Hitherto, Imo people have been inundated by arguments on the urgency of dredging the Nworie River and why the project could not be delayed. Arguments proffered have ranged from abatement of pollution by medical waste, to security and inland freshwater transportation etc. But are these worth the whopping sum of N8billion allegedly spent to dredge a stream of less than 15km length in the face of other pressing priorities? Also, now that the controversy generated seems to have gone down can business as usual in government continue?
Telling lies such as those of recovering dead bodies from the sites is not necessary as insecurity to life is never solved by dredging of Rivers. Gladly, the Imo State police command denied such claim as no report was ever brought to it about that. On the other hand, no journalist is yet to come up with a photograph on such gory scene.
It is also germane to point out that the Nworie River is incapable of serving as an inland transport medium as being suggested by those forcing the dredging contract down our throats as the extent of the coverage is so small. How far can such transportation go without an enormous investment in rebuilding the road blockings on Assumpta Avenue and Egbeada Road?
Discussing the controversial dredging of the Nworie River at a time of economic recession and peril of both the government and citizens is germane. First, the Nworie River provides a strategic ecological service to the city of Owerri vis-à-vis its role as a major hydrological catchment for both flood and storm waters emanating from rainfalls across the adjoining uplands or hills that serve as its catchment areas. Its valley location makes its ability to perform this task seem effortless as all generated runoffs from paved roads and concreted buildings find their way into it. A similar task is perfomed by the Iyi echu stream in Okigwe town, and many other Rivers and Streams everywhere.
This hydrological function has a lot of benefits, one of which, as already mentioned is flood control. But then, there is also the benefit of sediment transport and hydrological stabilization which though very gradual and minimal, enables the Otammiri River and its surrounding landscapes to recover from the anthropologic effects of sand mining that is currently ravaging it. This natural process provides a natural balance to the entire ecosystem both terrestrial and the freshwater.
In this regards, one may need to ask why erosion and landslide have remained a major problem around the point the Nworie River joins the Otammiri River that is around Nekede? The simple answer is that the surrounding landscapes, having been deprived of the stabilization effects of incoming sediments, exerts a balancing pressure on surrounding landscapes , the result being the massive erosion and landslides we have in that area today. This situation would have been worse without the Nworie River. Sediments from Nworie River support Otammiri River to build some level of resilience.
Secondly, beyond this role, the stream has an intrinsic value which also serves as a primary role and this is the life and habitation it provides to biodiversity. Biodiversity in simple terms means the plants (flora) and animals (fauna) varying from the very microscopic to the very large inhabiting the waters of this small River. As a source of life, water bodies naturally provide this ecological service in support of mother earth. Hydrology is a key determinant of specie distribution, wetland productivity and nutrient cycling and availability.
Globally, when environmentalists oppose river dredging, it is often premised on reasons such as those cited above. This makes River dredging a very controversial issue anywhere it is planned and raises the necessity for an Environmental Impacts Assessment (EIA). Such an EIA enables all stakeholders to appraise all their options including mitigation. For a coastal delta environment such as the Niger Delta this could become a life and death issue as is currently the case with the recently commissioned dredging in the Niger Delta.
I am keen to see and read the EIA for the Nworie River dredging or was there none? I will be most surprised if there was none. If there actually was one, then I am keen to know the level of participation of stakeholders and what their inputs were. Stakeholders in this instance include the Nekede community, the fisher men, the sand dredgers, the NGOs, land owners and farmers within the banks of the Rivers etc.
I need to point out that dredging at whatever scale causes serious environmental damage as it significantly degrades water quality and can harms fisheries. During dredging, sediment, soil, and vegetation along the way are removed and deposited as dredge spoils. Toxic substances attached to sediment particles can enter aquatic food chains, cause fish toxicity and mortality and make the water unfit for drinking. Research has proven that waste material from dredging when dumped on the river banks disrupts the environment.
Often, these wastes are acidic and if it leaches into the water, pose as a further source of contamination. While oil companies are responsible for significant dredging activities in the Niger Delta, dredging of rivers is also done by other local businesses and government, such as the Nworie River by the Imo State Government. There have been reports of human induced saline contamination at Isaka near Port Harcourt where the dredging of the Port Harcourt harbour admitted saline water into the aquifer in the area.
Canalization particularly short-cut canals have often resulted in intrusion of saline waters into fresh water swamps and groundwater. Similarly, dredging activities of Chevron Nigeria Limited allegedly resulted in salt water intrusion into an otherwise freshwater swamp forest, leading to the complete destruction of vast areas of land (over 20 km2) in the Opuekeba area of Tsekelewu, Rivers State.
Therefore, I doubt the wisdom of the Imo State Government in dredging the Nworie River. I am of the opinion that what was actually needed was tougher environmental regulation around the River in order to protect its catchment. This would have included regulated sand mining in the Otammiri River; absolute stopping of medical and sanitary waste discharge into the River and the setting up of a watershed management for both the Otammiri and Nworie Rivers.
Watershed management in this case as is practiced in Sweden and other developed countries would have seen to the planting of trees along and within at least 100 meter periphery of the Rivers as well as restricting residential buildings within this periphery especially residential buildings with on-site sanitation systems including septic pits or tanks. Without these strategies in place the dredging would end up a futility.
I am also of the opinion that the weeds on the Nworie River and the accompanying silts would have been removed manually. By so doing the state government would not have spent as much as it has done and Imo people, particularly those to be engaged in the work would have tremendously benefited; instead of paying such a colossal amount to an alien or offshore contractor who has little or no stake in the state.