Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dredging River Niger

THE signing of a N46 billion contract with five companies to dredge the lower parts the River Niger, from Warri in Delta State to Baro in Niger State, could mark the beginning of unprecedented economic activities in those areas. Heart-warming as the development may be, the neglect of the 572 kilometres of the nation’s most important water way is typical of the way we are.

The project conceived 46 years ago, was meant to develop the nation’s water transport infrastructure. Its non-execution left many places that ought to be resonating with economic activities in their rustic state.

Ports in towns like Warri, Koko, Burutu and various inland settlements suffered from the delay in dredging the Niger , which again has been mired in some controversies about the possible environmental impact. There are suggestions that dredging the Niger could enhance flooding that could wipe out some settlements.

A town like Baro should have been a major transport hub, being a rail terminus, if it benefits from working rail and water transportation.

Now that the Federal Government has announced payments to the contractors, totalling more than N5 billion, it should pursue this project with seriousness to ensure its conclusion within the one-year schedule.

Government has a penchant for making announcements without proper plans to tackle the issues concerned. What are the timelines for this project? How would government guarantee payment schedule? Have the fears of the settlements on the path of the Niger been addressed? Are there penalties in the contract to guarantee performance and ensure that government does not lose money on this project?

How would the ineffective budgeting system affect this project? We expect the Transportation Minister to ensure there are no more grey areas regarding this contract so that the river could be dredged on schedule.

Another area of concern is relevance of the project to today’s needs. When this project was conceived almost 50 years ago, the needs were different and Baro, for example, was a major railway terminus. The rails no longer exist in a manner that would make Baro a great beneficiary of this project.

The ports in Lagos are congested, with containers block-stacked to the skies. Were the River Niger navigable for bigger vessels, cargo ships for other parts of the country could use the waterway to access inland ports.

This, in addition, would save the roads from the weights that they bear of the goods from the coastal ports, especially Lagos.

Water transportation is important and its development could draw many parts of the country to the economy. If this is done along with the rails, transportation would be easier and the economy would benefit from these investments.

Piecemeal projects like the dredging of the Niger cannot solve transportation problems because other components of the solution are missing.