An exclusive interview with Prof P C Nwilo, Professor of Surveying and Geoinformatics UNILAG, Lagos on his sabbatical at NIWA and sundry issues of dredging and field measurement.
DDH: Sir let start first with these your tenure entrepreneur, what you did there and what you perceive, your job to be and how you attended it.
Prof Nwilo: I came into NIWA in 2002, 7 th of January, 2002. I needed a place to do my sabbatical and the then Managing Director, Engineer Rabiu Abubakar was looking for a man… Initially, he just wanted me to be a consultant because of my background, but when I came in, in the MD’s wisdom he made me the head of research, planning and environment. That department was just coming up and was supposed to be, if you like call it, the think-tank because the research provides the necessary background information for most of the things you do. The first thing I did was to prepare some kind of responsibility in the department: what the department should be in charge of and looking at what I was told to do: the name research, planning and environment department, I felt, one, that I had to provide the research background for a lot of things that are done in the department. Two, that the planning for a lot of activities should emanate from us but we are not supposed to be an island unto ourselves, we have to work in collaboration with the other departments. Three, anything that has to do with environment, we are supposed to be in charge of it. If we are doing EIA, what is the nature of the environment of NIWA, we should have that information. Of course, some of this information were already being done by some (other departments). Before I came, there was a planning unit, so that planning unit became a part of it. They had a computer center, the computer center became part of us. Then I had to develop other things. It was an exciting experience because the MD made me quite comfortable and I tried to work for him. I believe one of the things that this department was to do is to provide the knowledge-based information that will drive NIWA and I tried to do that. I looked at so many things. Some of the things I looked at was that NIWA was relatively new. So I started talking of: if you are an organization, you must have some collaborations. One of the things I did was to work out some collaborations with a number of organizations. One of which was a German Waterways. We were able to complete that Memorandum of Understanding. The other organization I worked with was US Army Corps of Engineers and I got them to be interested in working with Inland Waterways to the extent that they had this conference on the Comparing Rivers Mississippi and the Niger. And comparing the Mississippi and the Niger they had many similarities and I had to travel with the MD for that conference, including people from Ministry of Water Transport and the Niger Delta Development Commission. They were all part of it. Now that was part of trying to midwife and elaborate collaboration, we also had to visit their Environment and Development Center at Vicksburg in the state of Mississippi. That is where they have their environmental research laboratory, to see what they were doing. And, of course, they took us down to see the way their Inland Waterways were working. I think that was the last assignment I did. The other thing I did was to improve on the quality of NIWA Computer center. I hired two staff, one with B.Sc. in computer Science and the other with B.Sc. in Computer Engineering I hired people who I believe will make the Computer Center work. The Center was able to develop a database of NIWA facilities all over the country. .We also held a major workshop. The publication is out, you can see it. I believe there was a need for publications. Publications are one of the ways to judge an organization, especially if you have a research component. So I held a workshop on pollution and sediment in the inland water ways of Nigeria and I attracted over forty experts who produced papers and I got support from UNIDO. UNIDO supported that project because that was a personal contribution. I told Unido to support that program. UNIDO provided N625, 000:00 while Inland Waterways provided N1.108M, so UNIDO was a major participant. I also got UNIDO to publish it. We edited and got it published as a document. Of course, I was able to pull staff from within and outside the system. In fact, I attracted somebody with a Ph.D to be in the department. I felt that a Research, Planning & Environment department must have people that are research oriented in some areas so that you can provide the necessary research direction.. If you say you are a research department, you should be able to discuss with people at that level, so I have to attract graduates with good results as much as possible and of course I provided the necessary leadership. Those who were cut out were able to do it. I wrote so many papers there for the Inland Waterways, so that anywhere NIWA was, it couldl speak authoritatively.
DDH: When you went to the US to see the facilities of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is the equivalent of our Inland Waterways department…
Prof. Nwilo: (cuts in) Well not necessarily the equivalent but they have a major role to play.
DDH: They are working in the same kind of jurisdiction administratively. Now sir what is supposed to be the summary of the work of the inland waterways department?
