By Nnamdi Ojiego
On September 28, 2020, the Obiohia community in Ideato South Local Government Area of Imo State was thrown into chaos following the disappearance of two elderly siblings, Mr. Benedict Agughasi and Festa.
It was later learnt that they were swept away by a roaring flood after a downpour on that fateful day.
While Festa, a midwife, was rescued, her brother wasn’t that lucky.
His remains were recovered days later at Urashi River.
This ugly incident has become a regular occurrence in communities in Ideato North and Ideato South local councils.
Residents are now, more than ever, faced with existential threats posed by multiple gully erosions ravaging, practically, every nook and cranny of the area.
Soil erosion is regarded as one of the most serious environmental and public health problems facing human society today.
In Imo, the sites of gully erosions are commonplace.
However, Ideato nation is most affected. There are over 200 erosion sites across the two local governments.
It is believed to be the most erosion-prone area in the state with every of the 50 communities in the Federal Constituency having one form of gully erosion point or the other.
Lost homes, farmlands
While many have lost their homes and farmlands, others have abandoned theirs and have been forcefully separated from their brothers and sisters by dangerous and massive erosion gullies which cut communities into two, making it difficult for them to visit one another.
Currently, communities in Ideato North and South local government areas have been cut off from the rest of Imo, following gully erosion sites that divide the Orlu-Obiohia-Akokwa-Uga federal highway.
This erosion site was long identified but nothing serious was done to check the advancing gully until the highway bowed to the superior force of flood, leaving motorists and other road users stranded and at the mercy of hoodlums.
The road is an important route that connects Imo to Anambra and many other states in the country.
The people are frustrated and hapless and unhappy with government’s slow pace in managing active erosion sites in Ideato, as well as the poor performance of government contractors.
No respite despite high profile natives
Despite the litany of high profile political office holders from the area, no respite has come for the people.
Instead, they have been accused of using their exalted offices to cause more problems for the people they represent.
A former governor of the state and senator representing Imo West in the National Assembly, Mr. Rochas Okorocha, has been blamed largely for his role in creating multiple erosion sites in the Ideato area when he held sway as the chief executive officer of the state.
The distraught people accused Okorocha of creating more problems for them by opening up roads without properly constructing them.
According to some of those who spoke to Sunday Vanguard, the former governor misused a golden opportunity he would have used to bring a permanent solution to the menace but wasted it.
Dr. Modestus Ezenwa, an academic and community leader, lamented that “gully erosion has taken over the entire Ideato nation and it’s very clear that this type of phenomenon never came up before the time of Rochas Okorocha.
“Yes, we had some incidences of this in Urualla axis and some other places like Obiohia and Isiekeneisii but never in our history have we experienced this type of phenomenal damage”, Ezenwa said.
“The entire Ideato nation is gasping. Ideato South is in shambles. So the gully erosion is becoming much. This is as a result of the opening of several roads by Okorocha in Ideato and most of these roads were not meant to be roads.
“Most of these roads were unnecessary. If you look from Mgbee, going to Ugbelle, to Umuchima, down to UmumaIsiaku and up to Ogboko, those areas are very vast and Okorocha opened more than 20 roads there and these roads are not well constructed. “He just opened the earthwork and abandoned them. When the waterfalls start coming down, the next thing that happens is erosion.
“There are so many abandoned constructions works initiated by Okorocha here and there in Ideato. Today, we don’t have anywhere we can pass through. “Greater part of Urualla, Obiohia, Umuchima, Isiekeneisii, Dikenafai, Ugbelle and other communities is gone. If you are moving to Arondizuogu, the same thing is happening, so we don’t know what to do”.
Speaking in the same vein, the President-General of Umuchima community, Mr. Chiboy Emelu, while pleading with concerned authorities to save the people from imminent danger, said: “It is quite unfortunate that the road is like that as a result of poor construction done by the administration of Rochas Okorocha.
“So bad is the place now that a journey from Orlu to Anambra which was N1000 is now N3, 000. It is the only road from Orlu to Anambra.
“Erosion has swept off houses and farmlands on the road, forcing people to flee. We are calling on the Federal Government to come to our aid.”
The President of Uzotex Charity Foundation, UCF, Mr. Festus Mbisiogu, had earlier called on the federal and the state governments to save the Ideato area from being cut off by erosion.
