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Dredging towns: Lagos’ mega city dreams is killing its coastal communities (Part 1)

dredging

As fine sand is taken from the Lagos coastlines to provide housing for urban dwellers, the business generates great profits for urban property developers as the waterfront business booms with an increasing need for housing for over 20 million Lagosians. Its impact has also brought despair upon residents who have to deal with the polluted waters, collapsed houses, depleted lands and flooding incidents these activities leave in their wake.

Valentine Iwenwanne spent five days reporting from inside Lagos coastal communities of Majidun, Oto-Awori and Ebute-Ilaje. His two-part series looks at sand mining operations; its great profits for urban property developers and also, threats that hobbles means of livelihoods in these communities.

Mr Samuel Logan, a fisherman rowing his boat on the Majidun tributary

Pains of urban renewal I: The downtrodden poor

The government of Lagos state, Nigeria’s economic capital has aggressively spent the last decade reinventing the state into a mega city. It has dominated its public relations and informed its partnerships and urban renewal projects. While on the surface, Lagos has taken on a shiny gloss, it has done so at the expense of its poor indigenous fishing communities who are stripped of their homes and their only means of livelihood. The government thus far hasn’t provided them with any compensation for their losses or provided alternative means of survival. It has simply ignored these displaced persons, passing off their suffering as the price of urban renewal. But experts say the government’s destruction of coastal environments and marine life provides short-term gains which may come with a long-term cost.

From the Third mainland bridge that carries commuters daily from the Oworonshoki axis to the Island suburbs of Lagos, lies an uninterrupted view of low-cost houses shoddily built on soft marshy banks of the Lagos Lagoon. The stench from these trodden-down slums are an ever present reminder of the class divide that defines Lagos, and the communities that have grown around fishing and informal dredging of the state’s coasts. Since Lagos began its urban development projects, the urban poor have been paying the costs, which the relatively new state government has dubbed ‘Itesiwaju Eko’ lo’je wa lo’gun (Progressive Lagos is our priority) in the Yoruba language. Ebute-Ilaje is the most recent community hit by the state government’s aggressive landgrabs;—it is reclaiming land on which a new jetty is being constructed, the goal to connect Ikorodu, Apapa, Lagos Island, Badagry, Ajah and Epe via the waterways.

Ebute Ilaje slum

Ebute-Ilaje is a community in Bariga, Lagos, which has been in existence since 1947. First residents settled on the waterfront stretch of the Lagos lagoon bordering the University of Lagos and have grown to a population of over 10,000 habitants.

The waterfront community bubbles with pockets of fishing, sand mining and dredging; their major sources of livelihood. It’s a little more than a tiny collection of ramshackle houses and battered wooden boats that have long been abandoned, barely any trouble to anyone, let alone the government. On Saturday, January 30, 2016—the first Environmental sanitation day in the year, the state governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode in the company of the state’s commissioner for Waterfront Infrastructure Development and some other top government functionaries visited the community. They came in the wake of the government ‘taskforce’ who had arrived suddenly, smashed holes in the resident’s boats and threatened to burn down the slum if they continued to work on the coast.

That day didn’t end as all days do in Ebute-Ilaje, a community where everything catches a golden warmness despite its stench and trodden-down dumps.

That fortuitous day marked the beginning of agony throughout Ebute-Ilaje. It started the end of many lives due to the forced evictions and the destruction of over 262 boats. And has since then affected the source of livelihood of over 2,000 families.

A pontoon on the Ebute Ilaje coast

Business no more

Before the eviction started, times were good for Stella Ayeolowo. A genial, sixty-year-old and mother of six, Stella says she was raking in not less than 6,000 Naira every week from each of her three hulking wooden boats, each capable of carrying 10 tons of sands—all put together earns her 30,000 Naira every month from trading in the humblest of commodities: sand. It may not seem much by Lagos standard, but Ms. Ayeolowo says it was enough to feed her family and pay school fees.

“Before the government came, I make 30,000 every month, but now, I have nothing to live on. I now depend on my extended family for survival. I find it difficult to feed and pay my children’s school fees.” Said Stella.

After the governor’s visit, she and her colleagues were issued a stop-work order, followed by an eviction order. The government followed this with the destruction of over 262 boats effectively bankrupting Ms Ayeolowo and thousands of other residents. She says making of each of the boats costs her an estimated 700,0000 Naira. Since then, nobody from the government has visited them to show sympathy or compensate them for their losses.