Prof Nwilo: You see when you talk of transportation you have the road, you have the railway, you have the air, and you have the water. So the transportation network in any country has to be of those four components, even for landlocked countries, once their rivers are navigable, water is the major part. So the inland waterways is supposed to provide the infrastructure for the people to move… That is a major responsibility, apart from other responsibilities of collecting fees, protecting people and providing necessary security for people to navigate in inland water ways. You must be able to provide the necessary infrastructure for people to move around. If you do not provide that then you have not done what is expected. NIWA needs to provide jetties, dredge to make the waters navigable for ship or boat to be-able to move even in terms of even encouraging people. You know Nigerians, we are not used to plying in water. We need to encourage Nigerians to move through the Niger off to Niger and move through the Benue off to the boundary with Cameroon. Those rivers must be navigable and it would not necessarily need to provide boats but you need to encourage people to partner with you or partner with the waterways, and be able to provide a necessary infrastructure for that and provide the necessary regulations. Manage your resources. The resources of inland waterways are very big. I mean when you are talking of any land within one in one hundred year return period, in other words, the highest water level that can get to around the water ways in one in one hundred years, belongs to the Inland Waterways. So that is an enormous amount of asset not only the land but even the resources within it. So Inland Waterways can as well provide the necessary infrastructure for tourism; some of their sites are very beautiful, I remember we tried to get some images in those days, where birds come during the summer, birds from Europe come during the winter. Beautiful sites!. You have nice beaches where people can play around. So those are responsibilities they could capture. And of course NIWA has very good workshops for repair of machines. And of course, they were some boats that they had in those days and which I think could also be sustained. Remember that these days we do encourage full public participation. The Inland Waterways wants to avoid being responsible for providing those facilities, but ensures that she provides the infrastructure. For example, the waterways must be navigable. You must make people appreciate that with inland waterways, the goods you carry through the waterways is much bigger than what can be carried by other means of transportation.. And if inland waterways are functioning well, that is, big ships are passing, tugs are passing, you relieve the road of the big weights and the wear and tear on the roads. So you are complementing every other transportation. When I went to U.S, I mean we saw ships moving on the Mississippi. I mean it’s like it could carry forty trailers, and the bridges can open and the ship would pass. After seeing it was something to be proud of. Now the other responsibility is to show ships where (wrecks are). When I talk of navigability you must know where there are wrecks, provide the buoys so that they don’t have accidents. The waterways is about the safest means of moving on the water and is also the cheapest means of transporting goods.
DDH: Inland waterways are supposed to coordinate all these, not just building of jetties?
Prof Nwilo: No, jetty is just to provide the necessary infrastructure, but to ensure that people use the water ways, water ways are navigable, it’s part of their responsibility. To even develop the surrounding land that they have, it’s part of their responsibility.
DDH: Then if we come to the issue of, you have now said what the inland water ways are supposed to do and all that. How do you rate NIWA’s job of dredging the waterways. Right now, they are supervising the dredging of the River Niger, in view of your knowledge of their institutional capacity how do you rate their performance in managing this project?
Prof Nwilo: Well Inland Waterways is responsible for the dredging, but it has a consultant that is supposed to work for them. They do not necessarily need to do it themselves and it is even not advisable. But they coordinate what is happening. Let me say that the present dredging was part of what the regime of Rabiu Abubakar thought of. It started with P.T.F (Petroleum Trust Fund) when General Mohammed Buhari was the chairman. So there was that plan to do it. And in fact they tried to start, and when he left, those things were stopped. So, Abubakar himself tried to push that, even everything that is being done now, including the development of the ports were part of the total package that started during his regime and they never materialized. But one thing I do know is that dredging is normally started when the water (level) is low. It is cheaper and faster to do it. And I think the water level was high (when they started the present dredging campaign) and that is not the right time to start.
DDH: You mean this present river Niger dredging?
Prof Nwilo: Yes, then the water level in Nigeria in September and October is high, so that is not the right time to start, you must do it when the water is low..