Mbisiogu, while making this passionate appeal, said there was an urgent need to prevent the only road connecting the area from being submerged.
His words: “The condition of the road is deplorable. Our people are on the verge of being cut off owing to the state of the road. “The economic and social life of the people is threatened by gully erosion. Federal and state governments must act now as communities in the area no longer have access to anywhere.”
Another federal road, which would have served as an alternative route, is in a more dire and dangerous state.
The road, an expressway from Owerri straight to Uga junction, in Anambra State, cutting across about 12 communities in both Ideato South and North, was abandoned in the early 1990s by a construction company called BOCC.
The whole stretch of the road from the Banana junction, Orlu to Uga junction in Anambra is impassable even to pedestrians due to multiple gully erosions on it.
The abandonment of the road contributed in no small measures to the devastation witnessed in the area.
Incidentally, the home towns of Okorocha; member representing Ideato South/Ideato North Federal Constituency, Dr. Pascal Obi; and that of the First Lady of Imo State, Chioma Uzodimma, are among communities worst affected by the menace. Okorocha, Obi and Mrs. Uzodimma hail from Ogboko, Obiohia and Dikenafai, respectively.
Other communities affected include Amanato, Umueshi, Ogwume, Isiekenesii, Dimagu, Okohia, Umuaghobe, Awalla, Umuakam, Umuago, Umuobom, Umuezedike, Duruahurunwa, Umucheke, Umumaisiaku, Umulewe, Ntueke, Okohia, Umuchima, Ugbelle, Umuezealla and Ogboko autonomous community.
The rest include Urualla, Obodoukwu, Isiokpo, Akpulu, Osina, Uzii, Akokwa, Arondizuogu, Umualoma, Ozuakoli and Ezemezu.
A member of the Ideato South Local Government Caretaker Committee from Obiohia, Hon. Ifeanyi Duru, expressed worries that the situation has assumed catastrophic proportions.
He said: “The truth is that some of us from Obiohia do not even have the faintest idea of the magnitude of this environmental disaster looming.
“I took time about four months ago and went round all the erosion sites in the community with a photographer in order to get the pictorial view of the situation on the ground, what I found out that very day really shook me to the marrows.
“From the road connecting Obiohia/Umueshi, through the Ozuomba Mbadiwe University (formerly Eastern Palm University) northernmost gate, to the erosion that runs through late David Mmeje’s backyard through Umuezee, and finally, the monstrous endless abyss around Umuezee/Agbala axis, that has become a potentially existential threat to us as a community.
“Though the pictures and report from that exercise were submitted to the current government in power by myself, I still believe that the community needs to rise to the challenges and threats posed to her environment by this ugly development.”
Alexander Opara, a former Director at the Institute of Erosion Studies at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, had, in an interview, said “high intensity of rainfall as a result of climate change has caused accelerated erosion”.
Opara added that the effect was multiplied by poor drainage systems while increased pressure on land for agriculture and development has exposed the soil.
This is exacerbated by ecological abuse like unregulated mining activities, builders’ search for gravel and sand, and unremitting deforestation.
Also, an environmental scientist, Dr. Benard Omoyeni, said gully erosion, as an ecological, environmental, economic, and humanitarian disaster, has resulted in land degradation, loss of lives and property.
According to him, gully erosion is a widespread and often dramatic form of soil erosion caused by flowing surface water and consisted of open, unstable channels that have been cut more than 30 centimetres deep into the ground as a result of the interaction of land use, climate and slope.
Omoyeni said, “It is a major environmental problem, posing significant threats to sustainable development and generally caused by several factors which cut across environmental and anthropogenic factors. “These environmental factors include geology, topography, rainfall and soil factors such as erodibility and characteristics, while the anthropogenic factors include land use for development activities and agriculture.
“The effects of all these activities as well as human factors have continued to wreak havoc on life and property, with a heavy devastating effect on the livelihood and the economy.”
Although there are no verified independent sources to ascertain the monetary/economic value of damages done by the gullies in Ideato, it is estimated to run into billions of Naira, including loss of property, farmlands, and critical infrastructures such as roads, power and phone cables, and pipes.
Omoyeni, however, suggested that lands susceptible to gully be monitored regularly to detect early stages of formation, as it is economically far better to prevent gully from occurring than to attempt to control them once the erosion has started.