Struggling to hang on

Celina Megbaowo

For Celina Megboawo, 60, a mother of six children, the rippling effects of the government’s land grab has hit home. She tells me she has lost two of her male children to ailments since she lost her dredging business. The native of Ilaje in Ondo came to settle in Ebute-Ilaje in 1947, she migrated from Ebutte Metta where she first settled, fishing with her husband.

“The sufferings are becoming too much and we don’t have any other job or business except our sand dredging business which has been taken away from us.”

“I have been jobless for the last three years, I am dying of starvation, I feed only once a day because there is nothing to feed on, my boats were destroyed in 2016.” She said.

As she spoke, she paused and heaved a sigh—not a sigh of relief but of disturbing memories of the loss of her two male children and her only means of income. She struggled to speak but tears had begun dripping down her already pale face, she reached for her wrapper and wiped her tears as she mumbles.

“I couldn’t buy them drugs.”

Dredging machines

Contrasting sharply with official lines

As at the time of my visit to this fishing and sand selling community, two dredging machines sit about two meters away from the shores of the lagoon, pumping sand towards the ongoing jetty construction site. On the other side of the bridge were machines dredging and sand filling a portion of the Oworonshoki lagoon for commercial and residential purpose.

But is Ebute-Ilaje a sand dredging site?

Eng. Adesola Kaseem, Chairman of The United Sand Dealers Association and Best Sand Nigeria Limited says Ebute-Ilaje was never a dredging site.

“Ebute-Ilaje is a sand selling site, we paddle for 5 hours on boat from here to as far as Oreta to dig our sands, and then return the next day with the sand to sell here.”

Adesola believes what the government labelled a security crackdown against crime is an excuse to drive them out.

“The government told us it was a security challenge they were trying to solve. They didn’t tell us that they are bringing development, they didn’t tell us that they want to evict us from our sand selling site,” he says.

Adesola showed me copies of letters of passionate appeals that have been written and exchanged between the sand sellers through the service of a lawyer, which the Lagos government received and replied through the Ministry of Waterfront and Infrastructure and Development.

Appeal by manual sand dredgers association to the Lagos state government to halt the dredging
Appeal by the society of manual sand dredgers to the Lagos state assembly to halt the machine dredging

“On the 4th of February, we were called to the government secretariat in Alausa, Ikeja for a meeting with the commissioner for Environment, and Waterfront and Infrastructure Development.”

“They told us that we should vacate the dredging site and I corrected that impression, it’s not a dredging site, it’s our selling site, we go far away into the lagoon, about 5 hours drive on boat from Bariga, to dig our sands.”

He also showed me copies of death certificates of the diseased sand sellers.

“We have lost 15 people since the eviction started; some of them developed sicknesses of all kinds and didn’t have money to seek doctors’ intervention or buy drugs. We have their death certificates with us.” Adesola said as he flipped through the certificates.

Also, some of the youth that work as sand diggers and transporters have equally lost their jobs, adding to Nigeria’s grim statistic of unemployed youths.

Even though Lagos has no single economic nerve centre or identity, statistics show that it has the fifth-largest economy in Africa. It is the only state within Nigeria that can thrive solely on its own internally generated revenue.

The history of Lagos however, shows a long practice of the government suppressing poor and low-income earners in the name of urban renewal. Ebute-Ilaje is not the first coastal community to fall victim to the government’s oppression and it will not be the last if this trend continues.

Dredging machines pumping sand from the Ebute Ilaje lagoon onto the new construction site

Not a theoretical risk

In countries around the world, sand extraction from rivers, lagoons and oceans has caused millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure. When mined or dredged, the sediments left behind from dredging and mining sites clog up water channels, and all the sand removed from river banks leaves the foundations of bridges exposed and unsupported.

In Mumbai, a densely populated city on India’s west coast for instance, uncontrolled mining of river beds across Maharashtra, particularly near bridges, are posing a grave danger and could have contributed to the collapse of the bridge on Savitri Riverin Mahad, which claimed several lives.

It’s not just a theoretical risk, in Lagos, most of the mechanised dredging is happening around the Carter bridge. The Carter Bridge links the two halves of Lagos connecting Ikoyi and Victoria Island to Oworonshoki. Oworonshoki’s proximity to the Lagoon has made it a prime mining site for sand miners, its ease of access to both the Mainland and Island, priming it as a commercial hub for the construction industry looking to buy sand for residential and commercial use. It’s been estimated that Lagos consumes an estimated 40 million cubic metres of sand per annum for building and construction projects.

