Morris Alagoa is a renowned environmental rights activist and Bayelsa state chairman of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth (ERA), a Non Governmental Organization. In this interview with JOHN ODHE, he speaks on the worrisome perennial flooding in Yenagoa and proffers helpful solutions.
What does the environment mean to you?
The environment is our life. It is from the environment that we have our being. We carry out all our activities in it. The environment is intrinsically connected with all ecological issues. If the environment is not safe, if it is not healthy, its inhabitants will be in danger. The environment is everything to us.
What is your assessment of Yenagoa as it relates to perennial flooding?
We, the Environmental Rights Action, carried out a research on the refuse situation in Yenagoa four years ago when it became unacceptable that the roads were being taken over by refuse. We swung into action and made our findings known to government as well as the public. In the same way, we did an intensive research on the perennial flooding in Yenagoa. We went to the field, communities around Yenagoa and the metropolis. Don't forget, Yenagoa is made up of Epie/Atissa communities.
In those days in those communities, when it rained, the water used to pass through the natural water channels. The indigenous communities were conversant with the low land areas where they knew they wouldn't build upon. Yes, they could wade into the swampy areas sometimes especially during fishing seasons and return. So they built on the raised areas. But due to population explosion after the creation of Bayelsa State, all low land areas have been built upon; even to the point that natural drains have been blocked especially by those who were in government, who are in government and their associates. It is not as if flooding is peculiar to Bayelsa State. No. Even in some advanced countries, they are suffering flood right now. People are dying. The other day, I saw a post from my colleague in the old city of Benin where a whole street was flooded. These are all as a result of improper town planning and lack of cooperation of citizens.
Even if the government has a good intention, which roundly, it seems they do not have, the cooperation of the citizens would play a key role. It is only when citizens have accepted to cooperate that they can give out part of their land to allow for drainages to pass through. The situation in Bayelsa is so pathetic because it is a peculiar area. When you talk about the Niger Delta, Bayelsa state is the most deltaic of the Delta because it has a very flat land. Experts have told us that you can run for miles with the land maintaining the same gradient. Therefore, Yenagoa and its environs and Bayelsa in general needed a special consideration.
But Yenagoa has a master plan?
Soon after the creation of the state, we heard that the then governor Alamieyeseigha-led government was embarking on a feasibility study of the environment, that he was trying to engage experts from the Scandinavian nations because we share a similar terrain; so that they can map out such features for us. And don't forget people like Architect Harcourt Adoke. They were also engaged to come up with the Yenagoa Master Plan. And to a reasonable extent, I believe such master plan could not have been concluded without a provision for effective drainage system. So it is unfortunate that the administrators of the state failed to take drainages as a top priority considering our unique deltaic environment. In fact, drainage ought to be on the front burner of our priorities when we talk about our environmental issues away from oil industries induced pollution. A place that you want to inhabit, you have to design it by yourself and make provisions for water passage when the downpour comes.
Unfortunately, we failed and allowed development to be going on disorderly. We failed to take advantage of the fact that Bayelsa state was created at the time we were coming from Rivers state to an almost virgin area to be developed. We had an ample opportunity to ensure orderly development. It is not still too late but as I have described earlier, the type of action they have taken here annually is of cosmetic and fire brigade approach and that is not good enough. What we need now is a large scale surgery, environmentally speaking.
What do you mean by 'large scale surgery'?
Yes. We need an environmental large scale surgery in the sense that we have to take the bull by the horns and go into intensive field work, using environmental experts, not me, I am only an environmental activist. We need experts -the surveyors and the town planners to go into the communities as contained in our research last year. We submitted that report to the government through the commissioner for environment and sent an advanced copy again to Government House. We spent our own money to carry out the research but till today, it's like everything went into voicemail. That is to tell you that the government is not serious about the issue because we reported how bad things were. People have built houses on drainages.
For instance, at the Isaac Boro expressway, there are many culverts crossing the road but have been built upon by individuals including government officials, blocking well provided drains. And when you block them, what do you expect? Now, talking about the large scale surgery, these experts will go into the communities, work with the paramount rulers and community development committees and those that actually know the history and layout of their environment to identify the natural water channels. Apart from identifying the natural drains, there should be well mapped out areas before the oil companies begin to lay their pipes everywhere again. There should be channels to take water far away from Yenagoa either towards the Ogbia side or towards the Epie Creek or the Ekoli River. When you construct them, they should be large enough, just like the natural drains from Igbogene to St. Peter's. These are the kind of exercises I referred to as the large scale environmental surgery.