DDH: So that is one fault already?
Prof Nwilo: Yes, I don’t think they did that at the right time. I am aware that they did a lot of necessary background studies like pre-surveys and also water crossing, because I know that the consultant provided some of those data. And even Inland Waterways has part of the responsibility to some surveys which was going to help them on their planning and to help them identity where to dredge and where not to dredge. Because when you are talking about dredging, you are not dredging the entire length and width. It is not the right thing. There might be areas that are deep, so you go there and remove the sand. That time I think we were talking about 100 meters width…
DDH: At the mid stream?
Prof Nwilo: It does not mean you have to follow the middle. It is based on the way the water is going, unless you want to cut some areas and maintain the middle. You are looking at the depth, anywhere is not deep, you dig some sand from there. That time we were talking of 2.5meter or so, I’m not too sure whether they still maintain that but that’s what we had in mind. So whatsoever boat or ship is coming it would have enough draught. So if you have a ship that is bigger than that, then it cannot use the waterways.
DDH: Now that parts of the dredging has been suspended to allow for the shoreline project as I informed you before, do you think this would affect the eventual result of the inland waterway dredging?
Prof. Nwilo: Well in fact, you know I am just hearing that. I did not know that it was suspended. Let me say that you do not necessarily have to do shoreline before you dredge. Are you saying the entire project is suspended or part?
DDH: Yes, part of it, the lower Niger part…
Prof Nwilo: Well the government is in a position to … maybe they wanted to have money to do some shoreline protection. Let me tell you, the sand from the dredging can be used. You have what they call useful uses of dredged materials. One of the useful uses of dredged materials is to use sand from there to sand-fill. So they can go on simultaneously. You get sand, may be the state does not want them to develop the town close to the water. It is the sand you get from there that you will use to develop the town, because as you are doing these you would be able to identify where you have sand. So you take the sand there and sand-fill, and you can use the sand for shoreline protection. So I do not see the reason to suspend other than that they are playing some politics.
DDH: The report said the Governors of the coastal states feel that some of their villages are being washed away by the Atlantic Ocean.
Prof Nwilo:They are not being washed away because they are dredging.
DDH: They are saying that if the dredging is completed more volumes of water will be flowing down, and then it will be affecting their communities.
Prof. Nwilo: Let me tell you, to start with that area is very deep. Ok, so you are not going to dredge that area as much as you dredge upstream. So that issue has always been an issue that people say that the water will come in more. And I say it’s a simple thing. Prepare a model (of) what the river Niger is like now, and you prepare what it will look like after and use a model to show what is likely to happen. But there is nowhere in the world the waterways are not optimally used, because it will create so much jobs, particularly for people in the riverine areas. So I do not share that opinion. I rather think that the waterways will provide some facilities, some necessities for protecting their shoreline. That is my honest opinion. It’s not good to just say, oh! it’s going to take away things, how? In U.S., the Mississippi is very similar to the Niger, but it’s so well developed, and it will be foolish of us to destroy our own way of transport. One of the things we got from the U.S Navy was, ‘look, we made a mistake a long time ago because they built banks, they build solid banks to protect their (waterways). Now when you build solid banks, you destroy the wetlands. The wetland is a major asset. One of the most important resources of any nation is the wetlands, because that is where you get fish, all kind of herbs. Some of the animals that are endangered, that is where they reside. So when you build walls, do you know what you are doing? You see water following into those areas and coming out, is naturally good, its refreshes the system. So the wetlands must be alive, so when you build these channels the way they are thinking now, it will destroy the wetlands and indirectly affect the resources of their people. So one of the things we took home, I hope Inland Waterways still remembers, one of the things they told us was, do not destroy the wetlands by building hard walls except in cities. You may have erosion somewhere (but) when you do shoreline, what you have done is that, you are saying to the wetlands that you should no longer receive water from the fresh source.
DDH: So how do you then protect the shoreline, it there is likely arose of erosion from the sea?
