Bassey: To reduce flooding without distorting nature, dredging must be done with expert guidance


President, Nigerian Environmental Society (NES), Dr. Dorothy Bassey, in this interview with OMIKO AWA, highlights the connection between human activities on land, such as dredging, and flooding. She advises government on the need to consult professionals before embarking on the planned dredging of River Niger as a means of reducing flooding in states along the riverbank to forestall untoward implications.

Some commentators have suggested that the dredging of River Niger will alleviate the periodic flooding of communities around its bank during rainy seasons, just as it would boost agriculture and other economic activities. What are your thoughts?
Who says dredging will alleviate flooding challenges? What I am sure of is that when you dredge, you distort nature and there will be some consequences. In dredging any river like the River Niger, which is right in the middle of the country, you have to consider the effect before embarking on such a project. And you must not do it beyond the expected level. The dredging must not be too inward, so as to prevent the water from finding its way back, which is what is happening to us now.

If for any reason, there is any negative impact ab initio, then we will begin to ask questions such as: ‘what have we done wrong? We shall then be left with how to manage the challenges identified. In our case, we are leaving the challenges to deteriorate. Most times, while we are trying to solve a problem, we end up creating a bigger one.

I am not saying dredging cannot be done; it depends on the type and level of dredging. There are some that may not necessarily be as impactful to make way for inland waterways and transportation. What we are saying is that we need to look at the effects of dredging activities, and do the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to avoid flooding and other problems. When you have a proper impact assessment, you can now plan and ensure that you put in place checks that will not negate the intent of that activity because a lot of things, including the biodiversity will be dislodged.

With the way nature arranged it, no human being can put it back to its original state once it is distorted. There is a reason for having different species within the ecosystem with one supporting the other. So, when man is dredging the sea or river, we should ask ourselves at what cost will this dredging be, first, to the water quality and the biodiversity around there? Also, at what cost will it be to the people because sometimes there is a displacement with reference to the antecedence of where similar a thing has been done before. It is true that we want more economic activities, but with the dredging, we shall be losing things we may not be able to replace; things like the mangrove, which is quite unique.

The River Niger, with its length from Jebba to the Niger Delta, is quite unique because of its positioning. If given deep sea dredging, there will be some disturbances along that course. This will adversely affect the people living there, apart from disturbing the economic activities. I am speaking as an environmentalist; an economist will speak differently, so would urban planners and other related professionals.

The whole idea of interconnection is to ensure that all stakeholders come together and see how they could ameliorate the negative aspect of dredging. Where we are not able to replace, or enhance the biodiversity, it would be better to leave the environment alone. It is better we leave nature as it is because in countries where a lot of this has been done for development, they spend huge sums of money to address the negative impact that constitutes fallouts.

Flooding will come when you do not plan your city. It is just like having a house without a toilet; what do you expect the inhabitants to do? So, it is absolutely the same thing. One thing about dredging is that you do not see the effect immediately; in fact, the negative result might start coming when the generation that carried out the dredging might all be gone. Yes, it will open up more waterways; encourage economic activities; boost farming and animal husbandry, among others. But at the end of the day, the big question will be, ‘would you still have your environment? No, you may not!

What then is the best way to check flooding in the various communities in Kebbi, Delta and other states at its banks?
First, there must be right urban planning in place; we do not have these sciences for the sake of having them. When you have proper urban planning, you must also have a drainage system that must be cleared regularly. The drainage must be constructed at certain locations and angles to be able to channel water to where it is supposed to go. In Lagos State where drainage system exists, the silt are cleared and put on the roadside and next rainfall returns the debris to the canal. This happens year-in, year-out and we have not been able to stop the problem. Are we saying we cannot retrace our steps in areas where we have gone wrong?

