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Wasteful thinking to benefit Nigeria

July 26, 2013
Nancy Gilbert's sanitation project will help women and children living in remote villages like Amatu II in the Niger Delta.

Nancy Gilbert isn’t afraid to talk waste, human waste that is. In fact, the Royal Roads doctoral student is dedicating the next three years of her life to the issue to improve the health of millions of Nigerians.

Gilbert recently was awarded a prestigious $90,000 Mitacs-Accelerate fellowship to study how she can improve sanitation in the Niger Delta, where up to 65 per cent of its 30 million inhabitants live under the poverty line.

“Sanitation is such a huge issue globally and it’s so critical. If we don’t have access to safe water and decent sanitation it creates all kinds of challenges for people, which makes development in other areas less effective,” Gilbert says.

Children under the age of five are most likely to die of diarrheal disease, which the World Health Organisation estimates kills 1.8 million people a year. The vast majority of those deaths are preventable. But Gilbert says Nigeria is among developing countries that have fallen behind worldwide efforts to improve sanitation.

“There are probably hundreds and hundreds of old fishing villages in the Niger Delta. They generally live off-the grid and there are a lot of creeks, mangroves and swamps. What people do is build latrines over the water which empty directly into the river. And 20-feet away they’re sewing and washing clothes and bathing,” she says.

Gilbert will be working with the Victoria-based company Fantan Group as part of the Mitacs fellowship. During her Doctor of Social Sciences, Gilbert will survey and interview people living in the riverine region to determine their health, as well as their attitudes and cultural beliefs towards sanitation. The goal is to install a sustainable sanitation system that best suits the community and evaluate if it has improved people’s health.

“We’ve got to overcome people’s cultural biases and we can’t just put in a traditional septic system like we would have in Canada because of the environment and flooding. We have to look at other solutions, such as eco-sanitation, which captures waste in an impermeable container and holds it until it composts,” she says.

“Ultimately, the best way to find out if we’ve been successful is to improve health outcomes, so I will be measuring and comparing that once a sanitation system is installed.”

Gilbert, whose previous careers include law and running an advertising agency, first got involved in water and sanitation through Rotary International. She has previously done humanitarian work in Nigeria as a consultant with the Chevron-funded non-government group Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta. Speaking on the telephone in July from Nigeria, where she is doing groundwork for her research, Gilbert says she is unfazed by challenges facing the oil-rich country.

“Oil companies have been in Nigeria for 50 years and some people are very wealthy. We get this odd combination of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, a history of violence and tribal issues. It’s a fascinating set of challenges,” she says.

“The people here are amazing. You really have the sense that you can make change and help better their lives so they have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”

The Mitacs fellowship will help Gilbert, who has seven children, finance her doctorate degree and cover some travel expenses.

“The fellowship has made a huge difference. Often there is funding out there. You have to find it,” she says.

Gilbert’s supervisor, Prof. Leslie King from the School of Environment and Sustainability, says the sanitation research project will have significant societal benefits – in Africa and beyond.

“It’s a remarkably good fit for Royal Roads because Mitacs and RRU are both interested in applied research, community engagement, and research partnerships,” King says.

“Nancy is a courageous and intrepid researcher as she looks at cultural attitudes and acceptance of change in the Niger Delta of Nigeria.”