Q&A with Environmental Activist/Engineer Morris T. Koffa, Executive Director, Africa Environmental Watch (AEW)
Q&A with Environmental Activist/Engineer Morris T. Koffa, Executive Director, Africa Environmental Watch (AEW), a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization established to respond to environmental distress in Liberia, and also to provide environmental expertise in Africa through educational awareness and behavioral change communication.
Q. You have been an environmental advocate for many years. Where did you get the passion to do what you do to raise awareness and educate the public about the environment at home and abroad?
A. Many thanks for this great opportunity to share my views about environmental conditions in Liberia. My passion for environmental advocacy is deeply rooted in my orientation as a professional Environmental Engineer. But more so, the desire to be an advocate grew in scope when I served as Chairman for the Committee on the Environment and International Affairs in the Union of Liberian Association in the Americas (ULAA) under the administrations of Hon. Samuel M. Kromah and Hon. Roberta Rashid.
In that capacity, I headed a cleanup campaign to Liberia dubbed “Operation Clean Sweep” in 2003, to give the City of Monrovia a facelift prior to the arrival of dignitaries/delegations attending the inaugural ceremony of the National Interim Transitional Government of Liberia (NITGL), after ULAA successfully represented the Diaspora Liberian Community during the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) in Accra, Ghana.
Having been out of Liberia for 14 years at the time, I was indeed touched by the level of filth in the city and the unbearable odorous atmosphere. We provided the resources and work in collaboration with the administration of the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC). We cleaned major streets in Monrovia for 3 days and collected several tons of garbage. After the cleanup initiatives, the people of Liberia wanted more of it. Hence, the birth of Liberia Environmental Watch (LEW), now Africa Environmental Watch (AEW).
Since its inception, AEW has and continues to make tremendous progress in championing environmental awareness and institutional capacity building for a sustainable path. We work in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia (EPA-L) and other international and domestic NGOs, and government entities to promote a healthy environment for Liberians.
Q. The ubiquitous presence of garbage in the City of Monrovia gives an impression of a lack of a sound garbage-disposal/environmental policy in the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration. What is your take on that?
A. The lack of adequate garbage collections schemes and proper depository mechanisms have always been a challenge to municipal governments, and by extension the national government in Liberia for a number of reasons. Antiquated environmental policies or laws that have been improved since the inception of the Agency in 2003; lack of system thinking, a well-crafted sustainable roadmap to deal with the reality of issues; lack of robust educational awareness and enforceable mechanisms, and the lack of adequate resource allocation.
To the government’s credit, it has made functional the Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia (EPA-L) since 2006, with a constituted leadership body. But the agency has not been fully supported internally and externally to meet its national quota of adequately protecting the environment of Liberia from a holistic perspective. Notwithstanding, the agency is thriving at a slow pace under extreme difficulties, coupled with a challenged workforce with limited resources, and other bureaucratic hurdles are so inherent.
Q. Are there any landfills in all of Liberia to dispose garbage?
Yes, there is finally one sanitary landfill that was commissioned recently, which is located in Wein-Town, Mount Barclay, according to the Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia (EPA-L). This is a sign of progress by the agency and the government, and hope more sanitary landfills can be built in strategic areas as per demography. Though I do not know the holding capacity of the current sanitary landfill and the design criteria per population, but certainly one sanitary landfill cannot accommodate a population of more than 1 million residents including businesses and other fast-generating factors per person or entity.
Equally important in this case is the collection of the garbage in the communities. The current system in Liberia cannot handle the volume of garbage generated per day in Monrovia. Monrovia alone can generate about 4 to 8 tons of garbage/solid wastes per day including businesses and others. If such amount of garbage/solid waste is not collected from the communities in a reasonable time frame, say between 3 to 6 days depending on the weather, it can start to depose and vector-borne diseases can begin to generate and thereby becomes a public health issue.
Q. Are there any independent engineering assessments and evaluation of possible sites you are aware of that could be used to build landfills in Liberia?
A. I am not aware of any independent engineering assessments and evaluation of possible sites to build landfills in Liberia. However, I am aware that the Ministry of Land, Mines and Energy, and the Ministry of Public Works either separately or jointly conducted need assessments of the Wein-Town, Mount Barclay and Tweh-Town areas across the bridge, Bushrod Island. It could very well be the case, but I don’t have that information since the EPA-L in most instances don’t know what some of the ministries and agencies are doing as it relates to the environment.
Q. It is common practice for homebuilders to dig the beach for sand from the ocean (sand mining), which is mixed with cement to construct homes in Liberia? Is this practice environmentally-friendly? Is it attributing to the erosion problem affecting coasting Liberia? What do you think?
A. Digging on or around the beach area is environmentally destructive. Recently, government has clamped on perpetrators. As a result, it has slowed down the illegal sand mining considerably. Even the areas demarcated as legal for sand mining still remains a threat. But the issue is a delicate one in that the government cannot entirely abandon sand mining because of its critical nature to development and the economy. Creating a sense of balance in such a situation is indeed relevant. Development must go on for jobs creation and economic growth that will enhance social integrity.
Q. Currently, there are no toilet facilities for residents living near the Atlantic Ocean in coastal cities in Liberia. The lack of toilet facilities often force these residents to dispose human feces from their homes into the sea. These residents are also known to go to beach to use the toilet. Are you aware of any proactive government policy in place in the current Liberian government to remedy the problem? What’s the position of Africa Environmental Watch?
No, I am not aware of any plan the government has in place to address such concerns. This is not to say it is not happening in some quarters of the nation. Some NGOs are making some efforts to build latrines in some communities but the problem has always been about maintenance. If these latrines are not properly maintained, they become a major sanitary problem to the community. Most times, these latrines are built with not maintenance package, therefore, they are short-lived and later become an environmental threat to the communities.
