•The economic, environmental benefits to come, by Parker, ex-Rivers Health Commissioner
By Dapo Akinrefon
Dr Samson Parker served as the Commissioner for Health and helped to reposition Rivers State into the modern focus of Primary Health Care. During his tenure, he led the initiative to contain the spread of the Ebola in Rivers after a diplomat breached quarantine in Lagos. In this interview, Parker explains the public health importance of the Ogoni clean-up launched by President Muhammadu Buhari, last Thursday..
Given your previous role as the chief policy maker and chief-executive in the public health-care sector of Rivers State, how important do you think the Ogoni environmental clean-up exercise is to the people of the state?
The Ogoni clean-up is important in many respects. A healthy environment is one of the key requirements of the health of a people, because the level and distribution of health of a population is intrinsically linked to the environment on continuous basis, in terms of the interactions with the biological and physical factors in the environment. For instance, air quality impacts on nutrition through possible contamination of water, food and other micro-nutrients, as well as possible direct impact on livelihood such as the economic activities namely, fishing, agriculture, among others. For the people of Rivers, water and land are closely linked to their livelihood. Because of this, pollution in any form, impacts on their livelihood. It also impacts on their health and sustainable growth.
While this clean-up exercise is a vital requirement, we must be able to push the envelope from a reactive occasional intervention, as we are currently having, to making it a proactive sustainable partnership between all stakeholders, that is, the public, private and community leaders. Before we go to the need to establish a whole-of-society partnership, we must remember that as a country, apart from the need to protect every inch of our environment for the benefit of our people and future generations, we also have international obligations which compel us to act to see that efforts such as the Ogoni clean-up succeed.
For a start, apart from the numerous environmental conventions which Nigeria, as part of the international community, should uphold, there are important considerations linking Ogoni land, and other such places in Rivers with the global marine environment. So, if we degrade these areas, we are also indirectly creating negative externalities for other parts of the world.
But, apart from the disaster risk and how this increases the vulnerability of our people to health hazards, we must see in these issues not only the threat but also the opportunities. Given that the natural resources in our environment must be exploited so that they can add value to the lives of the Ogoni, Rivers and other similar parts of Nigeria, we must step up our health, safety and environmental efforts. We need to engage the industries and agents of government whose task it is to ensure daily actions to prevent or mitigate such events, so that we do not come to this stage of expensive response and recovery. In ensuring the daily prevention and mitigation efforts, we can also create associated industries and sectoral efforts that propel sustainable opportunities for our people, in the conservation of the environment, and other productive activities within these areas, such as ecotourism, new avant-garde green industries in the maritime and associated sectors, as well as in industries that produce compounds and equipment that facilitates human activities. If we are to take an inventory of the human activities needed to support the industrial sectors, maritime resources and marine transport industries in the prevention and mitigation efforts, we can see that we will not only help to create a healthy environment but we shall also help to promote sustainable economic activities for the Ogoni and other people of Rivers.
Do you see the effort spreading to other affected areas of Rivers?
It should but as you know a successful effort in one place makes it more likely in others. But as I stressed above, we must refrain from a reactive effort to try to create a more sustainable model of disaster risk reduction approach, as advised by the Sendai Framework 2015-2030. In this new global approach, we must have a continuous model that takes a proactive review of our entire environment, mapping the risks and vulnerabilities of all our people, through local and state governments collaborations with the private sector and affected communities. And, in doing so, we must put in place prevention and mitigating processes including early warning, community empowerments and vulnerability reduction mechanisms. As we say in healthcare, prevention is better than cure, but, in sustainable environmental disaster management, it is by far better and cheaper.
When the Ogoni issue started, the state and federal governments shared similar party political ideologies, but now the political ambiance between the state and federal governments is different. Do you think this will impact on the political will to see the project through?
After elections we must develop a culture of collective and shared interest in community development, because that is the reason we all offer ourselves for public service. This clean-up is not for a political party but to ensure that our people in Ogoni and similarly affected areas do not see industrial development as an irreversible disaster to their health and livelihood; irrespective of our political persuasions that must be a value that we all share collectively. In that respect, I am certain we all share equal commitment. It must be so.
Are you saying that such issues are capable of eroding the political differences among major stakeholders at the state and federal levels?
I am saying that when it comes to the development of our people, they must come first before our political persuasions. Our persuasions should compel all of us to act more in the collective interest and sheath any differences we have after elections and concentrate on the improvement in the lives of our people. If we do that, our people will see elections simply as a model to re-assert their sovereign power to decide who should govern their collective development and not merely a blood-sport amongst the elite.
So I am positive we can and should have cooperation and collaboration in this endeavour, because that is what the people expect from all of us. The well-being of the people of Rivers is more important than any of us.