Budgeting: Why Bayelsa Environment Shouldn Be On Front Burner
By: ALAGOA MORRIS
It is only proper to commence this article with this quote,’’ The Environment is Our Life, Let’s Protect It’’. For the common good, it is important to use this medium to appeal to the Bayelsa State House of Assembly to do an upward review of the proposal made for the Ministry of Environment in the 2019 Budget; for very obvious reasons.
Environmentally, the uniqueness of the Bayelsa State cannot be over emphasized. Both geologically and geographically, the state typifies what a true delta should be; relatively low-lying topography. Unlike some other states in the Niger Delta where you find high grounds; Bayelsa State is below sea level. Apart from having the longest stretch of the Atlantic Coastline, the Bayelsa environment has been described as being more riverine than Rivers State and most deltaic than Delta State. Bordered in the East by Rivers State and in the West by Delta State, Bayelsa which has countless number of creeks and creeklets also has a good number of some of the famous rivers [tributaries of the River Niger] which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. These great bodies of water emptying their contents into the Ocean includes: Dodo River, Pennington River, Digatoro Creek, Middleton River, Ikebiri Creek, Fish Town River, Sangana River, Nun River, Brass River, St. Nicholas River, Santa Barbara River and San Bartholomew River.
A cursory glance at the February, 2008 Second Edition administrative Map of the state shows the Atlantic shoreline of Bayelsa State running from the Bight of Bonny in the East to the Bight of Benin in the West; giving it the longest coastline on the Atlantic.
The Bayelsa environment boasts of several mangrove and rainforest swamps, Lakes, Vegetation and arable farmlands even though most farmland are used on seasonal basis due to the annual flood. Communities in the state are situated along river banks or at the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean. Traditionally, the people are great fisher folks and farmers. Hunting, logging, carving and weaving with materials sourced from the immediate environment are all part of the traditional and economic activities of the people.
Even though the Bayelsa environment is richly endowed with natural resources such as seafood, forest resources and the black gold; the state is also faced with man-made and natural environmental challenges. It is no longer news that the state is most polluted in terms of oil/gas industry operations. In 2014, the leadership of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency [NOSDRA] pronounced Bayelsa environment as having the most oil industry induced pollution in the Niger Delta; with about forty oil spill incidents monthly. The issue of pollution as regards gas flaring and oil spills have received global attention as Environmental NGOs, foreign and local media organizations have played roles which has placed the situation to national and international audiences.
While little or nothing has been done by the federal government to address oil industry induced pollution in Bayelsa state, the challenges posed by the unique terrain as per flood and erosion remains overwhelming. The low-lying topography is, unarguably responsible for the seasonal flooding experienced annually by communities; even the state capital and environs. The twin sisters of flooding and coastal erosion affecting several communities right from the Creeks to the fringes of the Atlantic Ocean has remained two major ecological challenges communities in the state are contending with. Individual efforts to save their houses and other community property have not been effective as the phenomenon is beyond community resources to contain.
The great floods of 2012 and 2018 bear eloquent testimonies to the fact that Bayelsa State needs to take urgent steps and do something more than ordinary. Addressing these twin ecological challenges in first-aid, cosmetic and fire brigade manner by the State government portrays the state as unserious. Ordinarily, Bayelsa knowing its ecological challenges ought not to wait for any predictions by any agency before doing the needful. What is required in the circumstance is nothing by large scale environmental surgery planned and executed over time; in phases with commitment.
Agreed that the Federal Government interventionist agency, the Niger Delta Development Commission [NDDC] has awarded several shoreline protection contracts to some indigenes; sadly almost 100 percent of these contracts are either completely abandoned or never started at all. This is a great minus to the state and those who received mobilization funds for the contracts but failed to do any appreciable job should be considered internal enemies of our communities and people. There is every need for the state government to relocate the environment from its present back bench position to the front burner. This is so because, according to the frontline Environmental advocacy group [Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria [ERA/FoEN]; the Environment is Our Life and we need to protect the environment. This truism about the need to protect the environment has the aura of urgency in the case of Bayelsa state, for very obvious reasons; it’s very unique deltaic disposition. The environment OUGHT to occupy frontline, shoulder to shoulder and at least; among the first five priorities of the state in terms of budgeting. This should be reflected in the annual budget of the state as all other sectors are linked in one way or the other to the environment.
Whether it is tourism, Education, Health, Infrastructural development, Agriculture, Commerce and Industry; they all have positive relationship with the environment. Only recently, between September and December, 2018 a lot of Bayelsans and residents were denied their means of livelihood and accommodation; owing to the flood. People were forced to abandon their houses or communities and relocated in search of safe havens. Public schools went on forced break, even as commercial and religious activities were also negatively affected. A lot of businesses suffered losses within the period under reference; including loss of farm produce.
