Morris Alagoa is a famous environmental rights activist. He heads the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth ERA, a Non -Governmental Organization based in Bayelsa State. In this interview with JOHN ODHE in Yenagoa, he speaks on the 2018 flood, the actions and inactions of NEMA and SEMA towards victims and suggests that the state government should start the process of finding lasting solution to the flooding to be followed by the federal government.
What is your experience on the 2018 flood in Bayelsa State?
After the 2012 devastating flood, the Nigerian Metrological Agency NIMET has been making their yearly predictions. They predicted that the flood would come again in 2013 like 2012 but our monitoring didn't give us that sign because we have some landmarks within Yenagoa and its environs to check water. The floods were relatively high in 2016 and 2017. But unfortunately, the state government, though there were agencies like NEMA and SEMA then, we discovered that some communities, Biseni Clan for instance, didn't get relief materials at all. It was really unfortunate that after our efforts, calling on the government to do the needful in terms of protecting the communities' lands so that they don't suffer again in subsequent times, no effort was made. We were really demoralized.
Is there any difference this time?
On the 2018 flood, NIMET made early prediction in the year, that there was going to be normal rainfall and farmers were happy that they were going to have bumper harvest. But in June, July, NIMET came up again to say that the weather pattern had changed which they attributed to climate change phenomenon, that because of that, flood would be expected. Then the Nigerian hydrological Agency also came up to actually identify the states and the local governments that would be affected by the flood. Our monitoring actually confirmed in August because the communities that we visited told us that the pressure was getting high. Though it was not as high as that of 2012, this year's flood was a very devastating one. So much crops and household properties were damaged. It has negatively affected the economic well-being of our people. Our people were displaced and lived in makeshift houses like those in fishing camps.
We thank God for the effort of corporate bodies and individuals and some NGOs that were going round with medical experts. The state government also made some efforts. But my concern is that the warnings have been there. I won't blame the locals because not many of them listen to news either on radio or television or read newspapers.
Who do you blame then?
We throw our blames at NEMA and its state counterpart, SEMA. They can't say they didn't hear the warning by the hydrological agency. They know that if dams are already overflowing their bounds, the water will flow down and terminate at the Atlantic Ocean. Bayelsa State in having the longest stretch of the Atlantic Ocean. The water coming all the way from the Futajalong island where the River Niger has its origin, passing through different countries down to Nigeria and then flow through dams in Lokoja and other places, it all terminate here in Bayelsa state. They should have known that was need for preparation. They should have also informed their principal -the government itself on what is needed. So, they didn't do well at all.
However, when government saw the emergency of the situation and the pressure from the people, they swung into action immediately. Though late, l will say the state government tried. I don't want to talk about what they said they have spent. I know that the state government first of all announced the release of N50 million. We also heard on air recently that the state government has spent N500 million. However, there is the need for them to do much better and that is in the area of real environmental and ecological preparedness. We should be ready so that we can have those who will be ready to work on volunteer basis. Also, there should be a need to look for a permanent solution. We are therefore recommending that Bayelsa state government should work in partnership with federal government interventionist agencies like the NDDC and the Niger Delta Ministry. They should ensure that high grounds are created in almost all our communities. If you look at Kenibiama community in Southern Ijaw local government area, we are told that the 2012 flood did not affect the place because the then governor of old Rivers state, Melford Okilo sand filled the community. Their community became a rescue ground for neighbouring villages during the 2012 flood.
What should the government do now?
The state government should make a yearly budgetary provision for flood and erosion related matters. Whether they are setting up a commission to that effect or the funds are going to pass through the ministry of environment, the ministry should be well monitored. Otherwise, we are recommending the creation of flood and erosion commission. That commission will be saddled with the responsibility of having volunteers that will be assisting flood related victims. The ministry of environment might play a supervisory role. We cannot wait until others start it before we do it.
Some people believe that the federal government and the multinationals should be blamed for the flooding of the Niger Delta. Do you also believe in that school of thought?
I don't want to shift the whole blame to the federal government or the oil companies. The oil companies are business entities. They can play roles expected of them in terms of corporate social responsibility. Their major role is to pay their taxes and royalties to the federal government. They are capitalist oriented. They shouldn't be replacing government. Where I want to blame the federal government is that the Willink's Commission report of 1957 clearly stated that the Niger Delta region is a difficult terrain in terms of development. And that the area should be given a special attention until such a time that special nature has been taken care of. But they haven't done that up till now. That's the only area where I will blame the federal government. Otherwise, this is our own state. The state can lead. If other states are demanding other things from the NDDC or the Niger Delta ministry, our state government should prioritize the issue of flooding, erosion and other ecological matters. This is because our communities are being washed away and flood is also creating its own problems. So, flood and erosion matters should be given their pride of place and that should be driven by the state government. The state should take the lead and tell others to buy in.
Did any past governor make any attempt to find solution to the problem of flooding in the state?
Right from the old Rivers state, Okilo identified that we have these issues. That is why he was able to sand-fill and did erosion control in Sagbama town and in Otuokpoti community. He also did what is call canalization. As you canalize, you have created another space for water to occupy. Also, we didn't wait for the federal government when the first civilian administration in the state led by late DSP Alamieyeseigha made effort to get experts from the Scandinavian countries to come and share their experience with us in terms of feasibility studies because we share the same environment, though a lot of funds were frittered away in the name of feasibility study. If the state government then was not determined to do something about the environment, it wouldn't have gone to Denmark, Poland and the rest of the Scandinavian countries in search for solution.
What of the present administration?
I can remember that one of our brothers who is also an activist, Mr. Inemo Samiama led the Dutch Ambassador to Nigeria some time ago to the government house and met Governor Dickson. So if a Dutch ambassador is visiting you and you did not discuss issues relating to your terrain and how to deal with the issues, then what did you discuss with him? So, we should not throw the bulk elsewhere. The bulk should start at the desk of the governor of Bayelsa State.