Throughout the Niger Delta region , rivers, streams and ponds have been covered from shore to shore by water hyacinths. ANAYO ONUKWUGHA writes that this invasive killer of aquatic biodiversity also poses a danger to humans and livestock
For several years, government has paid lip service to the water sector, especially with regard to the protection and management of the various water bodies in the country, particularly in the Niger Delta Region.
Time and again people , from all walks of life, among them politicians declare loudly that “water is vital for life”, but it appears very little is being done to ensure the sustainable use of this all-important resource.
Today, the water hyacinth has been acknowledged as the most dangerous floating aquatic plant in the once restive and neglected region which has been rooted in muddy bottoms.
Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is a large aquatic plant native to the Amazon basin. Its thick, waxy, oval-shaped leaves are 4-8 inches across and branch out from the centre of the plant on modified stems that may rise as much as one metre above the water surface.
The mass of fine roots that hang in the water underneath the plant are dark purple or black with small, white root-hairs. The stems are spongy, bulbous stalks (called petioles) that contain air-filled tissues that keep the plant afloat.
Findings have further revealed that water hyacinths grows profusely, forming dense mats that can spread across water surfaces eventually choking the entire water body. It can destroy native wetlands and waterway and kill native fish and other wildlife. Furthermore, it causes high evaporation rate and loss of water also degrading water quality.
LEADERSHIP Sunday reports that when this happens, the fast-growing water hyacinth soon becomes a noxious weed outside its native habitat. Plants interlock in such a dense mass that a person could walk on a floating mat of them from one bank of a river to the other.
It is considered invasive throughout the world because it grows rapidly and can form thick layers over the water. These mats shade out the aquatic plants causing them to eventually die and decay. The decaying process is said to deplete the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.
As this oxygen levels decline, many fishes are unable to survive and the water inturn, becomes devoid of life.
An important characteristic of the plant is that it has a stupendous capacity and its rate of growth is said to be highest of any aquatic or terrestrial plant on earth.
Two plants can produce 1,200 plants in four months; cover an area double its size in 12 days and estimated that 0.405-hectare may contain 650,000 plants with bulk weight of 200 tons.
The seeds are long surviving and are believed to be capable of remaining viable for as long as 17 years.
Water hyacinths are known to impede transport of irrigation and drainage water in canals and ditches, hindering navigation, interfering with hydrolic schemes, decreasing the possibilities for washing and bathing, as well as decreasing human food production and recreation.
Disturbingly, the Niger Delta Region is today faced with the negative impact of this very aggressive and invasive killer of water bodies, as the livelihoods of people who live along the coastal area has not been spared.
Most coastal areas are of little farming value in terms of crop cultivation because of its very poor nature resulting from water logging.
The implication of this to the fish farmers are those of reduced income and increased cost of fishing whereby, farmers are no longer able to sustain the provision of the basic needs of their households’.
In Bayelsa State for instance, the creeks and waterways are constantly overtaken by water hyacinths, making the movement of boats and canoes a difficult exercise for travellers and the rural farming and fishing folks.
The worst affected parts of the state are the fresh water zones such as the Ekuraba creek linking Otuasega, Elebele, Otuoke. And Kolo Creek also linking several communities in Ogbia local government area. Taylor Creek which links Biseni, Join-Krama 4 and several other communities in Okordia Zarama and Gbarain axis of the state are also affected.
Majority of boat mishaps recorded on the creeks, rivers and tributaries in the Niger Delta region are traceable to water hyacinth.
Presently, over 70 communities in Delta and Edo States have been invaded by water hyacinths, which has also taken over creeks and waterways.
According to the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), communities in Egbema and its environs are usually invaded ,especially during rainy seasons.
IYC, in a statement signed by its President, Pereotubo R. Oweilaemi said, “The riverine communities in the Niger Delta have been suffering from the perennial problem of blockade of the waterways by water hyacinths.
“Many of the communities are usually invaded mostly those in the riverine area. If not for the timely interventions of government agencies, there would have been a big problem.
“Currently, over 70 communities in Egbema Kingdom and its environs both in Delta and Edo States have been suffering from this scourge. Water weeds have taken over the entire Creeks in the Benin River and its estuaries, thereby making life miserable for the inhabitants.