“Once they have started, some control measures are relatively simple; others are more complex and need care with their design and construction”, he said.
“A significant expense may be required and attempts to control gullies can end in failure.
“The range of measures to avoid the development of gullies include land use and soil and water conservation, creation of vegetation barriers and narrow strips of plants or plant residues to reduce the connectivity of catchments in terms of water and sediment fluxes, large-scale land rehabilitation programmes, engineering structures to stabilize a gully head or to promote siltation and vegetative growth in the gully floor, and land stabilization and so on.”
The effort to mitigate adverse effects of soil and land degradation in the targeted watershed for environmental sustainability in the country envisioned and created the Nigeria Erosion and Watershed Management Project (NEWMAP).
The severity of this environmental degradation prompted the Federal Government to seek urgent support in 2010 from the World Bank in a bid to tackle the challenge of gully erosion in seven mover states namely Imo, Abia, Anambra, Cross River, Ebonyi, Enugu and Edo.
While the project became effective on September 16, 2013, Imo State government formally launched the NEWMAP project in the state on November 11, 2014. The Imo SPMU commenced with three initially approved sites which included Eziala- Obizi in EzinihitteMbaise LGA, Iyiuzo-Ihioma-Ogberuru in Orlu LGA and Umueshi-Amanato in Ideato South LGA. Other approved sites in the state include Umuturu -Ezemazu -Urualla in Ideato North LGA, Umunumo Ibeafor in Ehime Mbano LGA, Umueze Obazu-Mbieri gully erosion site in Mbaitoli LGA.
Sadly, the two NEWMAP projects in Ideato are yet to be completed and have been abandoned, leaving the affected communities to their fate. Sunday Vanguard could not reach the NEWMAP office to find out why all its projects were stopped halfway in the state.
Meanwhile, the Ecological Fund Office (EFO) said one of the projects it has executed in Imo was in Ideato South – the UmumaIsiaku Erosion Control Works.
The intervention by EFO was not enough to save the community as some parts of UmumaIsiaku have been taken over by the ravine.
However, there is hope for communities being ravaged by erosion as they can now access ecological funds to tackle the challenge.
Dr. Joel Oruche, a Deputy Director, Head Press and Public Relations at EFO, hinted that “communities can approach the office for intervention in writing.”
Listing the criteria to be met to access the fund, Oruche stated that affected communities must apply in writing attached with Bill of Engineering Measurement and Evaluation, BEME, engineering designs/drawings and site pictorials and wait for the project to be captured in EFO’s data bank and presidential approval.
Worried by the erosion devastation in his constituency, the lawmaker representing the Ideato North/Ideato South Federal Constituency at the National Assembly, Hon. Pascal Obi, disclosed that he has done a massive erosion control project in Obiohia community.
The lawmaker enumerated measures he has taken to ameliorate the problem especially as it concerned the Orlu-Obiohia-Akokwa-Uga road.
According to him, he had called on the Federal Road Maintenance Agency, FERMA, to do remedial works on the road, regretting that work done by the intervention agency could not prevent the devastation being witnessed on the road presently.
“The situation has gotten worse and I don’t think the state government has the capacity to tackle the challenge now. In view of this, I have called my colleagues in charge of the Federal Ministry of Works, and the FERMA”, he said.
“I would have drawn the attention of the relevant authorities by way of motion if not that the House is on recess”.
Obi explained that he would raise the issue on the floor of the House as soon as the lawmakers resume plenary on September 14.
Though not much has been seen from the state government towards tackling the challenges, it is said that the present administration is assiduously dealing with the situation.
Governor Hope Uzodinma, through his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Oguwike Nwachukwu, said he was not only dealing with the situation in Ideato South and North but anywhere erosion is posing a threat to lives and property in Imo.
“For Ideato in Orlu, the governor is very much in touch with the Federal Government’s Ecological Funds Office through the Office of the Secretary to the Federal Government. Recently, a team from the Ecological Funds Office visited the erosion sites to evaluate the situation on the intervention of the Governor. We are awaiting their final response and perhaps, the formal award of contract protocols so that work can begin”, Nwachukwu said.
“Don’t also forget that we are in the peak of the rainy season, meaning that the season can cause some delays, but by and large, Governor Uzodimma is on top of the situation, particularly as he is conscious of the economic implications of the erosion to the good people of Ideato in particular and Imo State in general.”