Flood in Yenagoa: The consequences of historic neglect
Yenagoa the capital of Bayelsa State is an old town but a new city. When the state was created in 1996 the area that comprises the present metropolis was a rural backwater with a population of barely a few thousand people who were mostly natives of the small local villages. These are the same communities that now house well over three hundred thousand cosmopolitan inhabitants. To develop such an urban space in the terrain that exists there, and especially in such a short span of time is both costly and difficult, constraints, which should have occurred to the Federal authorities when they decided to create the state. When the development of new states is being considered, the fact that the Federal authorities must bear some responsibility for ensuring their economic and infrastructural viability is often overlooked.
This deficiency has been most noticeable in the states that are located in, or on the periphery of, the Niger Delta, from which territory the nation has extracted enormous wealth over the past six decades. Yenagoa is capital of the state in which oil was first produced in commercially viable quantities in Nigeria in 1957 and this fact alone should inspire the Federal Government to take an interest in the formal processes of development and infrastructural expansion of the metropolis. Sadly that has not been the case as the recurrent incidences, and destructive effects, of seasonal flooding have indicated. In fact, the replay of disastrous consequences arising from the arrival of the flood season raises important fundamental questions about what both the Federal authorities and the state governments have been doing to adapt their development objectives to the reality of environmental circumstance.
The combination of minimal political influence at the centre of the ethnic groups from the communities of the Niger Delta and the relative proportional disadvantage of their population when compared to the so-called majority ethnic groups has served to undermine what should have been the automatic, and extensive, socio-economic growth of the territory ever since Nigerian Independence. In recent years however this particular symptom of post-colonial failure has rattled the Nigerian polity and the founding of Bayelsa State is just one of many endeavours that have emerged from attempts to reverse the trend.
The fact that the state also produced Dr. Goodluck Jonathan the first elected President from the Southern Minority ethnic groups was another major milestone in this manifestation of Nigeria’s nation-building efforts. However, there are several other symptoms of the nation’s failure to acknowledge the national debt owed to the territory and its people. The continued delay in providing adequate protection against seasonal environmental disasters is one of the most persistent symptoms of the Federal Government’s abdication of its responsibility to assist states in environmentally challenged terrain to achieve effective environmental and infrastructural stability as the foundation of their economic viability. This is a fundamental obligation of the federal system of governance, especially as the central authorities have sequestered revenue earned from the exploitation of regionally domiciled mineral resources. However, it is germane that we should observe and acknowledge that the Federal government maintains a special ecological fund that is shared and distributed to the states according to certain official criteria. When issues of environmental management are being discussed each state should be held accountable for the disbursement of this fund for the appropriate purpose for which it is disbursed.
Perennial flooding is neither new nor unexpected in the riverside communities of the Niger Delta, and in traditional perception, neither is it always characterised as a disaster. Indeed the cultural premonition of the communal memory of those territories more often regard the flood as a blessing rather than a curse since it heralds the arrival of an abundance of marine food stuff such as fish and shrimps and crayfish, and when it eventually recedes it deposits sediment that increases the fertility of the soil. However, in a circumstance where the traditional demands of the community must co-exist with the competing demands of modernisation what might have been a boon in the past can become a liability in the present. This is the unfortunate condition in which Bayelsa State as a whole, and Yenagoa in particular is caught up as the annual flood season ravages the built up areas. In the year 2012 the annual flood was particularly severe in its encroachment on built-up as well as traditionally vulnerable communities throughout Nigeria. In that year too Yenagoa and its surroundings experienced extraordinary levels of watery intrusion into newly constructed parts of the city and the damage to infrastructure depleted public coffers and reversed the momentum of development, The metropolitan demands of development have changed the character of the communities irrevocably but if this trend is to be successfully achieved in a sustainable manner there must be effective intervention by agencies that can improve and maintain infrastructure at a level that exceeds the expectations of the rustic communities that own the territory.