“As we speak now, communities such as: Ofunama, Opuama, Polobubou, Ogbodugbudo, Ogboinbiri among others in Egbema Kingdom have been invaded by the water hyacinth which has locked up the entire Creeks.
“People cannot go about their lawful businesses as movements in and out of the affected communities are restricted. All the access roots to the communities including the Sapele axis have been taken over by the floating weeds.”
The youth body called on the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to intervene and rescue all the affected Niger Delta communities.
It said: “IYC is calling on NDDC to immediately respond to the plight of these communities. Let the Commission extend its intervention projects on water hyacinth to the Egbema Kingdom and other affected Niger Delta communities.
“NDDC should do all it can to save these communities from the looming humanitarian crisis which may arise from the scourge.
“Unless urgent steps are taken to cushion the effects, we foresee epidemic of human disaster that will be of an unimaginable proportion.”
To the NDDC, its new management under the Acting Managing Director, Prof. Nelson Braimbraifa, has completed another round of payment of water hyacinth contracts to contractors across the Niger Delta region.
It said the action is part of its commitment to improve on the environmental condition of the region in line with best practices.
According to the Acting Executive Director, Finance and Administration, Chris Oyirinda Amadi, management of the Commission is determined to satisfy the primary essence for which it was set up and drive a strategic development plan that will facilitate infrastructural development and boost economic growth in the region.
Amadi said: “As you all know, the Prof. Nelson Braimbraifa-led management team of the NDDC is committed to providing an enabling environment and relationship with contractors that will foster development and growth in all spheres in the region.
“On assumption of office, we immediately swung into action to pay contractors owed below N20 million naira without the usual and unnecessary bureaucratic encumbrances.
“We have also completed payment of water hyacinth contracts. By next week, we will commence payment to contractors owed between 20 to 30 Million Naira.”
Also, the NDDC said recently that it is doing it’s best to ensure that creeks and other waterways in the Niger Delta region are safe.
It said it has continued to award water hyacinth contracts to repentant militants, who embraced the Federal Government’s Amnesty programme.
According to Charles Obi Odili, the Director, Corporate Affairs, NDDC, maintained that the current board of the agency had paid money owed the contractors by the previous board.
Odili explained that it was wrong for the contractors, especially members of the Coalition of Niger Delta Contractors, to be agitating for contracts meant for the former agitators.
Odili said, “The water hyacinth contracts are meant for some of the youth, who have been rehabilitated from militancy.
“To say that the NDDC is working against the interest of the Niger Delta people is also wrong, because the current executive management (of the NDDC) kick-started its tenure by paying N10m to N20m to contractors, who had been owed for over six years.
“The water hyacinth project is an empowerment programme meant to stimulate entrepreneurial drive in young people. Contractors carry out major impact projects. The two are not interchangeable.
“These (water hyacinth contracts) were done without the affected persons lobbying for them. There is a need to distance the current interim board from what happened in the past.”
To residents of riverine communities in the Niger Delta region, the presence of water hyacinth on the creeks, rivers and tributaries cause a lot of difficulties for water travellers.
According to Chief Joe Ezuma, an indigene of Izombe community in Imo State, apart from causing boat accidents, water hyacinth can breed diseases in the environment.
Ezuma said, “Water hyacinth can cause boat accidents after it clogs on the engine. Diseases cluster around water hyacinth and it can distribute diseases to the people. It slows down journeys. It hinders the flow of water transportation.
“Where it is prominent, it makes the water not to flow freely, thereby manufacturing diseases. That is why agencies like NDDC has spent fortunes on water hyacinth contracts.”
Also speaking, an indigene of Abonnema Town in Akuku-Toru local government area of Rivers State, Soibi Oruwari, said: “I have not seen water hyacinth as an impediment to water transportation but some people had told me how water hyacinth stopped them from traveling.
“Moreover when the water hyacinth is flowing, you don’t have any problem. When the tide is against you on the river, that is when you have a problem.
“A boat driver on a major sea route can dodge the water hyacinth because they are not many on the major sea routes.”