Besides, the flooding occurring in these areas is partly because of the low-scale dredging activities going on in the various places at the banks of the river. If you take out the sand underneath the river, the hydrologist will tell you that underneath water will go to where it is not supposed to go to, and as such, that area will be leaking and there will be erosion, especially if they are low-lying areas. This is happening because water is being displaced. Most part of the River Niger’s bank is not laid to enable water from the river to be channeled away from the areas where people live. So, when you dredge extensively, especially along a long length of a river like the River Niger, flooding will be one of the consequences. Unfortunately, it is not enough to dredge and walk away, we should be worried of what happens thereafter. We are suffering flooding more in some parts of the country because people did not look out at that aspect of dredging activities that should be properly checked.

In countries like The Netherlands, Singapore, Bangladesh and others where dredging has taken place massively, they laid the bank to prevent erosion and flooding inland. Are we doing that? Locally, in Lagos, for example, you need to secure the coastal areas and have some embankments so that water does not get inland again. If you are in a low-lying areas, which means the water level, or river level is a little bit higher than the land, then professionals in environment and earth issues have to be invited to discuss the implications of the things to do to avert flooding and other dangers after dredging.

Often times, an industry may want to do something in the sea or river and the urban planners, state governments, hydrologists, environmentalists and other concerned bodies would not be there to give their contributions on how to handle the project. This is one of the reasons we keep having flooding in some parts of the country. The professionals need to look at the scope of work to be carried out and ensure that steps are taken to monitor what the industry is doing or seems to be doing or must have done. We must stop adopting firefighting approaches, especially after the flooding. To prevent flooding, we need to do some brainwork to identify the issues, find out what are involved and how to solve them, and also to identify the areas to attack first and how to begin.

However, despite all the challenges, we can still dredge the River Niger and get along with development with very minimal negative impact on the environment if we follow the right course. After all, flooding is as a result of an impact; impact is as a result of the fact that we want to develop, expand and open up new areas; so, in opening up these areas, certain studies must be carried out. These are must-dos, if not we shall all suffer the consequences. We are discussing flooding now because rainfall level is increasing as a result of climate change. But we should begin to pay more attention to the way we interact with nature.

River Niger is said to have accumulated a lot of silt, leading to flooding in communities along its bank during rainy season. Would dredging not be a solution?
If we must dredge, we must be able to care for the sand coming out from the river and this should be done in a systematic way. Once nature is distorted, there will be consequences. To avoid this, mitigation steps have to be put in place from day one. However, we are bound to have flooding, which might not be at the exact location where dredging is taking place. It may be in latter places because nature is a continuum; there are no barriers.

A point to note is that if we plan the city following the topography of the area, we will be working along with nature, which will reduce flooding. We should not destroy nature to build, but rather adapt; we should ensure that whatever we are doing in terms of urban planning aligns with what already exists. But if we do the reverse, cut down trees, burn forests, do deep sea dredging and other things against nature, we shall be having the result being experienced today.

I implore the various state governments to begin to carry out some monitoring activities to know the impact of the various human activities that have brought flooding in the areas and to address them. There are some corrections to be made. They could be expensive, but the more we keep on ignoring them, the more damage they will continue to cause the environment, farmlands, farm produce and the people as a whole. Nature does not talk, but there is a carrying capacity above which it will find its way back to its former position. The farmers and people that call the area their traditional homes should understand that their activities including, digging, bush burning, dredging, tree felling and others are somehow interconnected, especially as climate change is here with us, and has begun to have its impact on us. You can even see that temperature these days is sometimes very high. We also have heavy rainfall with seas and rivers overflowing their banks.

What are the effects of climate change on dredging?
With this, it means that we need to begin to slow down development in terms of dredging and opening up new areas. Most times, dredging is about movement, and if we must do it, let it be done in phases because the river has a carrying capacity and if you have been doing it for a few years without putting some checks and balances in place, you will get some negative results. Although, mitigation is there to repair what that has been damaged, but again we have to look at the cost implication in terms of relocation of people, resources, funding and others.

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