People living in riverine communities in Benue, Taraba, Niger, Kebbi and Sokoto states have decried the decay in the inland waterways which they attributed to constant boat tragedies.
They called on the federal government to salvage the situation in order to save lives and the economic fortunes of millions of people.
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Daily Trust reports that hundreds of lives have been lost in the last few years with experts linking the problem to lack of, or poor enforcement of safety measures, dearth of ships, boats and navigation equipment as well as wrecks, trees and shrubs that took over most of the waterways.
The recent boat tragedy in Kebbi State which claimed over 100 lives was the case in point even as countless minor mishaps rarely attract the attention of the media.
The outcry by locals on the need for governments at the national and state levels to act fast came as the rainy season sets in amid increased mishap.
The National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), which is saddled with the responsibility of safeguarding the domestic waterways, had repeatedly bragged of putting in place safety measures by procuring modern equipment.
But the locals have punctured the claim, insisting that the agency was finding it difficult to carry out simple emergency rescue operations as at when due.
Nigeria has over 10,000 km of inland waterways comprising of rivers, creeks, lagoons and lakes and intra-coastal water whose source is two main rivers, the Niger and the Benue.
Hundreds of thousands of people in many states in the six geopolitical zones rely on the inland waterways for multiple purposes even as some communities could only be accessed through the water channels.
Our waterways are in dire straits — Locals
In Niger State, the Sarkin Kasuwa (Head of the Market) in Zumba, Malam Adamu Ahmed, said the problems in the waterways were mostly old boats, overloading, obstructions on the waterways and failure of relevant agencies to enforce safety measures.
He said the government could help by providing modern boats, clearing of the waterways and implementation of rules.
He said if the government was not stringent with the laws guiding water transportation in the country, a lot of boat riders would not respect the ground rules.
The chairman of boat operators in the area, Malam Sahle Alsam (Sarkin Girigi), said the recent tragedy in the area occurred when a boat hit a wood chunk in the river. Some residents also requested for enough life jackets for water travellers to reduce the high casualties often recorded during accidents.
ASP Mamman Sarki, who lost six members of his family during the last boat mishap on the river that links Niger and Kebbi, said the majority of those living in riverine areas needed to be enlightened on the danger involved while traveling on the water without following the laid down rules.
From Kebbi State, Jabir Warah, who is from the riverine area of Warra town in Ngaski Local Government Area said the best way to prevent water transportation tragedy was by clearing all logs, rocks and boat wrecks laying underneath the river over the years.
Mallam Nura, a canoe operator from Yauri LGA, told our reporter that urgent intervention from the federal government and other relevant stakeholders was key to stopping recurrent crashes.
He said the rickety boats being used were responsible for most of the problems saying only modern boats and navigation equipment could withstand the rigour of the country’s waterways.
Zara’u Hassan, who has been travelling on waterways as passenger for years said the government should come with laws and innovations to protect passengers being ferried.
“A law should be enacted on the lifespan of wooden boats to be used in the waterways as most of the boat operators use aged boats in ferrying cargoes and passengers,” she said.
Operators of boats in Taraba State said they needed life jackets and safety measures because they depended on water transportation.
Daily Trust findings revealed that there are over 20 local jetties known in Hausa as Kwata, being used in ferrying people, vehicles and goods on daily basis across River Benue, River Donga, River Taraba and other rivers in the state.
The major jetties include Ibbi, Lau, Jebo, Jen, Kwatan, Taro, Dampar, Ngira, Mayo, Reniwo and Zip, Kambari, Sansani and Gorowa, among others.
The Ibbi jetty is the busiest crossing point, which ferries more than two thousand people and close to nine hundred vehicles on daily basis.
The jetty operates twenty-four hours daily but finding revealed that there is no single life jacket for the passengers.
An operator, Jalo Ibbi, told Daily Trust that they required life jackets to safeguard lives in an event of boat mishaps.
He said there was a time when the National Emergency management Agency (NEMA) gave 50 life jackets to boat operators in Ibbi but the jackets were later collected back by some staff of the agency.
A passenger, Musa Adamu, told Daily Trust that the main problem facing water transportation in the state was lack of regulations and safety measures.
Adamu explained that when boats were in danger mid-water, there was no place to send a distress call.
Our correspondent reports that water transportation is a major business in the state with thousands of people operating engine boats while others serve as mechanics, loaders and cavers.
Further checks revealed that hundreds of passengers died in past years in boat mishaps even as some of the incidents were not reported.
