By Maxwell Kadiri
The Federal Government has committed itself to spending the sum of N36Billion over a period of about Eight months
to the dredging of the Lower River Niger without respect or compliance with the requirements of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Act, 1992.
The project comprises stretches through 572 Kilometres and affects 152 communities on the banks of the River Niger in eight States, including Anambra, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Imo, Kogi, Niger, and Rivers States. As part of the project, it also proposed to establish seven inland ports in Agenebode (Edo State), Idah (Kogi State), Yenagoa (Bayelsa State), Baro (Niger State), Lokoja (Kogi State), Aguata (Anambra State) and Ogbabe (Delta State), as well as the rehabilitation and expansion of the Onitsha River Port and the establishment of a River training Institute.
The Contractor has not conducted or undertaken any EIA. The only EIA undertaken during the administration of General Abdulsalami Abubakar in 1999 for a N10billion Naira contract was never concluded and was neither disclosed nor discussed with the affected communities as required by the EIA Act.
Without compliance with these provisions concerning access to EIA information, the project and the appropriation of public funds for its are unlawful.
Section 55 (1) of the EIA Act states as follows; â€œFor the purpose of facilitating public access to records relating to environmental impact assessments, a public registry shall be established and operated in accordance with the provisions of this Act in respect of every project for which an environmental impact assessment is conducted.â€
The Right to Know Movement (R2K) demands the completion and release to the affected communities of the EIA report on the River Niger Dredging Project as a demonstration of the commitment of the government to respecting the rights and well being of the communities, the right to information and to accountable project management.
Successive Nigerian governments since the 1960s have at various times attempted unsuccessfully to enhance the navigability of the Lower River Niger.
River Niger is Africaâ€™s third longest river.Â On 10 September, 2009, President Umaru Yarâ€™dua conducted the ceremonial official commencement of the dredging project at the Lokoja Dockyard station of the Nigerian Inland Water Ways Authority (NIWA).
Implementation of the project actually commenced on August 29 under the direction of the Minister of Transport, Alhaji Isa Ibrahim Bio. Former Transport Minister, Deziani Alison Madueke concluded the contract for the project on behalf of the Federal Government on 1 December 2008. The agreed project cost is N36 billion. Divided into five Lots, the project will be handled by four contractors namely: Messrs Fung Tai Nigeria; Dredging International; William Boyd; and Van Oord respectively.
Van Oord will undertake the critical third and fourth Lots which form the bulk of the project, stretching from Onitsha in Anambra State, through Idah and Jamarta in Kogi State. Van Oord is also the company that undertook the failed dredging of the Calabar port that was awarded by the administration of former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, for the sum of N14 billion.
In September 2009, a report credited to Transport Minister, Alhaji Bio, denounced the dredging of the Calabar Port describing the port as unusable, notwithstanding that the entire contract sum of N14billion had been administered to Messrs Van Oord and other contractors involved the project.
The first Lot in lower River Niger dredging project which is located in the Warri axis covers a distance of about 154 Kilometres. The second Lot located in the Onitsha axis covers a stretch of about 116 Kilometres. The third and fourth Lots stretching from Onitsha to Jamata, through Idah is 118 and 108 Kilometres respectively, and the fifth Lot stretching from Jamata to Baro in Niger State is 76 Kilometres long.
The first phase of the project will last six to eight months and is due for completion by January 2010. Thereafter the upper Niger and River Benue would commence, while the maintenance dredging will continue for two years following the January 2010 end date for the lower Niger dredging exercise.
Justification for the project
The Federal Government has put forward several justifications for the project including. They have argued that it would ensure all year navigability of the River Niger, promote cheaper and safer means of transport for agricultural produce from the hinterland, promote the growth of commerce and trading activities in affected communities of the Lower River Niger and enhance access to electricity generated from Kainji Dam.
During his ceremonial flagging off of the project, President Yarâ€™dua also contended that the commencement of the project is a clear manifestation of his administrationâ€™s commitment and determination to address Nigeriaâ€™s infrastructural and development challenges.
Violation of the publicâ€™s right to know under the EIA Act
The dredging project has not complied with the provisions of the Environmental Impact Assessment Act requiring the full participation of the communities affected by the projects. In a paper titled â€œDredging the River Niger: The Way Forwardâ€ Professor Boniface Chukwuka E. Egboka, Professor of Hydro Geology and Environmental Earth Sciences and current Vice Chancellor, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, reviewed the efforts by the administration of General Abdulsalami Abubakar to undertake the dredging of lower River Niger at a contract sum of N10 billion ten years ago in 1999.
