Sunday, 15 March 2015

Shrinking River Benue

Innocent Mdewuan waddled through the shallow depths of the River Benue as the clear water lapped softly against the sandy shore. Flowing quietly in an east-west course, it was easy for the young farmer to cross it on foot. It was end of February, but already, a vast stretch of the shoreline was filled with sand, an indication that the second widest and longest river in Nigeria is being silted.
Sunday Trust investigation has revealed that the silting up of the river is denying fishermen and farmers of their livelihood. A lot of communities live on the Benue Riverbanks and eke their living directly or indirectly from it. The river, which takes its source from the Adamawa Plateau, about 52 kilometres south of Garoua, a major town in northern Cameroon, is the longest tributary of the River Niger, covering 1402kilometres with both pristine and migrant communities habituating its banks, fishing and farming at both commercial and subsistence level.

Between Yola and Makurdi, the Benue River is joined by River Gongola at Numan, Adamawa state; two other main tributaries in Taraba, Rivers Donga and Tella; and River Katsina-Ala in Benue state, before converging with River Niger at Lokoja in Kogi state.

Mdewuan, who lives in Pass Brother, a riverbank village 20 kilometres from Makurdi the Benue State capital, said the silting up of the river has made dry season farming a very difficult task.

The 200 level Mass Communication student of the Benue State University said he sponsors himself from the proceeds he gets from cultivating vegetables-okro and pumpkin (uwgu) and tobacco on the river bank but lamented that the shrinking of the river is threatening his source of income.

“The shrinking of the River Benue is hampering our dry season irrigation farming. It is affecting us in different ways. First, by March it becomes difficult for us to get water to irrigate our vegetables and tobacco farms. The river dries to the level that the distance from the alluvial plains where we plant the crops and the body of water becomes so far that buying hoses to draw the water becomes too expensive and beyond what we can afford.

“Secondly, our farmlands on the hitherto fertile plains have been covered by sand. This development means that the alluvial plains have been shorn of their fertility and water retention capacity, thereby affecting yields at the end of the harvest,” he said.

According to Mdewuan, the silting of the river has also contributed to the devastating floods which have ravaged riverine communities in recent times, adding that the former river port community, sandwiched between the river and the Makurdi-Gboko highway, experienced its worst flooding in 2012.
“We also used to bathe in the river during the dry season but that is not the case now. We fetch water from the well and bathe at home,” he said, adding that the river seems to have changed its course as it flows farther ashore now than it used to some years back.

One of the oldest men and community leader in Pass Brother, 92 year-old Baba ZeverBoikyaa, said when he settled at the riverbank village in the early 1960s, the river was deep and wide. “At the height of rainy season in the 60s up to the 80s, we used to have River Benue just at our backyard. Then you could take a calabash, turn at the back of your houseand fetch the river water to drink but the river has now receded so much that I wonder if it is still the same River Benue,” the old man said.
He said the high volume of water then used to attract animals like buffaloes, which they always looked forward to seeing every August-September.

Baba Boikyaa also said when the government was constructing Benue Cement Company (BCC) in the early 1980s, the equipment were ferried from Lagos straight to the port at the village.
“Most of the people who have settled here came to work at the river port and when the port closed in the late 80s they decided to go into full time farming. I have heard severally that the government wants to dredge the river and open up the port but that has so far remained a rumour. How I wish that could be true. We have lost almost all our farmlands on the plains but if the river is dredged, there is a possibility we may recover our land,” he said.
The Nonagenarian, whose gait and mental strength betrays his age, said unlike in those days when the upper course of the river hurls in its tide alluvial soil sediments on the riverbanks, which was fertile for dry season crop cultivation, these days, only sandy deposits and muddy sludge drift ashore, covering fertile land and puttingtheir occupation at risk.

“The river has become so shallow that vessels don’t navigate it again. Even when the port was closed, from time to time you hear or see the maritime police speeding past in their speed boats. They used to patrol the waters at the peak of rainy season when the volume of water was usually high but that doesn’t happen again. I keep wondering if the maritime police still exist. They used to arrest people who use chemicals to kill fish, including fingerlings but since they no longer patrol the waters, greedy young men do as they wish,”Boikyaa said in his gruff Nonagenarian voice.

Our reporter noticed that the silting of the river has created two straits from Abua village to Pass Brother, all in Guma local government of Benue state, with a sandy island nestling in-between the north and south banks right in the middle of the river. At the heart of the island cows meowed, sheep bleated and slender, bare-shouldered Fulani women pounded millet in front of thatched tents. The island with tufts of green grasses and patches of luxuriant shrubs provides a seasonal abode for the nomadic Fulani, who have easy access to fresh water and grazing land around the Benue trough for their cattle.

At Abatse, which once served as the administrative headquarters of the colonial masters in the then Benue Province or Munchi Province as others would mockingly call it; fishermen are feeling the impact of the shrinking river negatively too.
AlhajiGarbaMakama, a 65- year-old fisherman said he was surprised at the level the river was drying up. “The river was wider and deeper but it appears to have become shallower and narrower in recent times. Even when there is high volume of water around August-September, the river doesn’t look awe-inspiring like it used to be in those years when we were growing up,” he said.

