Liberians’ Health: Generators, Cars Posing Dangers to Residents

Monrovia – On June 19 this year, two men—Varnie Sarjue and Jusue Vannie – spent the night in the office of GMT Fishery in the Bong Mines Bridge community outside Monrovia.

Both men were guarding the company’s properties, and on that fateful night Sarjue brought with him his girlfriend, Garmeh Howard. They put on a generator, took it indoors with them and locked the doors. They would never wake up again.

The next morning when the owners of the fishery came they could not open the door so they called the Police. By then a crowd had piled up before the roadside building, including residents of the New Kru Town community, where the two men lived.

When the door was finally broken open, onlookers beheld were awed by the sight of three of them.  Vannie had already died, while Sarjue and Howard died later at the Redemption Hospital. They were victims of carbon monoxide poisoning.

More than 10 people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning in and around Monrovia since 2006, according to the Liberia National Police (LNP), including three women in the Logan Town community in 2005 and two other young women in Bunjah community on the Roberts International Airport highway in 2008.

“Most people use the generators into their homes, forgetting to know the danger behind it,” says Jerry Wymah, Chief of Operations of the LNP’s Crimes against Persons Division. “So the only way we can curtail this is to have some awareness so that people can be aware and do something about it.”

The Tiger brand generator in the Bong Mines Bridge carbon monoxide tragedy had four clear warnings: “No use in house”, “No use in wet condition”, “when refilling, stop engine” and keep flammable objects away”. However, it did not save Sarjue, Vannie and Howard, something that claims Wymah’s attention for the need to strengthen public awareness.

“There is no doubt that there is a need to strengthen our work, our education and awareness activities that we have,” agrees Dehwehn Yeabah, the Director of the Department of Environmental Health and Occupational Safety, Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. “It should not be a project…It has to be a sustained program on radio, community level and peer group discussion. All of these are important but they require logistics, funding.”

In a country where people must protect even their light bulbs from thieves, it is impossible to overemphasize securing one’s generator. Not even chains and locks can prevent generator theft.

Some say thieves sometimes use their own wires to keep on power and take a beating generator at a good distance before making their way with it. Yeabah says people pay more attention on securing their generators from being stolen rather than adhering to warnings.

Peter Mulbah, an environmentalist at Conservation International, suggests that people use generators intermittently with battery-powered energy-saving lights to avoid taking their generators indoors.

“Nature tells you that its first law is self-preservation, so you have to preserve the live that is in you. You have to make sure you take all necessary precautions,” he says.

The carbon monoxide emitted by diesel and gasoline generators might pose a relatively direct threat to people’s lives; however, it is emission of carbon dioxide that poses the biggest health risk, according to experts.

Too much emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere leads to respiratory diseases such as flu, pneumonia and tuberculosis. An estimated 3,500 people died of respiratory diseases in Liberia in 2014, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Carbon monoxide also poses an indirect threat to our health. Scientists blame global sea level rise (coastal land loss), flood, rainstorm and draught on climate change, which is also the result of the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Liberia is experiencing the effect of climate change, with recently the Dolo Town flood incident, where floodwater preventing pedestrian and vehicular traffic on that portion of the Roberts International Airport.

And before that, there was a rainstorm in Bong County, where at least one died and several houses were destroyed, while the Government of Liberia grapples with sea erosion mainly in Monrovia and Buchanan.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of Liberia is a member of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a global effort established by the United Nationals Environment Program (UNEP) in 2012 to combat short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP)—pollutants that stay in the atmosphere up to 10 years that are precursors to climate change.

“The first thing that the EPA did was to join the Coalition in 2014. The EPA found out that the Coalition’s work—fighting global climate change, tackling health problems—was good so the EPA joined the Coalition and moved faster to establish a unit called the National SLCP Coordination Unit,” explains Jefferson Dahn, focal person of the Unit.

“The Unit is mainly charged with the duties of creating awareness, talking to policymakers to see whether we can put into place the necessary mechanism so that we can tackle the issues of [air pollutants],” he continues.

Dahn adds that the Unit had been talking with other relevant agencies of government, including the Ministries of Health and Social Welfare, Transport and Agriculture since SLCP was new to Liberia. He says a communication strategy has been created to inform policymakers and lawmakers.

“Climate pollutants are very dangerous to your health. For example, you are driving and see one old car just pass by you and you see all of this smoke. It is dangerous to health because pollutants lead to respiratory diseases,” he stresses.

Liberia made a commitment at the Paris Climate Talk last December to reduce carbon dioxide emission by 15 percent to contribute to a global target of reducing carbon emission from 2 degree Celsius to 1.5 degree Celsius.

A key pillar of Liberia’s fulfillment to its commitment is the completion of the Mount Coffee Hydropower Plant, which is expected to done this December. This means that Liberia would have invested in renewable energy that is clean energy, saying goodbye to large quantities of diesel and gasoline that are currently fueling mega generators that provide electricity to Monrovia and its environs.

“We need a cleaner air; clean air is keen,” says Dehwehn Yeabah, the Director of the Department of Environmental Health and Occupational Safety, Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.

“If we had the hydropower plant fully running we would not need generators, even though you will be putting the producers out of business. The way to mitigate this is by the government ensuring that we have our hydro operational and functional so that people can cut down the use of generators.”