Prof Egboga stated argues that â€œthe idea of dredging of River Niger from Baro in Niger State to Warri in Delta State is a very good one but it must be done properly, using a well-produced and-evaluated EIA Report.â€
This is the only EIA that has so far been undertaken on the dredging on the River Niger. This EIA report has not complied with provisions of the EIA. As explained by Professor Egboga, â€œthese reports were supposed to have been displayed at locations to facilitate review by interested stakeholders, local government officials, NGOs and the general public… availability of the report at these location are publicized through newspaper advertisements, radio and television announcements.â€
Public display and public hearings were supposed to have been encouraged. The outcome can range from a complete rejection through acceptance subject to some additional studies being undertaken to outright acceptance before the dredging -project-execution may be carried out or projected.
The EIA commissioned under the Abdulsalami administration was never completed. Professor Egboga further states: â€œOne thinks that this is where the country is now with regards to the River Niger dredging since the EIA Report evaluation is still in progress, and to be completed. One believes that the Ministry of Environment through the EIA Review Panel headed by Dr. Bukar Shuaib should be given a chance to complete action on the Draft Report.â€
Any half-hearted or incomplete EIA exercise or poor implementation process may be disastrous to the environment on the long run. The denial of the statutory right of the communities to participate in, see and review the EIA report and participate in the design and implementation of the remediation measures puts them at risk of any adverse environmental consequences.
Take, for instance, the Anambra River Basin, which is riddled with gullies and erosion-cayons. Despite the fact that the sight of the twenty-one LGAs of Anambra State shall be directly affected by the dredging project, there has been an obvious neglect or omission by the Consultants in appraising the effects of the environments Anambra, Idemili and Orashi River.
Heavy loads of sediments are trucked down by gully erosion into the River Niger yearly from uplands by these rivers, particularly, the Anambra River. The catchment areas of these rivers are heavily-built up; the soil and geologic units have easily-erodible components; average annual rainfall is over 2000mm; intense agricultural activities and fertilizer applications are carries urban and rural areas. Floods, soil and gully erosion, and environmental denudation transport sands, clays, pollutants and contaminant into the River Niger through these tributaries.
The Anambra Basin supplies quite a load of sediments and waste products into the Niger Delta yearly The dredging of the River Niger would obviously exacerbate incidences of soil and gully erosion and sediment deposition in Anambra and Kogi State unless something is positively done to check them upstream of the Anambra Basin.
As at now, the dredging project Report is silent over these issues. What shall be their fate then? There is a great need to evaluate the effects of the dredging on the dams upstream of the River Niger, particularly, the Kanji Dam areas. The new higher water flows that may result after dredging may cause drastic falls in reservoir-water levels and increased siltation of the hydroelectric dam.
These may adversely eventually affect the energy-generation capacity of the dam. Hence, there may be need to dredge the Kanji dam as well, probably, later to avoid future problems. The dredging of the Kanji Lake is, even, long overdue, and should be recognised as such by engineers, environmentalists, etc.
The already-awarded dredging contract should be revisited, recalled, re-designed and re-costed with the new ideas and findings incorporated and new ideas and new dredging project targets set. While ensuring that NIWA is fully involved, all the affected State and their State Environmental Protection Angelicas (SEPA), are made full participants at various levels.
Adequate compensation must be worked out and paid fully to those affected. Soil and gully erosion in upland of Anambra River Basin must be controlled. It is believed that when the new findings incorporated and approved, it will be possible to start the dredging of the River Niger with national support and acceptance sometime later next year.
Inspite of the fact that the only existing EIA report on this project is the incomplete 1999 draft, the Yarâ€™Adua government has not undertaken or required any EIA on the project.
Moreover, in violation of the terms of the EIA Act, the participation of the border communities likely to be affected by the dredging exercise in EIA process was not fully taken on board/encouraged and attempts by Civil Society Groups led by the Right to Know Movement (R2K) and its partners in the affected communities to access the EIA report have not been met with any positive response/feedback, in flagrant disregard of the very clear provisions of the EIA Act.
Available reports seem to suggest that the government is determined to use the military might of the JTF operating in the Niger Delta to see to the implementation of the project without addressing some of remediation measures contained in the existing EIA report, going by the fact that the dredging equipment were escorted by heavily armed contingent of the JTF using military gun boats.
Meanwhile, some militants in the Niger Delta have made the failure to undertake or comply with an EIA for the project a major item of their dis-agreement in the Federal Government. It is our firm belief that if the government wants to be taken seriously in its supposed avowed commitment to the rule of law, it must respect the provisions of the existing legislation such as the EIA Act vesting the right to know in the Nigerian citizenry and allow public access to the existing EIA report on the dredging of the lower River Niger, as demanded by the R2K Movement and its partners.