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Zamfara Lead Poisoning Epidemic, Socio-Technological Intervention Of ABU, Zaria



On Friday, 9th and 16th October 2015, readers may recall that this Column published part one and two of an article titled “Technological Strides of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria”. As a corollary to that article, three years after, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria has recorded gargantuan strides in both technological and social endeavours warranting another series of article. This will update readers on ABU contributions to nation technological and community development and inspire similar organisations to follow similar pattern.
ABU, Zaria, as one of the first generation Nigerian Universities, is no doubt an icon of nation building, considering its giant contributions since establishment over 50 years ago. The University with two campuses, occupying over 7,000 hectares of land, has grown to become the largest in the nation and indeed in the West African Sub-region, and the most influential and diverse in the country. Current record indicates that almost all the 747 LGAs in the country have sons and daughters, either as students or staff or both studying and working/living in ABU, Zaria in addition to citizens of other countries. This diversity makes ABU unique among the tertiary institutions of learning in Nigeria.

One of the cardinal objectives of university is community service aimed at solving community problems. The administration of ABU, under the leadership of indefatigable Geology Professor, Ibrahim Garba, achieves this objective through the “town – gown” policy. At the inception of Garba’s administration, the major societal challenge within the university’s catchment area was lead poisoning epidemic in Zamfara State, about 150 kilometres away from the university’s main campus in Samaru. The catastrophic lead poisoning incident claimed 1000 lives of rural populous areas especially children and vulnerable groups. For instance, the record of Federal Ministry of Health recorded 163 deaths due to lead poisoning between the month of March and June 2010 in the state. This is in addition to the several unreported death cases among the rural areas of the state. The ugly incident continued to ravage the affected communities in spite of concerted efforts by authorities and international organisations. In 2017, News Agency of Nigeria reported a traditional ruler, Emir of Bukkuyam, Alhaji Muhammadu Usman stating that over 300 children lost lives as a result of lead poisoning at Yar – Galma village of Bukkuyam LGA. This was just one village in one local government area. Certainly, the death cases due to lead were unprecedented, calamitous and in deed needed to be addressed squarely. The concern on finding solutions to the problem of lead poisoning was a single motivation to this citadel of learning, ABU, Zaria. To comprehend the import of ABU socio-technological intervention on this dreadful incident, it is pertinent to know why the incidences of Lead poisoning occurred in Zamfara State. What brought the ugly episode? What are the consequences?

Lead, one of the heavy metals, is very poisonous to human beings. Even a tiny quantity amounting to micrograms in blood can be disastrous to health. Children absorb more lead than adults and are at a higher health risk. Medical experts consider lead to be the greatest environmental health risk to children as their immune systems are still in the developmental stages. Lead poisoning in Zamfara State, was first noticed in the year 2010 when livestock, especially ducks were noticed to be dying in multitudes, which was followed by multiple deaths of children. A team of medical experts was sent to one of the villages to find out the cause of the children’s deaths. The team members came from the Center for Disease Control (CDC)-Nigeria office in Abuja, the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health, the Nigerian Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program, the World Health Organisation, and Doctors Without Borders. Dr Lora Davis, a CDC Animal-Human Interface Officer in Nigeria, led the team. The team traveled to Zamfara State with principal aim of identifying the cause of the outbreak in two purposely-selected villages. In each village, residents reported that one-fourth of all the children in their communities had died in the past year. The team found unsafe levels of lead inside most of the homes, and water from the community wells also had high levels of lead. Children in both villages had dangerous levels of lead in their blood. What brought this calamity into these unfortunate communities?
Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal, but it was unusual to find such high concentration of lead in these communities. Evidence showed that thousands of children had dangerous levels of lead in their blood, and hundreds of children and animals had died throughout the state. It was the largest known outbreak of lead poisoning in the history of Nigeria. Zamfara State is an agrarian region, and traditionally, most villagers relied on farming for their livelihood. However, the state is endowed with many mineral resources including gold. In recent years, the price of gold had risen and many villagers abandoned farming, started mining gold to earn more money. The gold mining was illegally and unprofessionally done with high-risk of environmental contamination. The high level of poverty, craze for wealth, ignorance of high – risk and lackadaisical handling of the issue by the concerned authorities were the driving force for the illegal gold mining and thus, bringing calamity into the communities. That was the situation at the time ABU, Zaria decided to swing into action. The action was channeled through one of the university’s academic department and the university’s based NGO, ENACTUS.

ENACTUS is an acronym for Entrepreneurship ACTion and US. It was hitherto called SIFE (Students In Free Enterprise) up to 2010 when the name changed to ENACTUS. ENACTUS is an international non-profit organisation, which brings together student, academic and business leaders who are committed to using the power of entrepreneurial action to improve the quality of life and standard of living for the needy people in the society. Guided by academic advisors and business experts, the student leaders of ENACTUS create and implement community empowerment projects around the globe. The experience not only transforms lives, it helps students develop the kind of talent and perspective that are essential to leadership in an ever-more complicated and challenging world. There are 36 countries participating in ENACTUS all over the world.
Ahmadu Bello University has been participating in the activities of the then SIFE since 2004. The ABU ENACTUS team has initiated and worked with similar teams in over 40 other universities and polytechnics across Nigeria. The team had developed several awards winning projects and won national recognition by the country office in Lagos. As ENACTUS since 2010, the team has continued to develop projects, which has impacted on various communities around the catchment area of the University. The projects were geared towards solving a particular problem identified within a community and at the end, created a business enterprise around it for the survival of the people residing in the community. Thanks to ENACTUS for these novel innovations to address societal problems.

ABU ENACTUS team embanked on problems identification in Bagega village, a suburb in Anka LGA of Zamfara State, which was one of the worst hit by lead poisoning in Northern Nigeria. After a spike in the price of gold in the country, subsistence farmers, who barely made $1 or $2 a day could suddenly make $10 or more daily through artisanal mining. This was enough inspiration for the young men to abandon their farming practices and immediately take up the mining profession to seek out a better living, totally ignorant of the imminent danger that is associated with the activity. The Bagega Rising Project was therefore developed as a pilot project for cleaning the lead and reclaiming the contaminated land. Consequently, ENACTUS worked with the Department of Water Resources of the university to develop a suitable filter for cleaning and removing the toxics out of water for safe drinking. Staff adviser of ABU, Zaria ENACTUS Team, Prof Mohammed K Aliyu, mni, was quoted saying “The action, no doubt improved the living condition of the inhabitants of Bagega community through entrepreneurship; by restoring job and wealth creation, sustainable community growth and industry, in economically, socially and environmentally sustainable ways”. What are the impacts of this project to the Bagega and other communities? –

To be continued next week…