A study by the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research has revealed that un-coordinated activities by miners and dredgers have caused erosion to depths of almost six metres into the seabed, a prime example being the Banana Island to Third Mainland Bridge axis.

Prof. Kola Adedeyo, Professor of Rural Development and Communication at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Ogun State, says dredging of sand around bridges has a lot of negative implication on the bridges.

“Most bridges are constructed on the riverbed, so if you continue to dredge sands from locations where bridges are constructed, you tend to undermine the integrity of those bridges which would in return lead to collapse.”

“Even for water transport, the regulators have to take a holistic approach to set a balance to the ecologically conscious environments, and also treat sand dredging as an economic decision-making unit in the system so that they can meaningfully and constructively contribute to both local and national development.”

However, Eng. Elobi Chukwuka Collins, a civil engineer, maintains that the impact of sand dredging in the context of Lagos has to do with the direct pressure which can affect the functionality of riverine and coastal ecosystem whereby the fish and other biological bodies in the river and can also cause a lot of displacement.

Collins added that the sand dredging situation of Lagos has a lot of negative effects on the delicate balance of the coastal ecosystem, forcing the fish and other seafood in the river to migrate.

He says “when you dredge sand from the water, you disrupt the natural sediment of the coastal bed which paves way for water currents to gradually erode into the foundation of bridges and buildings, making them susceptible to collapse.”

Collins practices hydraulics and structural and chemical engineering and currently works with the Nigeria Erosion Watershed Management Project in Anambra State as a consultant.

He says the Lagos sand dredging challenge is a concept of nature that has been in existence since the time of creation.

But is it totally bad or wrong for Lagos to dredge mechanically from the lagoons?

Collins says it’s not totally bad or wrong, but it’s usually large and very expensive because it takes a lot of sand from the water and if not properly coordinated, it comes with huge negative impact contributing to economic and environmental problems.

If mechanised sand dredging must be done, how best can we go about the dredging activities to make Lagos attain its megacity status?

If Lagos must continue with its industrial way of dredging of sands, to achieve its megacity status, how best can it be done?

The engineer says proper channelling of water after dredging of sand, which creates enough space for water to settle, should be encouraged. He advised that sample test and dredging plan with separating techniques should be taken into consideration before carry out any dredging activity.

Pains of urban renewal II: Fishermen at mercy of nobody

Adewale Opeseyi, a fisherman from Oto-Awori

It was 7 o’clock in the morning, the Oto-Awori lagoon ran cold. Adewale Opeseyi, 45, like many of his colleagues waded in, rowed his fishing boat for a net breaking catch, remaining on the Lagoon until blue-bellied clouds began to shroud the day. He could make no exciting expedition—shoals of jittery fish were eluding him, avoiding the Lagoon’s coastal waters as whole, denying the fisherman a day’s catch until pangs of frustration began to creep into him as he toiled aimlessly on the water.

Oto-Awori is a suburban community and local government development council area located along the Lagos-Badagry Expressway in Ojo local government area of Lagos. The fishermen of this town have been visited by giant rigs hoisting dredgers and mining rigs, and chasing away what is left of the Lagoon’s already dwindling fish population further downstream.

After some four hours of fishing, Adewale paddled his boat back to the Oto-Awori Jetty, I had just arrived on the Jetty—armed with my camera, a tripod, small jotter and a bamboo stick measuring up to 9 feet long. He was just disembarking from his boat with a heavily patched fishing net strapped to his shoulder, and a small plastic bucket containing his little catch still on his boat.

Adewale Opeseyi’s meagre catch

“Before the miners came, Oto-Awori village was a great fishing community, we go on fishing expedition between 6.30am and return by 9.00am with a great catch which gives us nothing less than 10,000 Naira a day,” Opeseyi said.

“But since the dredging of sand started on our water, the magnitude of fish we catch has reduced drastically, some of the parts of the water have been dredged and as a result, we struggle to make 3,000 Naira on a daily basis. Our water has been polluted.”

Opeseyi was born a fisherman in Oto-Awori where he and his wife and four children also live. He is a proud owner of a small fishing boat which he bought from his savings for 60,000 Naira, he often risks his life even when the waters are turbulent. Like his ancestors, he has carried on the family’s traditional vocation for 25 years. The father of four would goes sailing for four hours and return with a good yield that fetched a good price which gives enough earnings for him and his family to lead a decent life. But those were good old days when his village’s lagoon was still untouched by mechanised dredgers.

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