It is worthy of mention that, while the annual flood affects most communities negatively, not even the great floods of 2012 so affected Keme-ebiama community. Keme-ebiama is in Apoi clan, Southern Ijaw local government area of the state. Rather than the people of that community relocating, it became a sort of safe haven for some folks from neighbouring communities. This is due to the fact that the administration of Chief Melford okilo in Old Rivers State sand filled the community according to the request of the community. Today, the people are enjoying the benefits which the sand filling yielded.
Flood, erosion and oil spill impacted environment are not the only environmental, ecological and livelihood challenges facing the state; the issues of uncontrolled logging by lumberjacks, indiscriminate disposal of untreated sewage and solid wastes are also staring us daily. No doubt the solid waste evacuation from refuse receptacles in the state capital has improved; the situation at the final disposal site along the Opolo-Gbarain Road has remained an eyesore. Raw, untreated sewage and solid waste are freely disposed within this same environment resulting into pollution of lakes and creeklet flowing into the Taylor Creek. Apart from different chemicals sewage operators freely disposed along with untreated sewage, lakes in the environment also suffer from plastic pollution in addition. The health implication of this on the locals is better imagined than experienced; especially as most locals hardly present themselves at health facilities for proper diagnosis of illnesses owing to traditional beliefs or financially incapacitated. There is need for the provision of adequate Sewage disposal site, where sewage would be treated before being discharged into the fragile ecosystem. This is more so, as it is common in Ijawland for people to drink from bodies of water found on their way to and fro their farms or fishing environment.
Veering into the area of tourism, it is common knowledge that not much has been done to harness the potentials presented by our unique environment. Most of the Lakes in the State, like the Adigbe Lake fishing festival in Sagbama local government area are yet to be documented and investigated with a view to making them tourists attraction. The stories behind some of these great lakes are worth listening to and documenting; even for literature in our primary and secondary schools. Most of the beautiful beaches along the Atlantic Coastline, from Odioama [including the Varnish Island in the environment] to Koluama and up to Bilabiri and Amatu are wasting away owing to lack of interest by the authorities. Ordinarily, all things being equal, if the issue of security is addressed; these beaches could attract investors and made the destination of many. Apart from addressing security concerns, the state government could lead by providing the basic foundational requirement to attract foreign and local investors in that area.
As regards the twin issues of flood and erosion, besides the need empower the flood and erosion department in the State Ministry of Environment; there is need to establish an agency for Flood and erosion in the State; just as the State Environmental Sanitation Authority. This agency should engage more of experts in the relevant areas of interest and it should be allowed to effectively collaborate with international agencies and Federal Government interventionist agencies to tackle flood and erosion. A reasonable percentage of 13% derivation accruing to the state should be channeled to a body for study, documentation and effectively dealing with flood and erosion affecting our communities. At this juncture, it is pertinent that some seriously affected communities be mentioned and, they include: Obogoro, Famgbe, Abobiri, Ayama Ogbia, Peremabiri, Kaiama, Olugbobiri, Anibeze, Ondewari, Odioama, Twon Brass, Sangana, Koluama 1 and Koluama 2, Ekeni, Ezetu, etc, etc.
Before anything else, the Bayelsa State Government should consider an upward review of the figure proposed for the Ministry of Environment in the 2019 budget as presented to the State House of Assembly by the Governor. Subsequently, the State government should make adequate provision for the Environment Ministry in the annual budget. It is surprising that only N505million is being budgeted for the Ministry in the 2019 budget christened finishing strong; not even up to N1billion. This speaks volumes; especially when juxtaposed with the uniqueness of the environment and challenges facing the state. It is on good grounds that this writer make bold to say the State Ministry of Environment cannot boast of any functional official vehicle [preferably hilux] or high powered speedboat to effectively monitor the Environment and respond to distress calls. If NGOs can access the Atlantic Ocean and respond to issue swiftly in the creeks of the state, it renders the Ministry of Environment to mockery as it mostly relies on the oil companies it ought to supervise for logistics and movements to sites of interest. If the oil companies provides logistics such as accommodation, feeding and transport; how can you effectively supervise them? After all, it is a well known dictum, he who pays the piper, dictates the tune.
A long term plan to address the ecological/ environmental challenges in the state would require sustained execution of plans in phases supported targeted budgetary provision. For this, the State House of Assembly also needs to make a law to ensure the protection of the environment via adequate budgetary provision.
Alagoa Morris is the Project Officer/Head, Niger Delta Resource Centre,Yenagoa.