“It is like sand has silted the riverbed because those deep places where we used to cast nets and catch big fish have gradually become shallow. We no longer catch fish like we used to and I think the river shrinking has something to do with it. There were ponds that we fished in all year round but they have been covered by either sand or mud,” he added.
Makama who said he was born and brought up in the ancient, derelict fishing town decried the scarcity of fish in the Benue waters. “If not for the Boko Haram crisis in the North East, some of our fishermen used to go to fish in Lake Chad, especially at this time of the year. I have never done any other thing in my life apart from fishing but the drying up of the river is affecting my occupation and that of so many others because this is a fishing community,” Makama said, adding that he is too old to start looking for another occupation.
Abatse, or Abinsi as the Jukun-Hausa community would call it, was also a trading hub for the imperialist Royal Niger Company during the colonial era. The decrepit town of crumbling burnt bricks and rusted roof-houses sprawling from the riverbank to the Makurdi-Gboko road has a checkered history of violence.
The violence predates Nigeria’s independence and the struggle for supremacy or political relevance between the pristine farming community of the Tiv people and the Jukun fishing community has been found to spark off the series of crises that have left ugly and ineffaceable scars.
Makama said despite the town’s history being soaked in blood, it was bustling with commercial activities in the 1960s up to the 1980s.
He remembered with nostalgia how barges and ferries used to convey goods from Makurdi to Yola and then Yola to Makurdi. “Life was better then. A lot was happening here and we were getting more money. Sometimes we would travel in a group as far as Cameroon on fishing expeditions. But we cannot do that now because the waterways have been blocked by sand,” he said.
In the river at the back of the ancient town, children whirled around the softlyflowing water, flappingtheir tender arms on its surface and splashing some bubbles of it in their cheerful faces. Women bathed half naked a few metres away from the crossing point where some dugoutsand canoes were anchored, while others paddled from the north to the south bank, bringing fish sellers, vegetable sellers and Fulani girls and women selling Nono and Fura.
Also speaking with Sunday Trust, Mr Daniel Ishwa, a resident of Wurukum, Makurdi, who grew up swimming in the River Benue during hot season between February and April said the river has significantly lost its depth and width.
“I have lived here for over 20 years and I can tell you that both physical and ecological changes around the river are quite noticeable. As far as I can say, the changes are due to natural and man-made factors. For instance, for years the clay soil on the riverbanks was used for producing burnt bricks. If you look around most houses in Makurdi are built with the burnt bricks, so you can imagine the kind of impact that would have on the river. I think the excavation of the soil on the banks helped in eroding the cliffs, which particles then sedimented the riverbed and also covered the waterway,” he said.
He said it was fun swimming and playing in the river in the early 1990s even though there was that risk of a child getting drowned because the river still had depth then.
“We had fun swimming in the river. It was forbidden by our parents to go to the river but we would always sneak out and go because we didn’t want to miss the fun. Every hot season, when we used to spend hours swimming in the river, some unfortunate children would get drowned but that did not deter us from going there. I don’t think that happens now that the river has become so shallow,” Ishwa said.
He also said global warming which is having an overarching impact on the environment maybe the unseen hand behind the shrinking of the river.
Ishwa urged the government to stop paying lip service to the dredging of the river, as according to him, it will make the river navigable, thereby providing another means of transportation.
“Gbajimba, the headquarters of Guma local government is just across the river and therefore easier and quicker to access by water but because the river is not navigable, people going to Gbajimba from Makurdi go by road which is longer,” he said.

Sunday Trust gathered that the government of the day has told the media it has awarded the contract for the dredging of the river since 2014.  The media report quoted President Goodluck Jonathan as saying the sum of  N25 billion had been approved for the immediate dredging of River Benue in line with his administration’s deep seaport development programme.
Jonathan, who was represented at  the maiden edition of the International Conference and Exhibition (ICE) organised by the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) in Lagos by  the  Transport Minister, Senator Idris Umar, disclosedthat the dredging works would commence in few weeks, stressing that improving the transport sector was critical to the overall development of the nation’s economy.
“In order to further consolidate the transformation of the inland waterways sub-sector, the Federal Government has approved the dredging of River Benue while the process for the award of the contract for the construction of Makurdi River port is in progress.
“To stimulate economic growth through our inland waterways, my administration has put in place necessary machinery to dredge River Benue. Government has no doubt the vision, which informed huge investment made on the inland waterways sub-sector and will encourage private sector participation which will lead to a rewarding return on investment.
President Jonathan also said his administration has procured patrol boats to provide security within the inland waterways. He said government was vigorously pursuing the delivery of intra-coastal system to reduce pressure on the nation’s road transport network.

The Managing Director of NIWA, Hajia Maryam Ciroma, who spoke earlier was quoted as saying that the conference was meant to gather stakeholders and intellectuals in the inland waterways sub-sector across the world to brainstorm and provide roadmap for repositioning and improving activities on Nigeria inland waterways.
Research has shown that the mean discharge of the Benue River is approximately 2450 cubic metres per second, a level around 36 per cent lower than that of five decades ago.

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