When completed the Mount Coffee Hydropower Plant will produce 88 megawatt of electricity, meaning Liberia will stay have a long way to go to produce the 350 megawatt it needs it power the entire country by 2020, even with the West African Power Pool in the northern and southeastern parts of the country. And Dahn of the EPA thinks that with such reality, the public still has huge role to play.

A man starts a generator as a boy looks on in the Paco Island community of Congo Town (Monrovia)

“We cannot do it alone; we do it with partners and those partners are involved with ordinary Liberians,” he says.

“We cannot do it alone. We can writer all of the best policies, we can write all of the best papers, once the people have not changed from the way they look at things, those papers will be nonsense,” Dahn warns and suggests that people ride bicycle, take public busses and get use to walking certain distances so that they are not reliant upon vehicles to reduce carbon emission.

Mulbah of Conservation International disagrees, arguing that behavioral change has more implications than individuals’ resolve to make personal changes in their lives.

“You have to look at the culture. How many people would ride a bicycle to work? How do we build that culture? How do we develop that culture?”

He said the culture could begin with parents buying their children bicycles so that they can grow up with the mentality. Behavior change starts from the beginning. Gradually, as they grow up they will know that bicycle is not only for exercise, but also economical and environmentally friendly.”

“But the Police have a role to play,” he says, citing the risk of accidents. Police record shows that as of the first quarter of 2016 there were 369 accidents nationwide, with 36 deaths reported and 312 injuries.

“It will be riskier to have people riding bicycle to Broad Street,” Mulbah says. “We have reckless drivers. They will hit you and nothing will come out of it.

“It is a complex issue that involves the government, civil society, the communities and families.”

Mulbah also disagrees with Dahn over the adequacy of the public transport system. “There is no efficient public transport in Liberia,” Mulbah interjects.

“That is not a realistic recommendation.  [The National Transit Authority does not have up to 50 buses to cover the country. You see a lot of people standing on the roadside, begging for lift,” he says, suggesting that the Government of Liberia invests in the public transport sector, including locomotives.

“We have the Bong Mines railroad already, if we invest in the transport system there, all those going to that part of the country will get onboard a train to go there. They will not have to go to the Red Light get a car and get to Kakata to go there. In other countries, that is what they are doing. Those are all ways of reducing the impacts of fossil fuel [on the environment] and have a more convenient transport system.

“Take for instance you have a ministry, if you can have on bus that will be responsible to pick up all deputy Ministers, it will save the government money from buying 10 jeeps, each of which would cost up to US$50,000.”

Because they use diesel fuel and gasoline, vehicles, too, emit carbon, and there are many, including motorcycles and now tricycles. The Ministry of Transport in the Transport Master Plan of Liberia, a roadmap to an improve transport sector, including air and water transport, recommends environmental awareness, energy-efficient mode of transport and, among others, unleaded fuel and the installation of catalytic converters on all vehicles.

“Pollution in urban areas arises from several sources, including vehicle exhaust emissions and leakage and spillage from vehicles garages and fuel storage facilities,” it reads. “The result is the reduction in the water and air quality and increase in chronic health effects,” it goes on.

Since the second half of 2014, the prices of oil on the world market have been low, with the current prices around US$40 per barrel. Investment in offshore drilling have dwindled worldwide, and Liberia has seen super majors such as Anadarko and Repsol  & Tullow relinquishing offshore oil blocks, leaving the National Oil Company of Liberia to combat bankruptcy.

In the United States, people drive more when oil is cheaper, according to the Federal Highway Commission. Some experts say that there are as many as 9,000 extra road casualties yearly when oil prices drop by US$2.

But the situation does not suffice with Liberia, according to Barbah Kaba, Director of Research, Statistics and Information Management at the Ministry of Transport, due to the high level of poverty.

Diesel fuel and gasoline do not only pollute the air and threaten lives. They are flammable and can result to death, injuries and loss of properties. According to the Liberian National Fire Service (LNFS) there were 88 fire incidents, bulk of which resulted from shock circuit and generators, particularly gasoline generators.

“The problem has been with electrical and generator, so we are going to focus our attention on those two,” says LNFS Director Warsuwah Barvoul, not candle as in the past.

“Mostly, with the generators, people leave it on and try to refill it. Some people put the generator in the kitchen because they don’t want it get stolen.”

Many persons have sustained severe burn from generators and have had their house gutted by fire in the process. One of the infamous incidents was the popular musician David Mel.

In the last four to five years the LNFS has done much to reduce fire incidents in the country through public awareness and enforcement of fire regulations.

Barvoul says there is an ongoing awareness campaign targeted at the proper handling of generators in homes and offices, adding that placing restriction on the sales of generators was difficult and not a practical way of solving the problem as some suggest.

“The awareness already made has done a great deal. Now you have people calling, writing on fire matters,” he says.

Barvoul also sees a link between fire incidents caused by short circuit (electrical fault) and generators. He says because people have their own generators and not the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) grid, they do not wire their houses properly, something he says will be of huge safety concern even the Mount Coffee Hydropower Plant is operational once more.

Meanwhile, Barvoul has an advice for the public: “The [diesel fuel] generator has a lower risk as compared to the gasoline. You can keep the [diesel fuel] in your house, you can pass by the fire with a diesel fuel in a [container] and you would not have problem.”

Report by James Harding Giahyue/Special to FrontPageAfrica

This story was produced in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation/New Narratives Liberia Oil Reporting Project, which is part of the Foundation’s pan-African program Wealth of Nations ( – New Narrative