Prof Nwilo: You see if people are living in those areas, then they can protect them, but if people are not living there please don’t do that. The erosion that we are having is because of the nature of our soil. Now, what is normally done is to plant trees for an area that is not fully developed; you plant trees, you plant trees like mango, but if it is where people are living, you protect them, because naturally over time things will stabilize. So I do not share that idea. It is just like when you are talking about building bridges. I feel that when you construct so many flat bridges in the Niger delta, you are depriving them of their natural ways of movement, which is by boat and you are also saying that big boats should not come upstream..
DDH: But the bridge can be made to have enough allowance for ships to go in and out.
Prof. Nwilo: Yes but the design can be such that it would be curved. You see in the U.S. how they build it but you know in our own they are building flat bridges. So I do not know, but I feel sad and on few occasions I have had cause to go for conferences in the Niger delta I have actually made that point, that this is their natural means of movement. I’m not saying there should be no bridges. I’m saying that we should be able to look at the totality of the Niger delta creeks and rivers and know the one that we can constructing across them would not affect their natural being, because in the smaller creeks we can do them, and it wouldn’t affect their natural means of movement. So we must identify the major channels through which ships can come in.
DDH: When you were at NIWA how did you look at the issue of E.I.? Were they being done when you where there and how was it.
Prof Nwilo: E.I.A is being done when there is a major project, but when you say only major, then it means, you may miss several small ones that can cumulatively cause serious impacts. We know there is also what we call cumulative impact assessment of a number of projects. Now I know that the major thing that was on then was the dredging and there was E.I.A for the dredging.
DDH: For the communities along the coast of the river Niger what kind of dangers did they face at all?
Prof.Nwilo: What the E.I.A provides is that you do a study? What are the possible impacts you know? You do a study to identify the possible impact. Now when you do that, there is also a provision for communities to participate. So you have these village or town meetings where people will give their opinions and you should be able to explain to them. They may be right, they may be wrong, but the essence is to capture the feeling of the community, to carry them along. So some of the views they may express, you may not even have captured in you studies. So part of that community meeting is to be able to capture their feelings and allay their fears, and if they are right, you incorporate that so as to have a total view.
DDH: How do you see the dredging industry in Lagos state, especially the way the state government is intruding into the mandate of NIWA in the state?
Prof Nwilo: You see NIWA is supposed to be responsible for the waterways. Lagos state also has a responsibility to protect its citizens against adverse consequences. If things work well they should be working together, because the government must protect its citizens. The dredging was being done without consideration to the consequences. Those people who are doing the dredging in the state, some of them are for sand mining. What is the effect for that sand mining? Now I tell you, I have always taken students to go and do studies on the waterways, and around Lamgbasa area, we got a place where just 24meters and the water was turning. In fact, the depth we got was more than 24meters.
DDH: So the water was not following?
Prof. Nwilo: It was not, it was turning. So I was surprised to see that kind of depth. You see when you are looking for sand, it’s good to look for sand because it’s a natural asset. But it’s also good to look at the consequences. Part of what I expect Inland Waterways to be doing is to study the consequences of these things. Remember there was a time the Third Mainland Bridge collapsed somewhere around Lagos. Now that happened because the foundations of those pillars were deprived of the quantity of sand that was supposed to be piled below it. So when you are dredging in a lagoon like that, you must be sure that you are not depriving the necessary infrastructure of the much-needed sediment. You must study the sediment dynamics in the system, where does it go from there? So where I think the inland Waterways did not do well was that they have not looked at when you give license for people to mine, you should also look at what are the consequences? Especially for a place developed like Lagos. You must be able to say these are likely. It’s like E.I.A, and in that case you have to do cumulative impact assessment, because not only one miner. So, I think that’s where the conflict is. I think it would do us right for Inland Waterways and Lagos state to discuss, because each of them has a responsibility. For example, one of the things Inland Waterways is supposed to do is to show where abandoned boats are. You give license for people to ply the waterways. Sometimes, the things are abandoned and covered. Part of their responsibility is to show where those wrecks are so that people don’t have accident. Or when you have where they buried pipes, they should provide that information, because the company came to take permission from Inland Waterways to bury those pipes. So you must know where they are and provide the necessary information. That’s why I talk about infrastructure for the people to move around safely.
