Plans to dredge two major waterways to improve long-neglected river transport in Nigeria have placed the government on a collision course with environmentalists and several riverine communities.
Critics of the plans are fearful of the effects dredging the rivers Niger and Benue could have on communities and the environment in downstream areas, including the volatile Niger Delta. The two waterways form Nigeriaâ€ôs main river system. The Niger starts in Guinea's Fouta Djalon mountains, courses through most of West Africa, then enters Nigeria from the northwest on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. The Benue, which begins in the Cameroonian Highlands to the east, joins the Niger at Lokoja in central Nigeria.
Three years ago, the federal government decided to improve river transport by dredging the two waterways using money from the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF). The fund is a special facility set up by military ruler, General Sani Abacha to use additional earnings from the sale of petroleum products for infrastructural development. When, in 1998, the PTF announced that it had awarded a contract to dredge the rivers from central Nigeria to the Niger Delta, several environmental groups objected. They pointed out that no environmental impact assessment (EIA) had been conducted as required by a 1992 law. Many communities along the proposed dredging route also expressed concern about the likely adverse impact on their livelihoods and settlements.
After Abacha's death, his successors adopted the project, but decided to conduct EIAs. Their results were published and interest groups and communities were asked to comment and raise objections where necessary. Based on the EIAs, the government declared the dredging of the rivers imperative. "The federal government sees the two rivers as great treasures which should be protected," the minister of state for transport, Isa Yuguda, told journalists recently. "Both rivers Niger and Benue are fast drying up because they are almost silted and studies have shown that they may completely dry up in the next 20 to 25 years if concerted efforts are not made to safeguard them."
He said President Olusegun Obasanjo's government had decided to do everything possible to safeguard the two rivers. Dredging, he said, would help to do this and to improve navigation - and thereby transport as a whole - in Nigeria.
Several upstream communities appeared to welcome the development. On the other hand, attempts to set up dredging equipment in the Niger Delta have been resisted. The Federal Inland Waterways Authority (FIWA), which oversees the project, said both the contractor, Inter-Continental Port Limited, and its officials were chased away from a number of Niger Delta communities when they tried to put dredging equipment in place. This has created a setting for violence should the government decide to use the security forces to enforce its will.
Environmental Rights Action (ERA), a Nigerian group affiliated to Friends of the Earth, contends that the EIAs conducted on the dredging project were done as an afterthought. Moreover, it says, the assessments were aimed at legitimising a fait accompli and were never intended to ask genuine questions about the likely adverse impacts on the environment. ERA says dredging would increase the speed at which water flows into the Delta, aggravating the erosion of river banks and increasing the incidence of flooding.
"Who will benefit from the dredging? Certainly not the people of the Niger Delta as dredging will result in unnatural drainage, fast-moving water bodies and erosion," ERA spokesman Doifie Ola told reporters. "This will impact on the wetlands and more negatively on poor people. Homes, communities, fishing grounds, forests and farmlands may go with the possible floods." According to ERA, the destructive impact of dams built on the two rivers is yet to be quantified. It is felt each year at the peak of the rainy season when sluice gates are opened, often without warning, and downstream communities are swept away by flash floods. Such floods kill many people while destroying homes and farmland. The group argues therefore that, as it stands, the dredging plan is ecologically unsustainable.
FIWA officials admit that the original dredging plan they submitted to the Ministry of Transport was hijacked and truncated by the PTF in its hurry to have the project executed. A senior official told reporters that the original thinking included developing river ports in communities along the two rivers as part of an integrated inland waterways development programme. "But this aspect was dropped by the PTF," he said. "And whatâ€ôs the point in dredging the rivers if there will be no river ports to enable the people to make the best use of improved navigation? There is a real need to rethink the entire project."
Many people in the Niger Delta believe that the dredging project is aimed mainly at making it easier for oil multinationals to move heavy equipment to locations where they want to operate. They also say past experience justifies their opposition. Obudu Otobo, a Niger Delta activist, said the dredging of a water channel turned his hometown, Aleibiri, into an island. "The purpose of the dredging was to enable an oil company move a rig to a drilling location, but the consequences have included the introduction of excess water into the area," he told reporters. "Farmlands are now permanently flooded, severely curtailing farming activities."
Yuguda said the improvement of navigation on the rivers
would be a useful complement to the development of a railway line for transporting
materials between steel complexes at Ajaokuta, on the bank of the Niger
in central Nigeria, and Aladja, near the Niger Delta oil town of Warri.
He said because dredging was of "overwhelming importance to this huge economic
investment" it was necessary to examine all possibilities of ending "communal
interference in the dredging project". Whether this will be achieved by
peaceful persuasion or force remains to be seen.