Definitely, such exercises should not only provide drainages that will be large enough, but must also know the destination of the waters, making sure that everything goes into the ocean. When you start the drainage at point A and it goes to B,C,D, they should know how to meander and allow it to flow to its destination. This cosmetic approach of bringing swamp buggies to clear some waterlogged areas during rainy seasons is not helping us. People are suffering.
If we had done the needful and still having problems, that is understandable. So all stakeholders should be involved. Government shouldn't act as if she knows it all. Government should look at the already existing channels as well as areas they can legally acquire just as oil companies acquire pipelines. Then, construct them with proper concrete works just like we have at the Peace Park opposite government house. The ministry of environment and the environmental sanitation authority should embark on massive sensitization and adult education of the public. I read Adult Education and Community Development and I know that education is a continuum. A Ph.D holder might finish drinking water and throw the empty can anyhow but a secondary school leaver may consider it unfair to do so. Those abroad that are behaving normal today all went through these things.
While we implore the services of experts to reengineer the environmental system, we also need to reengineer our mindsets to ensure that what ought not to be done shouldn't be done. They should be made to understand that the drains are meant for water to be flowing in them and not to remain stagnant. The other day, I was called from Opolo that a road constructed at opposite old Mr. Biggs had caused serious flooding in the area due to lack of drainages. The statement recently made by the commissioner for environment that something will soon be done is commendable but he has to walk the talk. If it means going to the governor of the state, who has suddenly woken up to say oil spill is damaging our environment as if they are just waking up from their sleep, the commissioner should go and demand for funds to, at least, start some of these projects that I am talking about.
Also, we heard that NDDC awarded a contract to one of the Abuja-based politicians from this state to clear hyacinth and debris from the Epie creek. We all commended the commission for that but unfortunately, the Epie creek is covered again with grass. They didn't do a good work. Something better needs to be done because this Epie creek is a veritable resort; it covers the entire length and breadth of Yenagoa. It should be properly cleared of all debris and be made navigable.
Is anyone to blame for the problem of flooding in Yenagoa? If yes, who?
I wouldn't want to say yes or no. Looking at the governors, they also work with professionals. Unfortunately, certain professional advice are not recognized. Sometimes you blame the cabinet members who don't point at the right thing at the right time and sometimes the chief executive who may not recognize positive pieces of advice. Sometimes too, the residents are not exempted. However, it is not too late, though it would have been made easier if plans had been made earlier and executed accordingly.
Immediately after the creation of the state, Yenagoa was described as a rural area. If you read the book: Land and People of Bayelsa, Central Niger Delta, it described the creation of Bayelsa state as urban-rural-migration, and not the other way round. The book says people were coming from already developed cities to Bayelsa state. That means Yenagoa is supposed to be a modern city by now if the master plan was followed tenaciously. It would have been easier to make compensations then when mud houses lined up the major roads. Then it was millions but now people are talking about trillions.
Do you think Bayelsa has the financial wherewithal to embark on the large scale surgery you talked about?
It depends on the political will of the government of the day. The state government should collaborate with the federal government, the NDDC, Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, multinational companies and international interventionist agencies to be able to get this done. It does not mean that they must get the whole job done in a year. Professionals know how to phase these things. If there is the political will, I think funding will not be a problem. That political will entails bringing down houses of those who deliberately build on natural drains no matter their positions in society. There should be laws to make it an offense to build on water channels.
Going forward, we advise that the ministry of environment be properly funded so that the environment which is our lives can be properly taken care of. Even if half of what is given to the ministry of works is given to environment, the narrative will change.
What else should be done?
The environmental impact assessment is also very important. Before constructions, there is the need for the state government to carry out an environmental impact assessment. Government should also respect the Environmental Impact Assessment law. When constructing roads, culverts or bridges should be constructed where necessary. The federal government has been maintaining this to a very large extent.
Don't you think that flood victims in Yenagoa are entitled to compensations?
Well, in that case, it is not too clear where you say government should pay compensations for being so slack in her responsibilities and has committed a crime. However, where flood has caused major damages, we expect the state emergency management agency or the national emergency management agency to intervene and provide succour for the victims.