The same can be said about water pumps that are installed in most communities. They are built with good intentions but the lack of maintenance later can become an environmental nuance to the community. There are hundreds of such cases all over the country. Again, this goes back to the issue of sound and enforceable policy that ensures that the right things are done to protect the well-being of the communities. Africa Environmental Watch continues to encourage the EPA-L and other appropriate entities to address these concerns for the public interest.
Q. There is an electric turbine in the yard of the Liberian Electricity Corporation on Bushrod Island, Pt. 4 that blows black smore in the air throughout the day and year. There is a strong possibility that the dirty black smoke could cause lung, eyes, heart and other medical problems for residents living neear the electric plant. What’s AEW’s take on this hazardous environmental problem?
A. The LEC Bushrod Island plant is not functional as of now and does not emit that “dark smoke” in the air at least for now. However, what has happened in the past is that the oil residue that is considered highly toxic and dangerous to human health, has spilled into the community of Colonel West and the Coast Guard Base, into wells where residents get their drinking water, and into the Atlantic Ocean, threatening the marine population.
AEW brought the incident to the attention of the government through the EPA and the media community in Liberia, but unfortunately, there has not been any decontamination effort to clean the affected communities, and also render medical services to those obviously impacted. When it rains the situation becomes highly unbearable for the kids, the elderly and pregnant women, many of whom are teenagers and other vulnerable residents with preexisting conditions. AEW understands money allegedly changed hands to cleanup the environmental disaster, but the situation still remains.
Q. What is AEW’s relationship with the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency? Have you gotten any support in terms of coorperation from the current agency head?
Yes, AEW does have a strong relationship with the EPA of Lberia. AEW is working on behalf of EPA of Liberia to promote it image abroad on a pro bono basis to build its external and internal capacity through partnership with US-based institutions. In September of 2011, AEW spearheaded a major international environmental conference here in Washington, DC that brought together major partners such as the USEPA, USAID, National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE), Global Environmental Facility (GEF), Conservation International (CI), University of the District of Columbia (UDC), UNEP and many more.
The focus of the conference was for the technical capacity building of the EPA of Liberia. As a result of the conference, MOUs were signed between the UDC and the EPA-L, William V.S. Tubman University (TU) and Stella Maris Polytechnic (SMP), to work in areas of mutual interest. There were other commitments made to the EPA-L that are now beginning to bear fruits for the agency and the academic institutions aforementioned. As a follow-up to the conference, a delegation of technical experts from UDC headed by AEW traveled to Liberia in May of 2012 to conduct a need assessment for the EPA, TU and SMP. During the assessment trip, a curriculum package was presented for TU and SMP to offer environmental degree programs. It was accepted and is currently being taught at SMP and TU September, 2013.
In September, 2013, AEW again will head another team to Liberia for the second international environmental conference for the capacity building of the EPA of Liberia. While in Liberia, the team will engage in teaching at the two named universities in the field of environmental and related areas to include customized certificates program; as AEW’s way of institutional capacity building.
Q. Since Liberian Presidents,including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf are known to control and influence policies, do you think your environmental advocacy efforts has been successful in Liberia? Any cooperation from President Sirleaf?
A. I will proudly say ‘yes’ AEW’s advocacy effort that started in 2004 is gaining ground in promoting environmental awareness in Liberia. However, we must recognize that when one compares the current environmental conditions to 10 or 20 years ago or previous administrations, there has been noticeable progress made by the current government due to the strong advocacy campaigns by many organizations, including Africa Environmental Watch.
AEW strongly believes that no government succeeds economically and socially if environmental conditions threaten public health and human resources. Unfortunately, we have not received direct support from the president in spite of the visible positive impacts AEW has made and continues to make in Liberia. In spite of that, AEW commitment still remains strong and focused.
Q. Over the years, the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency lost two administrators, back to back. How has the tragic departure of the gentlemen affected the agency’s ability to focus and do the job for which it was created?
The death of the two executive directors of the EPA within one year was a shocked to which AEW had expressed sadness and recommended a government investigation be conducted. The rationale behind such investigation was to bring the case to a closure and internally allayed the emotional fear among employees and reassurance of the confidence levels among employees and other partners of the EPA as a path for moving forward. AEW position for an investigation was in no way accusatory of anyone involved in the deaths, but an effort to put to rest any misconceptions surround the deaths. After the death of the two officials, the level of distrust among employees intensified especially when everyone is surmising what went wrong. An investigation would have brought mush to rest in a short period of time. Things are getting along now.
Q. There are news reports that the nation’s land and natural resources in the rural areas are being auctioned to multinational companies. Can you tell our readers what you know, and what is AEW doing to help the Liberian people?
A. I have no information to substantiate such claims regarding the auction of land to multinational companies. What I have learned of however, are disputes with Sime Darby and the citizens of Cape Mount County and Golden Veroleum of Liberia (GVL) and the citizens of Sinoe County. Those disputes are being worked out through the intervention of the government of Liberia.
Q. AEW, over the years has held environmental conferences in the US and in Liberia, highlighting some of the environmental and pollution crisis the country is facing. What are your plans for the future?
A. AEW’s long range plans focus on taking environmental awareness to the level of institutional capacity building and community empowerment. AEW intends to use the academic community as a meaningful conduit to create the knowledge and professional skills needed for the workforce, research and a robust community involvement. As I’ve said earlier, AEW has introduced curricula degree programs at two major universities in Liberia where environmental degree programs are being taught. This is a good start that AEW hopes to sustain. This September, AEW will be traveling to Liberia for its second national environmental conference.
Thank you for your time.
Thank you also.
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