Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Owerri: Sinking billions into the Nworie stream

AS far as I know, apart from a private academic study by researchers at the Imo State University's Department of Animal and Environmental Biology, which in 2007 recommended among other things the dredging of the Nworie stream because of its direct use as source of domestic water supply to residents of Owerri Municipality, there is no other basis for sinking N8 billion into the mud as the Ohakim administration is currently implementing vigorously in the name of dredging the stream. The truth is that the project is of no economic value to the people of Imo State.

If the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) had requested the State Government to identify projects that could be implemented in the state, in terms of priority, the dredging of Nworie stream would certainly be at the bottom. Rational resource utilisation demands that resources should be developed and managed in such a manner that they serve the interest of the larger segment of the society. This is the guiding principle. Imo people need basic amenities - good roads, standard classrooms, potable water, and primary healthcare facilities, among others. Above all, Owerri municipality has no potable water supply. That is why the residents resort to direct use of the Nworie stream. Why didn't Governor Ohakim embark on a massive urban water supply in Owerri, which would benefit the people?

Imo State is landlocked and Owerri is not a seaport. The Nworie stream is not a channel for merchant ships that bring cargo from the sea and in turn take goods for export. If any water body were to be improved in the state, it is the Oguta Lake and not the Nworie. The whole project is suspicious.

Worldwide, dredging is done to create waterway or new harbour for ships to berth. The Nworie dredging doesn't meet any of the many uses of dredging. If the purpose is anti-eutrophication, certainly, that option is most expensive for eutrophication remediation.

In the absence of any immediate useful economic purpose, dredging the Nworie stream at this critical time of economic meltdown and sinking a large chunk of the state's meagre resources into a project that doesn't give direct benefit to the people is misplaced priority. The implementers of the project should ask themselves whether it is sustainable? Has it been integrated into the overall Owerri urban plan such that future governments would sustain it and not abandoning it?

On the other hand, is this not a one-off event that ends with the present Ohakim administration without any plan for sustainability? Looking at the general backwardness of Imo State in terms of industrial and infrastructural development, there is no doubt that the Nworie dredging is a politically motivated white elephant project designed to rip off the state. The money being expended is a waste.

After dredging Nworie, what purpose would it serve? Those talking about using the stream to promote tourism are parochial and insincere. There is nothing to talk about tourism on Nworie. The stream is only about five kilometers across Owerri. There is nothing aesthetic over this distance that would attract tourists. Let us be sincere to ourselves.

I have lived and worked in Nairobi, Kenya, a country where tourism is the second highest foreign exchange earner after agriculture. The Nairobi River traverses the city. Notwithstanding all the manipulations and farming technology applied along its banks, the river is not mentioned among the tourist attractions in Kenya. The Nairobi River is highly polluted from industrial effluent discharge.

In the case of the Nworie stream, the odds are numerous. There are no photo safaris, parks, game reserves, or renowned scenery within the catchment's area to attract tourists. I also have experience from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where rivers and network of canals are constantly maintained and managed to serve as tourist attraction. The rivers and canals in Amsterdam are sparkling clean. On the banks of the watercourses are shops, hotels, recreation parks, clubs, etc that attract millions of tourists annually. Besides, there are beautifully designed cruise boats sailing on the canals. The boats ferry tourists from one part of the city to the other to behold the beauty of the town.

All these features are lacking on the Nworie stream. Here you have a stream channel that was for decades turned into a dumpsite for urban garbage. Also, the Nworie is eutrophic and dead from domestic effluents and farm nutrients washed from the adjoining farms. This is evidenced by water quality studies of the stream, which indicated low dissolved oxygen and high concentrations of carbon dioxide. The level of these parameters far exceeded accepted international water quality standards.

Since the main source of pollution of the stream is domestic and farm nutrient inflow, what plan is there to curtail these pollution sources after dredging? Except that is done, the effort would be wasted. It is not surprising that there is no industrial pollution because there are no industries in Owerri.

The researchers strongly warned against dredging that would involve merely raking up garbage and other pollutants that settled at the bottom of the stream to avoid increasing the chances for the outbreak of water-borne diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, cholera and intestinal parasitic diseases. Was this taken into consideration?

Again, there are different types of dredging. The type employed depends on the nature of the water body and the purpose. What type is employed on the Nworie stream? How is the waste being disposed? These issues ought to be taken into consideration because dredging could have severe environmental impacts.

For example, the dredging of Nworie would create disturbance in the aquatic ecosystem. There will be release of toxic chemicals, release of heavy metals from bottom sediments, increase in turbidity levels, contamination of sites where the dredge spoils are disposed. In all, if the dredging activity is not carefully handled, it may lead to adverse environmental and social impacts. Was a proper environmental impact assessment carried out to determine the spin-off of the project?

The researchers who recommended the dredging of the Nworie also recommended the re-construction of any bridge that impedes the free flow of the stream. What has been done in that regard? Has the state government identified the bridges? Is the reconstruction of the bridges part of the dredging project? If the stream channel has been blocked at some points along its course, what is the essence of dredging without first opening up the channel? Why put the cart before the horse?

Anyone standing on the Nworie Bridge by Holy Ghost College and Assumpta Cathedral off Orlu Road Junction would see brownish clogged water body with putrefying vegetative matter on both sides of the bridge. The Nworie is not flowing at this point. The reason is that underneath the bridge are clogged millions of cubit meters of garbage. Consequently, no amount of dredging would make any meaning except those bridges are reconstructed and opened up free flow of water.

If the State Government is sincerely desirous of dredging Nworie to serve any useful purpose, there should be a comprehensive plan to not only dredge the stream but also to rehabilitate the entire stream watershed from its source a few kilometers north of Owerri to where it joins the Otamiri River near Nekede. That would also include ensuring that wastes and domestic garbage don't find their way back into the stream after rehabilitation. Arguably, this has not been taken into consideration and can't be achieved at this time.

As far as I am concerned, the only plausible reason why the state administration may consider dredging Nworie is to provide municipal water to Owerri. But this is not the aim of Governor Ohakim. It is ironic that over the decades, Owerri town has remained one of the driest cities in the country and yet a freshwater stream traverses it. Successive state administrations have not thought it wise to exploit the Nworie stream to the advantage of the city. In other climes, the presence of such a stream would have served as the main source of water supply to the city.

Hydrologically, the Nworie stream is insignificant in Imo State. A hydrological map of the state would hardly show this water body. That explains the degree of its unimportance. The stream is mentioned simply because it traverses Owerri Municipality. It is not more important than the Oramiriukwa, Otamiri, Mba and Okitankwo. These streams form the major hydrological network of Imo State. There is also the Oguta Lake with its scenic beauty and tourism potential.

Considering the low revenue profile of the country, no sensitive state government is considering dredging any river anywhere in the country, not even the important rivers that have link to the sea. Talks of dredging the River Niger have lingered since 1963 until a few months ago when the Federal Government awarded the contract as part of measures to assuage the Niger Delta region.

Why then did the Ohakim administration decide to dredge a small stream (a pond) that is of no economic importance to the state? I suggest that in the interest of accountability and transparency and good governance, this project should be discontinued and the funds channeled to other critical areas of need begging for attention in the state.