are only carried with the language of international development politics such as Agenda 21, sustainable development, Environment Action Plan etc. What is needed is practical action and both Government (present or Future), National Institutions such Environment Agency and NAWEC, Local Government Authorities should take the initiative in organising international donor roundtable conference with development partners such as World Bank, European Union, African Development Bank etc about the state of Gambia’s growing urban environment and its development challenges such as sewage infrastructure, the dumping of bio-degradable and non-biodegradable waste and public health and related environmental crisis. The sewage system in Banjul is outdated and that of urban areas is primitive or none existing while the population is growing. For Banjul all what is needed is regeneration, improvement and investment in already existing infrastructure developed by SOBEA Company. This can be done through further studies using GIS Mapping, designing and redesigning the existing primary and secondary drainage systems, putting in place different stages of treatment including biological treatment of the sewage water, the storage of the by-products to produce Methane and other biogases to generate electricity. The treated waste water will then be released into the river estuary with low biological oxygen demand with less environmental effect.

Many countries in developed and developing have developed their urban sewage and waste treatment facilities, diversify it to serve as a source of electricity generation through connection and re- distributed into the national grid. In the case of Banjul, before releasing untreated sewage waste collected at Bund Road Ponder Station into river without treatment, all what NAWEC need financial investment cost and benefit analysis in the flexible of developing different stages of sewage water facilities in Banjul and Urban areas to also serve as a source of electricity. A simple sewage treatment built close to its municipal collection site always contains reservoirs which stored sewage water collected from the main drainage systems, the technology is design in such a way that waste water from the drainage system to collected reservoirs goes through different stages of treatments. The first stage of the treatment is primary stage during which settled and floating materials are removed. The second stage of the treatment is the passing of the liquid waste collected after the first stage to go through water-borne microorganisms treatment during which aerobic bacteria  which is oxygen demanding Bacteria act on the waste water to further breakdown dissolve substance in sewage waste water before going through third stage of treatment. The third stage of treatment is separation of organism materials from the waste as an activate sludge which stored into storage tank to go through fermentation process using anaerobic bacteria to produce methane and other biogases. Before this process, the liquid waste water is separated from the activate sludge to go through fermentation while the liquid water to goes through further treatment – toxicity test and setting special bench mark calculate the Bio-Chemical Oxygen Demand in order to determine to release the waste water into the river estuary as a treated waste water or effluent. Biological Oxygen Demand is the amount dissolved oxygen needed by biological organism to break down organic material present in a given sample of water at a given temperature and specific time period.

In many countries, the above bench mark is used in drafting legislation to set up standard in the events of water pollution incidence. For example in United Kingdom the legal foundation of Environment Act 1990 and Water Resource Act 1985 is framed in such that the legal liability for enforcement of pollution incidence is causing or knowingly polluting material into the water cause or system. For the Gambia our environmental legislation on water pollution or releasing polluting substance into the environment medium is not born or is at enfant stage even with our armies of highly educated legal experts. This can be seen through years of releasing untreated sewage waste water into the river estuary at Bund Road Ponder Station. The use of Gambia’s natural environment plays an important role in our social and economic development challenges and in essence we have to put in place laws and standardise regulations for its rational use and management for interest of sustainability.

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