TONYE DAVID-WEST is the Managing Director, Niger Delta Basin Development Authority (NDBDA). He spoke to ANN GODWIN in Port Harcourt on the need to end open defecations, restructure river basin authorities across the country, and other issues.
The Rivers Basin Development Authorities were established to harness efficiently and effectively, the nation’s water resources for multi-purpose uses in an integrated and sustainable manner. Do you think they have met these objectives, especially in Niger Delta? How?
Niger Delta region is a very peculiar area and the Niger Delta Basin Authority cover three states namely; Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta; if these various state governments have keyed into the ministerial projects of agriculture, the states would have improved in food productions and even security wise. First, in Rivers State, water is not our problem, but how to conserve the water and control the flood for dry season farming is a challenge. Also, in Bayelsa State and some parts of Delta State, how to manage the water for better use is really challenging. Yes, the Federal Government has tried with limited resources to help the authority in achieving these objectives, but more need to be done.
There has been this raging controversy over the pet projects of the Minister of Water Resources – the Graduate Youths Empowerment Scheme and the Songhai Farm, which were launched in Rivers State three years ago. What’s the true position?
That is a very laudable project that was launched in 2017 and if well managed could bring more credence to this government .The programme is targeted at employing youths, who will in turn employ themselves and become financial sustainable and self-reliant. Yes, the programme was launched three years ago, but we had some challenges in Egweru in Oyigho Local Council of Rivers State, where the programme was expected to kick-start, as no proper feasibility study was carried out on the quality of the soil. We came in and met that situation; tried a lot of crops to see if we can take off the programme, but unfortunately all our efforts were in vain. Therefore, the management decided to move the programme to Kpor in Gokana Local Government Area of the State, and by the Grace of God, the whole place is flourishing now; the plantain, snails, fowls are doing well, and with the limited resources, we are progressing towards the aim of the project.
The allegation was out of ignorance. Firstly, the authority has never received any N500 million to build office or over N2 million for Songhai farm. The budget is open document for every body to see. Since we came in 2017 till date, we have never received such amount of money for a single project. I thank God that the Minister said, he will send an investigation team to come for fact finding and the management team is waiting. We visited Kpor recently with the Union that accused me; they were impressed with what they saw. I told them not to worry because I know they acted in ignorance and false information.
Nigeria currently has 12 River basin development authorities involved in the management of water resources. What are the challenges facing these authorities? How can it be resolved?
One of the major challenges facing the authorities is that some of the state governments have not keyed into its programmes and objectives. If all states governments were involved in this drive, most of our challenges like food, disease control would have been solved. If you go to Kpor, the impact is very visible; the community has formed a cooperative to buy the eggs from our farm. While outside, a crate of egg is sold at N1, 200 but we sell to them at N800, and you can see the chain reaction and impact on the people. And because of this, we have a cordial relationship with them, we have also given them water and the Songhai programme is currently being expanded. The youths and other people in the communities are the ones doing the jobs, if you go there, you will see minimum of 90 youths doing different jobs and this is impacting greatly in the economy of the state and the nation at large. Without this, you can imagine when about 90 youths are on the streets, you know the effects, but they are very busy in the farm and happy with themselves. We plan to take this programme to the eight senatorial districts in Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta States; it will help to empower more youths and take them out from the streets. For instance, in Otueke in Bayelsa State, we have one of the biggest fish farm we just procured and in the next six months, you will see how that place will empower the people as well as generate funds for both the old and young in that area.
There is this clamour for partial commercialisation of the RBDAs. Do you think commercialisation of the river basins will revitalise the authorities? How best can this be done to boost the nation’s economic diversification policy?
Any government that refuses to go into agro production this time should be ready for hunger, unemployment and all that because agriculture has a chain reaction. The benefit is not only to the person who produces but the person who will sell them, it will reduce unemployment and following the crash in crude oil price, any state government that fails to divert into agriculture now, I feel sorry for them. Any State that wants to be self-sustaining, must go into agriculture and agro industry, which will aid the nation’s economic diversification.
With the outbreak of corona virus (Covid-19), there is the demand for high quality water and sanitation, what’s your authority doing to contain the pandemic and minimize its effects in the region?