DDH: So that has not been done by NIWA?
Prof Nwilo: I don’t know. They had that information, but in terms of what to show or as available information for signage and buoys and lighting that also is part of it. Where they are, you must provide that information,
DDH: Why do you think NIWA is not doing it sufficiently?
Prof. Nwilo: I wouldn’t honestly know. At times it may be that people don’t know that it is necessary. But I think they should know. NIWA should know that those things are necessary, because they have the information. You see when somebody wants to cross he takes permission from NIWA, so that information should be provided. And in terms of what is available to anybody, the relevant departments should have a comprehensive map showing where these things (pipes or cables) have crossed. Most a time they are buried at the bed, but even so it’s important that the information is readily available. It’s not that they don’t have it. If they search through their records, they will see it. But somebody who wants to do a job can come to NIWA and say I need this information. It should be accessible and he pays for it and collects the information for his own. My position is that we should have a map showing the features, under the water and above, so the information should be available for anybody who wants. Because you might just want the information to enable you do your own job. Those things should be available for people to easily access. Now let me tell you, NIWA has so much information that I believe that they can make as much more money than what they are making now, because those information is money. If you do them right, NIWA could keep the information they have in the internet and people log-in with a license. So there are many ways. You can have training workshops or conferences of certain aspects. Now data is the major aspect the Inland Waterway should be doing. And that is money but because you are not talking of billions people are not interested, but these are things that make other people assess you and make you relevant. Remember that the former department of Inland Waterways used to provide books on water level, they use to have them.
DDH: Now you have done quite a lot in academia. You went to sabbatical and came back to academia. Would you call this something like the actualization of town and the gown?
Prof. Nwilo: Something like that. I must say I really commend R D Abubakar for giving me the opportunity to work with him. And Surveyor Chief O.K. Achinuvu who facilitated it, because my coming to NIWA wasn’t by accident. For a long time I provided a lot of technical support to the Survey department when Chief Achinuvu was the head. It was in the course of it that Achinuvu took me to R D Abubakar and Abubakar just bought into it. I believe that it was a very wonderful experience. But I am not happy that after all that we did, they were not sustainable. I give you a typical example. When I was head of research, the whole place was networked. They had V-Sat that was functional. That was in year 2002. That was before anybody had V-Sat. And it was a concept I sold to them but they did not sustain it. Two, some of those efforts we made should have been followed up. The German Waterways collaboration, which was mainly for training was not followed up. I see training as a very important aspect, because even within the professional bodies, one of the things that has become mandatory is training. If you stay where you are, you will be left behind. So I think they should have benefited from those relationships that were not followed up, the one of German Inland Waterways and the one of one of US Army Corps of Engineers. They did not follow them up. You must be able to collaborate with people, even within the country. They could send people for short trainings in country. The other one was, I told you we did a workshop. Now there are other things that we looked at: look at water hyacinth. Water hyacinth has become a major menace to navigation. Last year when we were supervising Lagos State mapping and part of the mapping included the waterways, there was a time the surveyors couldn’t move because virtually the whole of Lekki lagoon was covered with water hyacinth. You know the issue of water hyacinth, so many establishments claim to be in charge and this is part of what Inland Waterways should be doing. There are useful uses of water hyacinth. Water hyacinth is seen in the fresh water environment. Am sure you know that the Lekki lagoon is a freshwater environment. There are ways of removing it. One of them is that you can call the villagers to harvest it, and you pay them, if you pay them they will harvest it. Now what is harvested can be used. Some people use it for manure; some people have used it to produce biogas. I went to somewhere in Benin Republic, a place they call Songhai Center. In Songhai Centre they plant it for human faeces. What they do is that, when they go to toilet, you know we normally have our septic tank, in their own case it’s open, they put water hyacinth on it. So the water hyacinth will eat the feces immediately and grow so big, and is used to generate biogas.