Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dredging the River Niger

AFTER 45 years, the Federal Government the other day in Abuja finally signed a N46 billion contract and consultancy agreement for the dredging of the lower River Niger covering 572 kilometres from Warri in Delta State to Baro in Niger State. The project, which was awarded to four contractors in five Lots, would involve capital dredging for a year and maintenance dredging for two years.

Former Minister for Transportation, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, who signed on behalf of the Federal Government, recalled that the project was conceived in 1963 and regretted that ever since, it has been on the drawing board. According to her, "President Umaru Yar'Adua has directed its speedy conclusion and take-off to underscore the importance the administration attaches to infrastructure development".

The River Niger is an important geographical feature in the country. In terms of importance, it is ranked with such geographical landmarks as the Nile in Egypt, the River Congo and the River Mississippi in the United States, among others. Dredging the River Niger would undoubtedly help to reduce the pressure on Nigeria's dilapidated roads occasioned by heavy vehicular cargo haulage. Water transportation provides a sustainable and cheaper mode of transportation, which is currently lacking in the country.

During the 1960s, the River Niger provided a viable route of transportation between the North and the South with inter-modal connection to the railways. Passengers and agricultural produce were ferried by boat along the Niger. Prior to the opening of the Niger Bridge at Onitsha in the 60s, movement between the East and the West in this axis was by boat across the River Niger. In the absence of a rail link, Onitsha, then the biggest market in West Africa owed its importance to the River Niger. But all these are now history. Economic mismanagement over the years has led to the abandonment of the country's infrastructure and natural resources. The River Niger was not spared. With time, its importance diminished owing to neglect. While the roads depreciated and the railway system collapsed, water transportation went into extinction. Dredging the River Niger would revitalise economic activities along the river. As the channel is expanded both in width and depth, water hitherto held up in silt and sandbars would be released thereby increasing the water volume. Fishing activities would be enhanced and the riparian communities stand to benefit from this.

While the foregoing represents some of the positive fallouts of the project, it is important to draw the attention of the federal government and the contractors to certain issues. The project being envisaged is complex. This demands that proper procedures should be followed in executing it. For instance, there should be due diligence in conducting proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to ascertain the likely adverse effects of the project.

Any perceived adverse effects should be taken care of in the proposal. A mitigation plan should form part of the proposal. The communities in the affected areas should also be carried along for success to be achieved. We assume that the contractors have the capacity to execute such large-scale project. What is their track record? Have all possibly knotty issues been ironed out to ensure that nothing hinders the smooth execution of the project?

Messrs Fung Tai (Nig) Limited won Lot One of the contract from Warri to the Bifurcation of Forcados and River Nun, while the Royal Hoskoning was awarded the consultancy services. Dredging International Limited won the Lot Two from the Bifurcation of Forcados and River Nun to Onitsha, while Jayuda International Limited got the consultancy. Messrs Van Oord Nigeria Limited was awarded two Lots in the contract, among others. The Federal government, reportedly, would pay the contractors about N5 billion, representing 15 per cent of the total sum as advance payment for mobilization. In the same vein, the consultants would be paid N192 million (15 per cent) for the same purpose. Nigeria has a chequered history of embarking on white elephant projects that are abandoned halfway after huge mobilisation fees might have been paid to contractors. This should not be the case with the River Niger project. With dwindling economic fortunes, the country can't afford to lose its scarce resources to abandoned projects.

Reviving the country's transportation infrastructure should be a far more comprehensive exercise. There should be an integrated river, roads and railway system development plan for this purpose. This is the only way to develop a modern multi-modal transportation system in the country. The Niger dredging project should form part of the overall development of the transportation sector.