Onitsha Port and Its Enemies

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Okey Ikechukwu

The desirability and viability of a river port in the commercial city of Onitsha, Anambra State, has been widely discussed. What is yet to be fully discussed, and resolved, is its feasibility. Some have pointed out that a river port was built in Onitsha in the 80s and formally commissioned by Vice President Alexander Ekwueme. That is correct. For some people, the fact that it was conceived to ease trade, reduce the cost of imported goods in South East markets, create jobs and generally enable the South East and environs realize their full economic potentials makes it an eternally important economic infrastructure. Papers have been written on it, with Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and a near-consensus among experts on the economic benefits.

But there is an unacknowledged problem. Water! Yes, water! You need water for a river port and the Onitsha end of the river Niger does not have enough. Dredging is a good idea, no doubt, but it will give you a bigger ditch and wipe out the means of livelihood of water dependent local economies. Yes, we can adopt the confirmed practice elsewhere, of “gating” and later discharging the water to secure enough depth, but … All things considered, we may need sachets of pure to fill up the place to get enough draught for ship. Barges? They, too, will have their own problems on that route.

The summary of challenges currently facing the proposed Onitsha River Port are: (1) river dams along the Niger, Benue and their many tributaries, (2) unrealistic projections about the prospects of the project; (3) delusional notions about the credibility of some of the existing Environmental Impact Assessment (AIE) reports; (4) politicization of the economic value of a river port in Onitsha, as against Port Harcourt and Calabar; (5) the game plans of individuals who wish to upgrade their relevance by fighting secure vital “federal project for Ndigbo”, while sometimes knowing that it will either not work or that it will not bring the alleged benefits, and, finally; (6) insecurity along the inland waterways. The Egbesu Boys, the militants and freelance mischief makers will certainly not form a row of cheerleaders, to applaud and welcome water vessels making their way through the creeks.

Some of the discussions about Onitsha Port actually remind one of discussions about electricity supply a few years ago. The Federal Government was then building massive gas turbines for electricity supply. Everyone was talking about the mega watts that would be added to the national grid after the power-generating turbines were completed. But no provisions were made for gas. The then minister confessed at a private forum that there was also no “gas plan” and that much of our gas was already mortgaged to foreign customers. When he was pointedly asked: “So if the turbines are ready now, as we speak, they won`t contribute a single megawatt to national power supply, because no arrangements have been made for gas”? The shocking answer was “Yes”!

So those who are looking forward to a vibrant port in Onitsha should think of a “water plan”. The dams built across the rivers Niger and Benue, and their tributaries, over the years have reduced the overall water volume of the lower Niger by nearly 58%. There are now tiny islands, and unprecedented siltation, at the Onitsha end of the river. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources, under Chief Audu Ogbe, is serious about irrigation and dry season agriculture. The long stretch of the Niger across Kebbi State, itself a veritable food basket unknown to many, takes more that its fair share of the needed water; and plans to take more as the new plans on rice gain some steam. So, the first real enemies of Onitsha River Port are not necessarily the a Federal Government that deliberately wants to cripple the project, or some Igbo elite who have allegedly been settled to scuttle the fortunes and economic prospects of the South East.

The Ministry of Environment should pay more attention to the activities of the agriculture ministry, bearing in mind the current global response to the devastating impact of dams on people and the environment within the past 60 years. Dams have altered ecosystems, ruined food chains and obliterated local economies for hundreds of thousands of kilometres of waterways all over the world. The confluence of some cold rivers with warmer ones have been permanently altered worlwide, while some flowing waters have been made to stagnate and create saturated water that wiped out fresh water aquatic life. Some rivers are now fragments of their former selves and others have dried up completely, as can be seen when you drive from Enugu, through Anyigba, to Abuja.