In Benue State, villagers whose movements depended on water transportation appealed to governments at both state and national levels to build roads or provide mass transit boats to ease their problems.
Joseph Kume, whose riverine village located near River Buruku in Buruku Local Government Area of the state said it would be a huge relief if government builds a bridge in the river between Buruku and Logo LGA.
“We have River Benue and have been appealing to the government for a bridge across the River Buruku. It would help our traders to take their wares to markets in the opposite direction. The means of ferrying people by the river through canoes and boats is tiring. The bridge across the river would help us,” he said.
Mimidoo Nyam, a resident of Chile Island in Makurdi LGA, said the government could improve on water transportation for riverine communities like hers through the provision of mass transit boats.
Nyam added that as traders shuttle between Wadata market in Makurdi and Chile Island by water transportation on daily basis, through the means of only the canoe, the cost of fare would drop drastically if government participates in the business of water transport.
In Lagos, Daily Trust reports that aside from water hyacinth, underwater weeds have taken over Lagos backwaters, stretching from Badagry, through Ojo and from Ojodu to Ikorodu, thereby impeding navigation.
These impediments, according to independent findings, are the major reason for the different mishaps.
Mariners were of the opinion that the economy of locals in riverine communities was under threat of collapse over the rising spate of boat accidents.
They said from Kebbi, through River Niger/Benue, to the lagoons in the South West, South South and South-East, there is the lack of observed navigational equipment in the inland waterways with recurring accidents resulting in the death of people.
A check by Daily Trust revealed that between 2006 and 2018, over 1,607 persons lost their lives in various boat accidents. Data sourced based on reported cases further showed that between April and September 2017, about 100 persons died in six boat accidents in Lagos, Kebbi and Niger states.
Why NIWA is ‘inactive’
The National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) formerly known as the Inland Waterways Department of the Federal Ministry of Transportation, which was established by an act of the National Assembly CAP 47, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, was created to improve and develop the country’s inland waterways for navigation.
NIWA as an agency of government is also empowered to provide an alternative mode of transportation for the evacuation of economic goods and persons from one part of the country to another.
Its responsibility also includes providing regulatory, economic and operational framework and to also develop infrastructural facilities for an efficient and effective transportation system for operators.
NIWA’s management had, in 2017, said that it acquired a multi-million dollar water hyacinth machine to aid the removal of weeds on the country’s water, which according to it, was impeding navigation.
Aside, it also said it sorted and got 52 swamp devil machines, which it claimed to have deployed to 17 states to aid the removal of water hyacinth.
It said the aquatic machine was specifically designed for inland watercourse management to cut and harvest underwater weeds, reeds and other aquatic plant life.
Also as part of efforts to ensure strict adherence to regulation, it said it acquired several speedboats being manned by water transport marshal and that the special marshals had been posted to various zones across the country to enforce strict compliance to regulations.
Their responsibility, according to NIWA, is to monitor and enforce the use of life jackets while maintaining boats’ normal capacity.
However, controversies have continued to trail the whereabouts of the water hyacinth and swamp devil removal machines.
Some stakeholders yesterday alleged that NIWA is only concerned with revenue generation than enforcement of navigational laws.
They said that the authority should concentrate more on safety than revenue, noting that lives and the economy of traders in riverine communities were now being threatened as a result of frequent mishaps.
When contacted, NIWA’S General Manager, Corporate Affairs, Jubril Darda’u, insisted that the authority had purchased swamp devil machines which were deployed to rid the nation’s water of impediments.
This, he said, was in addition to the water hyacinth removal machine purchased by the Lagos zonal office of the authority.
Darda’u said that more water safety marshals had been recruited to enforce and monitor activities of boat operators.
He said NIWA had also established additional offices for quick response to distress calls.
“We also have as ad-hoc staff, local divers who form the bulk of search and rescue efforts. However, operators, for selfish reasons, would want to overload their boats,” he said.
The Managing Director of NIWA, Dr George Moghalu, at a meeting held in Lagos recently, expressed the readiness of the authority to rid the waterways of rickety boats and unlicensed divers.
However, maritime experts called on the Federal Ministry of Transportation to order an audit of the navigational equipment and probe the causes of the increased water transportation accidents.
From Eugene Agha (Lagos), Haruna Ibrahim (Abuja), Romoke W. Ahmad (Minna), Hope Abah Emmanuel (Makurdi), Aliyu M. Hamagam (Birnin Kebbi) & Magaji Isa Hunkuyi (Jalingo)