At the start of the expansion of the metropolitan centre that is Yenagoa today, the major infrastructural projects embarked upon by government were housing estates for government workers, as well as for private citizens who quickly began to flock to the new state. Very early on, some of these projects were adversely affected by the peculiar environmental problems of the territory. For example, the Azikoro Housing Estate, a major project of over two hundred units, had its initial stages of construction overwhelmed by flooding. It had to be halted and a complete reconfiguration of the project was undertaken. This occurred in 2001, at which time major infrastructural expansion were hardly more than conceptual proposals in government files. The chance to develop guidelines and policies of cooperation between the state government and those Federal agencies that could implement basic structural solutions to the most likely problems that would arise in the future was still a possibility but judging from the evidence that now exists this was not an integral part of the early planning. Since then the perennial floods have exposed major flaws in the system of environmental management for the city and as new areas are opened up with newly constructed edifices the arrival of the seasonal rains bring increasingly dire consequences. So far, the year 2012 has been regarded as a watershed year for the negative consequences of flooding through the state. However, this year’s flooding in the capital Yenagoa has shown up the problematic nature of urban development that is not based on imaginative and innovative anticipation of environmental eventualities.
Yenagoa is situated on the banks of two mighty waterways that are part of the system of tributaries and estuaries of the mighty Niger. The river called Ikoli by the indigenes runs into River Nun at that location. This is also the site of the outlet of the Epie Creek, a channel that has always served the people of the area as a source of rich sedimentary soil for agricultural purposes. The banks of the Epie creek used to be prime seasonal farmland utilised especially to produce abundant harvests of yams, plantains, coco-yams, and other traditional crops such as peppers and local spices. However, that channel is today the main run-off channel for waste-water from the expanding metropolis and urban planners who have studied the needs of the new city have all recommended that it be dredged and deepened and turned into a perennial marine thoroughfare. Already the nature and provenance of the Epie creek’s surroundings have changed irrevocably as property developers have encroached on what used to be a seasonal flood plain along its banks. However, since it has neither been dredged nor deepened the locations along its banks are now among the most adversely affected properties during the flood. According to Barrister Esuene Kikile, former commissioner of Information and now an official of the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board (NCDMB): “The places beside the creek where we fished, played, and tended our families’ crops when I was a child are now people’s backyards. Clearly there is need for serious environmental management intervention to regulate the use of such vulnerable areas, but even more than that there is a dire need for assistance from major agencies of intervention both national and international to alleviate the problem in a sustainable manner.”
It is not that Bayelsa State lacks people who have the knowledge and the vision to propose and even to implement solutions to this critical environmental problem. After the 2012 floods, Governor Seriake Dickson called on local experts to study the problem. A committee of indigenous engineers and other relevant professionals led by Engineer Charles Dorgu, former Executive Secretary of the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) was inaugurated. It undertook a comprehensive tour of the surrounding areas and studied the causes and nature of the perennial flooding. The team eventually produced a master-plan for flood alleviation and a general citywide drainage system and presented it to the state government – a comprehensive document that emerged from the Dorgu Committee report and the project proposals, which this writer has seen.
The document and its proposal is extremely complex and the system will, if constructed, be one of the best examples of such urban infrastructure ever to have been installed anywhere in Africa. Given the importance of the Niger Delta to Nigeria’s interaction with the global economy as well as the territory’s unique ecology and its value to the welfare and condition of the global climate, the proper development of Yenagoa as a major population centre must be considered as being of more than local importance. As a consequence, the major imperative for the state government in undertaking the task of environmental protection must be to enlighten the global community over the dilemma that it faces on a seasonal basis as well as its commitment to overcome the peculiar challenges that this natural phenomenon brings.
In the light of the above imperative the state government should be willing to take bold steps to contain the effects of perennial flooding as a central tenet of its policy of cooperation with the Federal authorities. The establishment of the Dorgu Committee by the Dickson Administration in 2012 appeared to be a step in this direction, but the lack of forward movement towards the implementation of the resultant report and proposals, and the replay of critical consequences emanating from this year’s floods seem to suggest that such cooperation is still more of a pipe dream rather than a possibility. Engineer Dorgu himself has said that collaboration with the Federal Government to overcome environmental challenges should form the central core of ecological policies for the Niger Delta and although he is now considered something of an elder statesman he is still contributing his considerable wealth of experience and vast technological expertise to serving this cause.
According to him: “While I believe it is important for the people of the region to seek solutions for the development and protection of their environment, under the circumstances in which we are working today it cannot be left to the state governments alone to provide a comprehensive solution. Investment in environmental protection is a major cornerstone for helping the Niger Delta region to attain its optimum potential and the whole world will benefit when this is achieved. It is therefore necessary to keep all official endeavours focused. We must insist that accountable practices and policies are maintained at all levels of governance to ensure that environmental management is both effective and sustainable. It is only when this circumstance exists that the natural phenomenon that is our perennial flood will once again be seen as a blessing rather than a disaster. “
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