Before the outbreak of coronavirus, the Minister of Water Resources, Adamu Suleiman, took concrete steps to ensure Nigerians keep to good hygiene. The minister initiated compulsory hand wash about three years ago and you know that hand washing is a way of eliminating bacteria and infectious disease. The minister had taken the programme to schools and local governments, campaigning on the need for Nigerians to imbibe the culture of hand washing before this novel outbreak of COVID-19 and some of the Northern states have keyed into the programme. One of the ways to prevent the spread of this deadly disease is to regularly wash hands; if most Nigerians have hearken to this clarion call by the minister, we would have been a step ahead of this disease. Secondly, observing steady hygiene is very important towards fighting this virus. The minister also launched a programme recently towards stopping open defecation; the ministry is doing a lot to ensure better environment for our people. Out of the 777 councils in Nigeria, it’s only about six local governments that have keyed into this programme. In Rivers State, people still defecate in the bushes and inside the water and still drink from same water. If the state had keyed into this scheme, Rivers residents would have been a step ahead of the corona virus preventive and hygienic measures to curtail infectious and water borne diseases.
How has your agency met its objectives, especially in the provision of water and embarking on appropriate hydro-meteorological infrastructure as well as ensuring efficient monitoring of both surface and underground water level?
I need to be sincere, water is not free but the Federal Government has tried to provide water for most of the Local Government Areas in Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta but the problem, we are having is maintenance. The communities have refused to accept that this is their property and the project is sited in their councils, so they need to protect it but they are not doing so. In Buguma, Emohua, Ikwere, Local Councils in Ogoni, Delta, Bayelsa, the Niger Delta Basin Authority water projects are situated there but at the end, people fail to manage it. Earlier, we were giving them generators but when you give them generator, to buy diesel is a problem, so we are gradually phasing-out and beginning to install solar. I plead with the communities to protect these projects and see it as their own because the government resources are getting slimmer, so any resources made available should be well managed and secured.
Also, in Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta, we have sufficient underground water, we are not planning to touch the surface water yet, and it is just for us to protect the environment. That’s why, we are insisting on stopping open defecation. So, we urge the state governors in these states to join hands with us to ensure pollution control and to protect the environment.
Can you highlight some of your achievements since you assumed office and your future plans?
We are working as a team, our achievements are numerous, you know what the office was when we came into office, the environment was very porous, and workers moral was very low. But, we worked on that and they gave us the necessary cooperation and today, the situation has changed. Also, when we came, we noticed that our lands were taken over by their owners due to lack of activities. So, we now posted some of our staffs in those areas and when they saw them, they have stopped encroachment in our land. When we came in, Bayelsa had no office, we have built one and the Minister will soon commission their office.
We are also producing water, our water here; the demand is greater than supply because our water is the best. We’re also making efforts to meet up or even exceed demands. Despite the limited resources, we will continue to pursue our policy to end open defecation vigorously as part of the ongoing campaign to check the spread of the corona virus; we will soon commence building toilets in schools and public places.
The Federal Government recently commenced restructuring of Rivers Basin authorities across the country. How has the region tap into the reform?
Today, because of the reform, every Managing Director is looking inwards; thinking outside the box to generate funds to augment what the federal government is giving. In the past, when these reforms were not there, I wouldn’t have looked for potential investors but today, we have a potential investor who is taking over one of our farms -the palm oil production of 500 acres of land in Rivers State, which work has commenced already. So in the next three to four years, you will see what will happen. Note, the investor is not bringing outsiders to work in the farm, he is using the people in the catchment area to do the work and at the end, and about 500 youths would be employed.
How? Each hectare would be given to a farmer to clear and farm, a lifespan of oil palm is 30 years, so if today I have acres of land, it means I have 30 years investment and because of this reforms, the Managing Directors are thinking outside the box about rice production and if that take off again, instead the region to go to Katsina to import rice, we will first feed ourselves and export it to other people. The reform is making the MDs be mutually competing within themselves, let me tell you, the Upper Niger has really advanced in this Songhai project. The Basin Authority is trying too, so what I did was to send our staff’s there to learn instead of sending them to Benin Republic that would have gulp more money. I sent six staffs, each from different departments to upper Niger and sent another staff to basin authority to understudy what they are doing and they are back with great results. We are doing greatly well, so instead of bringing foreigners, we are doing it ourselves, that is what the reforms has done.
In Premabri in Bayelsa State for instance, you can farm rice three times a year, because of the water but what stopped Premabiri is the youth restiveness but we are negotiating with them and as soon as they key into it, they will benefit, we are going to establish a mill, so you will see how many persons the mill would employ. So, we are talking with the youths of the region to understand our investments and our aim because the youths feel they have been receiving a lot of promises without fulfilment. But we are changing the narratives because this is one they are seeing it.
How has the weak enforcement of environmental laws and urban development plans affected the performance of NDBDA? What has been done to address this?
Everything the Federal government is doing without the cooperation of the state governments might not go down well, that why we are saying that governors should not see us (the managing directors) as political appointees. They must put heads together, synergize efforts and move the states forward. The governors need to partner with us, not by giving us money but for us to work together for the benefit of the citizens and the regions.