It is on record, for instance, that massive fish populations were killed on the Snake River, Idaho, in the US by dam construction; leading to the decimation of salmon species, among others. An Idaho State Senator, Frank Church, who originally supported dam building later rose in defense of natural waterways and spoke against dams. It was the same Frank Church who, after he saw the damage to the environment, eventually wrote the Wild and Scientific Rivers Act, passed in 1968. Yes, we know about the Suez Canal and its economic value, but the general global concern today about the fate of streams, rivers and other natural waterways comes from the realization that ecosystems are going under and that the unsustainable violation of natural habitats by damming has a negative impact on the global food web and even the climate.

Available global evidence shows that one of the main reasons freshwater fish numbers have declined all over the world, leading to a loss of 80% of fresh water wild life since 1970, is the damming of rivers. Let us recall the verdict of the World Commission on Dams, in 2000: that dams had displaced between 40 – 80 million people, making it the single human activity with the greatest capacity to create Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Even in the US, the initial excitement that greeted the epidemic of dam building in the 1940s and 1950s was followed by fierce and bitter battles between environmentalists and dam builders. The issue at the time was that dams blocked and impounded the waters of some of the most important rivers of the American west.

As I write, over 22,000 kilometers of free-flowing rivers in the US are protected by Frank Church`s Act. Are our waterways so protected? What is the fate of communities displaced by dams all over Nigeria today? How much inland waterways do we still have under the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA)? What does NIWA really do today? How many people still take a ride on sections of the River Benue that were once used for water transportation? Who drank up the water and created empty water channels and dry rivers with massive bridges between Lokoja and Anyigba, and all over Nigeria? I am certainly not the one!

So, while we are warming up to build a port in Onitsha, we should remember that our country is also threatening to scale up on the building of dams across waterways that discharge into the Niger trough. Let us also not forget that we are doing this at a time the US is upfront in a campaign to “decommission” many dams. Recorded successes in this regard, with measurable positive environmental impact, include removal of the dam on the Elwha river in Washington State. One year after the last dam was removed in 2014, the Chinook species of fish, which had not been seen there for more than 100 years reappeared. More than 4,000 Chinook spawners were counted above the former dam site. It is also in the US that people are taking proactive steps to reclaim their lives, by removing dams that interfered with their ecosystems and way of life. The Mohawks, in New York State, recently removed the Hogansburg dam on the St. Regis River, thus becoming the first US sub social group to remove a federal dam. This action of the Mohawks opened up nearly 700 kilometres of stream, liberated the natural habitat of migratory fish and restored many local economies.

After the last dam was removed from the River Elwha, for instance, river fish populations flourished. In a world where Brazil’s environmental agency has suspended the licensing process for the Sao Luiz Tapajos dam, the second largest hydroelectric dam in the country, we have no official attitude on dams.
In a world where the World Bank recently suspended financial support for the Inga 3 dam on the River Congo, and where Chile`s largest power generator, Endesa, stopped six hydropower projects, we have no position on dams. Even the Chinese have stopped their plans to construct a series of dams across the country`s last free-flowing rivers, the Nujiang. The Peruvian authorities also suspended the construction of several dams across the Marañón River at about the same time that Geute Conservation Sur, an organization dedicated to the defense of ecosystems with high conservation value, is providing legal analysis to develop a new law for river protection in Chile.

The concern about water and free waterways is such that the world is focusing on transboundary cooperation between nations for conscious and deliberate management of the ecosystem and water volume throughout the length of major rivers. Are we doing the same in our country? The conflict between China and Thailand over development on the Lancang/Mekong River says a lot about what is going on all over the world in connection with waterways today. To think that the government of New Zealand has gone so far as to “recognize” the Whanganui river by giving it the same constitutional rights as a person? This was done as a way of showing that free-flowing rivers have great impact on food security, water access, biodiversity conservation and propagation of the overall global ecology.

To return to the matter at hand, all issues pertaining to the Onitsha River port can be discussed on the platform of plain and verifiable science. It is a desirable project, but its feasibility and advisability should be confirmed. That is the only way to avoid a White Elephant Project that would be counted as a major investment in the South East.