By Paul Orie
THE River Niger and Ase Creek, a major tributary of the former, remain my homes. I was raised at both banks of the river where I received my primary and secondary school education. My passion for them remain undiluted. This makes me monitor closely the menacing effects of the spectre of flood and coastal erosion in most of the communities of west bank of River Niger from Abala Osimili through Utchi – Asaba Ase to Patani Local Council, including Ashaka and other communities along the bank of Ase Creek.
Sadly, there has not been any cheering news since the past decade as a result of the massive devastation of the communities I spent the whole of my childhood years that have been in the seedbed of poverty. The disquieting developments on that part of the Niger which will definitely affect other parts of the river has the potential to stagnate the economic wellbeing of not only my people, but the entire communities of the River Niger.
The nation’s economy will not be spared because the communities being discussed here share common boundaries with Okpai, where crude oil is regularly carried to Port Harcourt export terminals. Furthermore, the Niger connects several communities in many states – Kogi, Edo, Delta, Rivers, Bayelsa, etc., through its tributary and distributaries where trade had flourished and stimulated the national economy.
The said news emanating from there is the stunning buildup of huge sand dunes on the River Niger that have thrown the people of the communities along the east and west banks of the river into panic and dilemma they cannot explain. The unexpected and frightening phenomenon has subdued socio-economic activities in that part of the river, particularly with the shrinking of the Niger with lightning speed.
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This development is more pronounced in the west bank of River Niger where communities of Ndokwa East Local Council are located, from Abala Oshimili to Utchi. This heart-rendering development has also grossly affected shuttle carriage of passengers and farm products across the river to the communities on the east bank such as Umunakwo to Ogu of Anambra State.
The effect of this on boat traffic is tremendous: trading on the river dropping precipitously with only canoes and smaller outboard engines of 10 horse power are seen navigating the river. Can that be an end to water transport on the River Niger?
A development that has become more worrisome is that the River has receded to a disturbing point, shrinking its size to that of narrow creeks meandering through the Niger Delta forests and communities. Also, the sorry state of the river at Ndokwa East Local Council Area and the oppositeOgbaru Local Council of Anambra State presents a grisly spectacle, leading everyone to a more troubled destination.
We have indeed been driven to a point where navigation of boats of various sizes would be halted soon. Already flat bottom badges no longer sail along the river as they did uptill the eve of the Nigerian civil war in 1967. The big question often asked by coastal communities along the River Niger is: was it dredged up to two metres deep to allow flat bottom badges to navigate?
The management of the National Inland Waterways, NIWA, with aplomb repeatedly assures Nigerians that it had dredged the river from the lower Niger at Baro in Niger State to Warri in Delta State, adding that it had completed capital dredging and what was left was maintenance dredging.
The claims by the NIWA’s management have remained unacceptable to citizens of the banks of River Niger. To them, what NIWA said contradicts what they see with the sprouting of sand dunes, islands and lakes leading to the shrinking and perhaps the disappearance of the river.
These developments have been on before, during and after the “false” claims of dredging the river beyond Onitsha. These also threw them into utter disbelief that the river was dredged as claimed by NIWA.
It is worth mentioning that the former Managing Director of the Authority, Ahmed Yar’Adua, confidently told Nigerians, including the press that a vessel carried 400,000 tonnes of tiles from Lokoja to Onitsha within three and half hours. He added that a 23-seater passenger ferry boat in 2012 had carried passengers from Lokoja to Onitsha. These disclosures gladdened the minds of people that heard of the events. Why is it that we do not have canoe activities on the River Niger from Onitsha downstream the Niger through Okpa-Onya, Torofani, Patani to Warri? Was the Niger really dredged to Warri as claimed by NIWA’s management?
This is doubtful because it has not reflected on the volume of economic activities upstream or downstream the river from Onitsha to Patani and vice versa. Business remains drab. This was the river that Ijaw, Isoko, Ndokwa secondary school students in the 1950s through the 1960s made several voyages to Onitsha to attend the famous Denis Memoral Grammar School and Christ The King College, all in Onitsha.
Parents of these students also ferried their fish, yams and other farm products to Onitsha markets to sell. Similarly, Port Harcourt and Onitsha women fish traders made voyages through the River Niger, meandering through creeks to lakes in Ijaw and Ndokwa lands to purchase large quantities of fish to sell to the Eastern Region buyers. There was economic posterity. Also, we saw UAC and John Holt badges carrying bags of palm kernel, palm oil drums, timber logs from their trading posts in the areas mentioned here to Burutu, Warri, Forcados, Koko and Lagos seaports.
Those useful roles of the river have been pummeled. This is why the rivers, particularly the River Niger today with its sorry state, cannot play that role of decongesting Lagos sea ports through the unnavigable waterways. Hope that rivers and others are not paling into insignificance?
Orie, a public affairs commentator, wrote from Lagos