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How we are saving the North from the desert — Safana, Katsina Commissioner

By Olayinka Ajayi

Katsina State Commissioner for Youth and Sport, Aminu Safana, was, until recently, in charge of the environment portfolio. He speaks on how desert encroachment  is being tackled from his state axis in this interview, among other environmental issues.

The desert is said to be gradually encroaching into Borno and Katsina from Niger Republic. What is your state doing to mitigate the effect?

The state government is mindful of the fact that desert encroachment is a menace to warrant a response from Governor Shema. We have about four different approaches to tackle the challenge; we have the state Ministry of Environment which is like the coordinating ministry to deal with the environmental problem; we have the Department of Forestry headed by a special adviser who reports directly to His Excellency; we have the Katsina Arid Zone Program which was formerly the EEC (European Economic Commission) and we have KATAPU (Katsina Afforestation Project Unit).

These bodies under the ministry are charged with the responsibility of tackling environmental challenges particularly those to do with Sahara desert. Even though not scientifically proven, it has been said that the desert encroaches about .6 of a km annually.

This means the state needs to wake up and do more and that gave the justification for the structure we have. In addition, His Excellency has made it clear that every year, the state government raises about 3.5-5 million seedlings whereby they have different planting models;  you have economic trees on farmland, shelter belts, road side planting, schools.

Seedlings are given to people free; in some cases, we take them to market places so that people just pick from there and go back to their homes to plant or to their farms. We also have a program for each of the 34 local governments which, every year, has the capacity to raise about 30 000 seedlings.

So, in Katsina State, the capacity to tackle desert encroachment as well as experienced staff due to the coming of the EEC program whose personnel were here for years and trained our own staff. So we have the capacity to raise seedlings and nurture them to maturity.

There is a difference between having the capacity and getting it done. Have you been able to get it done?

We have been able to achieve quite a lot compared to what it used to be. The fact that we do have this challenge, we have the capacity as well because if you go to most of this desert prone local governments, you can see that even the local people have imbibed the culture of setting up their own private nurseries because they have the capacity to do so; people now see it as a commercial venture and government buys the seedlings from them

Planting the seedlings has economic viability because the labour is not as intensive as the farming of grains and what have you.

Now let’s talk about sanitation. In Lagos and the other states in the South-west, the issue of monthly sanitation is the order of the day such that whoever is caught not cleaning up or is on the road between 7-10am when the exercise is supposed to be holding is taken before a mobile court.

What is your government doing in the area of sanitation? That is one. Two, I saw some people yesterday collecting refuse who looked unkempt; you can’t be doing sanitation and you are not clean yourself. Three, those I saw were old men. Why were they looking unkempt and the staff so old?

Let me start with the first one. Monthly sanitation was re-introduced in the state I think about 5-6 months ago; so it’s more like it’s new even though we had it long before now, Second, you find that we have been doing quite a lot on sensitization; it’s not something that you just…..the very first month and then you want people to comply; it’s a gradual process.

From the very first month we started till date, we have witnessed growth in the interest on sanitation. The only challenge is that in some local government bordering some states, commercial drivers are not aware of the reintroduction.

It happens that the day we are doing our own here they don’t do theirs on that day; so you find out that they will drive in during the exercise and we will block them. I assure you that the success we are recording now is not how it was when we started. We have also liaised with the Ministry of Justice to set up mobile courts.

The very first six months, we are going to make sure that we create awareness and, immediately after, we are going to start prosecuting offenders for non-compliance which I’m sure would be from next month. On the issue of old age and the staff, government owes the citizens a duty to provide them with something to do, earn a living.

So, all the people you see are being supported by the program because they are not strong enough to go into manual labour in the construction industry and what have you. On the issue of some of them being unkempt, if you had checked very well, you would have found that some of them were not even in their uniform.

Those that I saw were in their uniform.
Yes, they were in their uniform but you find that most of them have been provided with tool and safety wear etc to operate. Of course you shouldn’t expect someone who cleans garbage to always look clean but there have to be protective wears; mass covers, gloves, boots etc which the agency do provide to them on monthly basis.

