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Rio+20 sustainability conference: Got toilets?

As more and more people flood into megacities like Lagos, Nigeria, in search of opportunities, sanitation systems are badly strained.

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Nowhere is this problem more stark than in the commercial hub of Lagos, where city officials struggle to meet the needs of the millions of people they are aware of, not to mention the untold millions who don't get counted by census workers, and the nearly 600,000 who keep arriving each year. So far they have bumped up the population to an estimated 11.2 million.

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Some Lagosians deliberately live off the grid, while others, including middle-class people like Achionye, desperately want to get connected to sanitation services but are told they must wait.

For Lagos state Gov. Babatunde Fashola, credited with improving several parts of the city, the slums are hard to penetrate, and change comes slowly. His administration has started working on creating passable roads in slums, but many remain in bad shape. The government has also demolished illegal structures built on sewage passageways, but that led to the displacement of thousands of people, highlighting a challenge of working in the slums. For the poor, the demand for urban housing creates a scramble so ruthless that, for many, a toilet and a bathroom – even shared – is a luxury.

King Godo, a Lagos-based reggae singer, can't afford to pay rent, so he's built a bamboo cabin that he has covered with tarpaulin near the beach. When the rains come, he buys more tarpaulin for the roof and plastic sheets to cover the rest of his home. Squatting on land in a shack allows King Godo to spend what little money he earns on producing more copies of his album.

A lack of sanitation is the price he pays to accomplish his dream of success, he says.

Cars and buses are banned from the roads from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. on the last Saturday of every month. Lagosians are expected to clean their homes while government workers clean the streets. The initiative provides jobs, and residents say it makes the city feel a little cleaner.

Though toilets, or the lack of them, is rarely discussed, it's not because people aren't bothered by sanitation problems. Some people are not only breaking the taboo, but also turning this need into a business opportunity.

The late entrepreneur Isaac Durojaiye, nicknamed Otunba Gaddafi, was famed for starting DMT, a mobile toilet company. He tried to make toilets more accessible.

DMT's blue and red pay-for-use portable toilets dot Lagos today, but progress of any kind always seems to reach the city's dense slums last, leading people like Achionye, a father of four, to pin their hopes on the next generation.

"The buildings may not be fantastic," Achionye says, "but you'll find that every parent in Ajegunle, despite the little resources, is trying to make sure that the children have better lives."


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