Onitsha Port and Other Matters

By Okey Ikechukwu

The conversation about an Inland Port facility in Onitsha, Anambra State is not New. And it came up last week at a private gathering. Many will recall that the ‘port’ was formally commissioned by late Dr Alex Ekwueme, Vice President to late Alhaji Shehu Shagari. It never really functioned in real terms. It is still the pet dream of many and all issues pertaining to it are presumably being discussed on the platforms feasibility, economic common sense and basic marine science and knowledge of regional ecology.of plain and verifiable aquascience.

We submit here that the project is a desirable one. It is also feasible from the angle of provision of port infrastructure. It has, in addition, been routinely declared desirable from the standpoint of those who are quick to point to the volume of container traffic from Lagos to Onitsha and other parts of the South East. But isn’t it possible that this is already beginning to look like a White Elephant Project that would be counted as a major investment in the South East, if successfully executed? Just asking.

What needs to be re-evaluated, perhaps, fully is its feasibility from the angle of security of goods and route; as well as its viability from the angle of the simple required maritime ecosystem. For some people, the mere 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 potential makes it an eternally important economic infrastructure.

Papers have been written on it over the years, with Environmental impact assessments (EIAs), cross references with nations that had to devise means of raising water levels when needed; and a near-consensus among experts on the economic benefits.  

One of the major overlooked, and largely unacknowledged, problem is the probability of not ever really getting enough water for the primary business of a port. You need water for a river port and the Onitsha end of the river Niger does not have enough. Dredging is a good idea, but it will give you a bigger ditch and wipe out the means of livelihood of water dependent local economies.

The confirmed practice elsewhere, of “gating” and later discharging the water to secure enough depth, is usually on the cards whenever this matter is on the table. All things considered, the challenges that come to mind regarding the proposed Onitsha River Port are: (1) How the river dams along the Niger, Benue and their many tributaries have reduced available water at onitsha by over 68%; (2) Possibly unrealistic projections about the prospects of the project; (3) The credibility of some of the existing Environmental Impact Assessment (AIE) reports, especially against the background of climate change and other environmental factors; (4) Direct politicization of the economic value of a river port in Onitsha, as against Port Harcourt and Calabar.

We must also consider the following; (1) the game plans of individuals who wish to upgrade their relevance by fighting to 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, also; (2) The questionable security along the inland waterways, especially with active militants, Egbesu Boys, and freelance oil bunkerers, creek-dependent mischief makers and others. Will the vessels really make their way through the creeks, while vehicles on our roads in broad daylight and even trains are unsafe?

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. There are now tiny islands, and unprecedented siltation, at the Onitsha end of the river. While the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources is serious about irrigation and dry season agriculture, it must remember that 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.

We may digress a bit here, to urge the Ministry of Environment to work more closely with the Agriculture ministry and the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), because of the current global response to the devastating impact of dams on people and the environment within the past 60 years. It is a fact of our collective experience, across all continents, that 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 worldwide, 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.

No one can deny historic significance of the Suez Canal and its economic value to this day, but the general global concern today about the fate of streams, rivers and other natural waterways comes from the realization that long-term damage is being done to ecosystems, following the unsustainable violation of natural habitats by damming. The negative impacts on the global food web and even the climate are staring us in the face everywhere.

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.

It was already established, years back, that over 22,000 kilometers of free-flowing rivers in the US are protected by Frank Church`s Act.

But our waterways are available for all comers. The fate of communities displaced by dams all over Nigeria today is rarely a topical issue. 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!

Let those who, threatening to build a river port in Onitsha remember that there is also a scaling up of plans to build more dams across waterways that discharge into the Niger trough. Let them also not forget that this is happening years after the US came upfront on 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.

In sum, and bringing the matter back home, let us think of think feasibility, viability and advisability of the port; as we think of dams, the environment, the disappearance of river-dependent local economies and the collapse or conspicuous shrinking of fish markets in various parts of the country.

Related Articles