But do they wear them?
Majority do but the problem is that some of them may decide to keep the items for one reason or the other, some will even sell them; that’s what we have to find out. But we are always hard on them, whoever is caught operating like that, sometimes we punish them. I believe the executive director, by the time he gets to know, will take action on it.

I spoke to the Ruasa boss on the issue of water supply. I told him that though there is water everywhere, it’s not available for the people to drink and he said that is outside his jurisdiction because his project is basically rural based.

I saw some people defecating openly in Katsina metropolis. Those two things-water and open defecation-pushed me into asking the questions and he said they are out of his jurisdiction; open defecation is an environmental issue?

It is an environmental issue for sure but you find that the Department of Water and Sanitation Agency are the ones charged with the responsibility of water provision and sanitation. They are experimenting with two or three communities; so it’s surprising for the ED to say it’s outside his scope.

But whatever it is, it’s the government responsibility whether RUASA or SEPA or whatever to take care of the environment. Let me start with the water program that is being handled by the state government. His Excellency has bought three water tankers for each local government across the state…….that’s about 102 tankers to provide water for the communities, schools, hospitals.

That is where they don’t have and I believe in most of these local government areas, they are doing their best, they move around from one community to the other. I know a community where they have developed timetable; today they are going to take water to a particular community, tomorrow another, next day-hospitals and what have you.

So they have the school’s program, the hospital’s program and even the community’s program; so it’s surprising to hear that people don’t get water. I know you don’t expect everybody to get water in his house but at least you go to a designated point, you have access to water there-potable water.

On open defecation, sometimes the local authorities play a role. There are certain areas marked for public resting and in some cases meant for refuse dump. So it is for the authorities to look after it.

You talked about a program the state government is doing in conjunction with the Federal Government to tackle desert encroachment. What is the program all about?

Actually it’s an initiative of the African Union. In 1980 or thereabouts, the late Burkina Faso head of state, Thomas Sankara, initiated it at one of the forums and they agreed to set up a belt to tackle the encroachment of the desert which would start from Dakar, Senegal.

All the participating countries are expected to plant at least 15km wide, then stretch it to the next neighboring country and that idea re-echoed in 2006 when approval was given by the African Union for different countries or affected states to go and implement it. Last year, President Jonathan Goodluck approved the implementation and made funds available for the program which has taken off.

We have visited some of the places already implementing, like Senegal, they were the first country to start, and we saw the operation which we have replicated in Katsina.

We have set up the steering committee of the program headed by the deputy governor and then we have the state implementation committee headed by the commissioner for environment and also the local government implementation committees headed by local government chairmen.

The aim is to provide the enabling environment for the planting and the nurturing of this plantation to maturity. The state government is supporting this program through the provision of fencing materials and technical support for four different professional agencies or government bodies.

I understand that every Thursday is set apart as the environment day. Could you through more light on that?
Environment challenges are issues that require proactive measures, so you don’t sit and wait for something to happen before can act. Every Thursday, we go out to look at issues of environmental impact. We visit some factories, agencies and so on.

We try to appraise the environmental practices within Katsina metropolis as well as the seven local governments where we have offices. We do that with the sole aim of identifying the kind of environmental challenges that we have and the perceptions and yearnings of our own people.

Now Thursdays have been selected for that; even the dress code for Thursdays in the ministry has always been green, everybody wears green top and face cap.

Are you getting results?
We are getting results. Initially we didn’t have a mechanism for monitoring the issues on erosion control, but we have made a point that every now and then, we will receive reports on monthly basis based on these outings. So we do get reports on outings on Thursdays. Some of the projects we execute now are based on the reports and inputs we get from these outings.

The general impression is that some ministries including yours are being starved of funds.
No we are not being starved of funds. Budget is projection; it’s like you plan that you will get N50 this month from the federation account and, at the end of it all, you end up getting N20.

To actualize your of spending N50, you have to adjust, you have to look at areas and environment is one of the areas that can be used to adjust and get things done because of the ecological funds that we have.


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