After over 44 years in incubation, the dredging of River Niger was flagged off on September 10, 2009. The project crystallises the federal government’s unwavering determination to tackle the country’s infrastructure and development challenges. But three years later, National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) and the 152 benefiting communities across eight cooperating states have different views on the economically viable project. NUHU YARWA and PEMBI STEPHEN-DAVID write.
River Niger is one of the major rivers in Nigeria, it is fed by tropical rain and exhibits clearly defined flood and low water seasons. The flood season starts in June, peaks in September and is completely receds by December ending.
The rest of the period is low water season with the highest recorded difference between high and low water marks being about 9m. The river bed is alluvial and is in constant transformation by flood waters. Thus, series of deeps and shallows (called crossings) mark its course as it flows towards the delta.
Between Lokoja and the bifurcation at Onya, forty crossings have been identified by the federal government which create bottlenecks of various magnitudes to smooth navigation on the river Niger. The major navigational problem to the south of the bifurcation is restricted width and sharp bends. Therefore, the Lower Niger dredging projects seek to enlarge the channels and deepen them, close secondary or non-viable channels, provide turning basins and achieve appropriate water depths along the riverside facilities constructed or rehabilitated.
The age-long plan to dredge the Lower River Niger was first conceived by the colonial administration in 1958. It suffered series of neglect by successive administrations until it was flagged off by late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2009.The 572 kilometre-long dredging covers Baro in Niger State to Bifurcation in Bayelsa State, according to the Managing Director of Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority, (NIWA) Arc. Ahmed Yar’Adua. The dredged river is expected to provide all-year round navigation, employment opportunities, and improved economic activities as well as flood control. Other benefits he says, include improved carrying capacity, cheaper and safer transport system, reduced axle load on roads, boom fishing and preserve the environment. He explains that it is the first major dredging exercise that ever took place in the country after the failure of the dredging of the Ikpoba River in Edo State and the Calabar port in Cross River State.
The dredged Lower River Niger cuts across Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers and Edo states; others are Imo, Anambra, Kogi and Niger states, covering 152 communities. Seven main inland ports to decongest the Lagos and Port Harcourt ports have also been identified .A maritime institute would be established at Onitsha as well as five river ports at Warri, Onitsha, Idah, Lokoja and Baro.
The NIWA has the mandate to manage the nation’s waterways. It remains the chief coordinator of the dredging and the port construction. The authority is also responsible for the operation of passenger ferry services, jetties and dockyards as well as the issuance and control of licenses for inland navigation, river jetties and dockyards. President Goodluck Jonathan recently approved the opening of access navigational channels from the bifurcation to Port Harcourt (deep sea port) and from Lokoja to Makurdi (Benue River).
The NIWA boss said the peculiarities of the 572-km ‘‘aquatic highway’’ on the river Niger through dredging mandated its division into lots using natural boundaries. They are also of different mileages as follows:-
Lot 1: Warri to Bifurcation 154 km
Lot 2: Bifurcation to Onitsha 116km
Lot 3: Onitsha to Idah 118km
Lot 4: Idah to Jamata 108km
Lot 5: Jamata to Baro 76km
Each lot has been awarded to a consultant and a contractor for the purpose of execution. Haskoning Engineering Consult Nigeria Ltd is the consultant for Lot 1 while Jayuda Int Ltd is the consultant for Lot 2. Dredging and Marine Consultants Ltd is the consultant to Lot 3 while Enplan Group is the consultant to Lot 4. Lot 5’s consultant is Mssrs Williams Lloyds Technical Company. He explained that the project is made up of capital dredging which consist of opening of navigation channels, construction of sand dams, widening of creek routes, straightening of over-developed meanders and stocking of excess stand and derocking which involves blasting of rock outcrops and removal of blasted debris.
Yar’Adua says construction of engineering structures such as bottom panels, groynes, dykes and barrages, break waters and revetments, used to stabilise the river beds and deepen channels by producing natural scouring also form part of the project. He added that recurrent (maintenance) dredging which has to do with maintaining a minimum channel depth of 2.5m and a top width of 100m for all-year-round navigation, is all also an area which the project will give maximum attention to. Installation of navigational aids including buoys, traffic signs and security lights and erection of survey momuments from Warri through Port Harcourt to Baro as well as Pr-Hydrographic surveys involving pre-dredging and post-dredging surveys for the calculation of dredge columes and to determine changes in river morphology are also part of the project.
Yar’adua explains that capital dredging of 572 km of Lower River Niger from Baro in Niger State to Warri in Delta State. Construction of modern inland ports of Baro, Idah and Lokoja are considered in the project. He says completion/rehabilitation of Onitsha Port, construction of River Training Works (RTW), maintenance dredging of the River Niger after completion of the capital dredging and construction of Gulu-Baro Road (20km) to provide access to Abuja also form the project consideration. Yar’Adua explained that the capital dredging is 70 per cent completed but the maintenance will go on for two years.
But members of the benefiting communities are singing a different song. They embrace the idea that it will yield good result but they seem not to agree that the plan is workable as most of them don’t have full understanding of the project. A trip to Baro community revealed that the locals are not having a good moment with the dredging of the river and construction of the ports. They argue that though the project has the potentials of increasing the economic activities in the area, the work is very slow. The delay in completing the project they said, has worsen their plight.
‘‘The project is supposed to increase our fishing activities but it is not so, the fishes have all gone. Places where you easily get fish have been dredged, we now move far to catch fishes. We thought the government will help us with new fishing techniques but there is nothing to that effect,’’ complained Abubakar Baro, the Ranin Baro.