Damming Nigeria's Wetlands People: Communities Work Together to Restore Lives And Livelihoods

by Dr. Muslim Idris

In Nigeria, floodplains and wetlands are rich sources of livelihood for millions of people. These wetlands communities have been losing ground for many years, however. Nigeria's most important wetlands, the Hadejia-Nguru Wetlands, have shrunk by as much as two-thirds in the past 30-40 years because of diversions from dams, irrigation developments and drought. Fisheries, farming and wildlife are all impacted by these hydrological changes.

The Hadejia-Jama'are-Komadugu-Yobe basin - home to an estimated 25 million people - is a semi-arid to arid sub-catchment of the larger Lake Chad Basin. It is the source of internationally shared waters whose management has an important bearing on diplomatic relationships between Nigeria and four other countries that share the Lake Chad Basin (Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Central African Republic). The basin also holds a great potential for tourism, small- and medium-scale industries and habitat conservation.

The HJKY basin supports around half of the estimated 30 million people residing in the Lake Chad Basin, even though its share of water resources is less than 10% of the total for the LCB's full catchment area. The growth of human population throughout the region is a reality that has led to increased agricultural activity to feed the teeming population. Combined with changing climatic patterns over the years, the result has been increased pressure on water resources in the basin. The problems in the HJKY basin are part of a broader regional problem with managing water resources; Lake Chad itself is in critical condition, and has shrunk to just a tiny fraction of its historical size.

Life in the wetlands

The floodplain economy is based on cultivation, pastoralism and fishing. Many people engage in more than one of the main economic activities. The wetlands economic system has been dynamic for many generations.

The jewel in the crown in this basin is the Hadejia-Nguru Wetlands - not only is it the premier Ramsar site in Nigeria but also a place of enormous economic and ecological importance. The wetlands supports 10 million people engaged in extensive rice farming, grazing, fisheries, recession agriculture, pastoralism, forest regeneration and other economic activities.

The construction of the Tiga and Challawa dams on the Hadejia River and its tributaries greatly altered the river's natural flow pattern and has brought about changes to the environment and the livelihoods of the communities throughout the basin. One consequence to changes in the flow pattern of the river is increased siltation, particularly around the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands areas. Invasive Typha grass, which has flourished in the regulated river, has compounded the problem, leading to flooding of the major road linking the Six states. Poor management of the dams also often results in excessive flooding of farmlands, schools and villages, leading to loss of lives and properties.

Flooding in Nigeria's HJKY basin is a serious problem.
Flooding in Nigeria's HJKY basin is a serious problem.
Dr. Muslim Idris

Fisheries have been harmed by dam-related changes to flooding. The impacts have been felt by fishermen, fish processors, fish wholesalers, fish retailers, fish gear dealers and boat builders.
To make matters worse, industrial waste from tanneries is discharged into the river at the upstream side, creating serious environmental hazards and massive death of fish and other aquatic life. It also constitutes health hazards to humans and livestock using the river resources. All these increased the poverty level of the over 10 million people whose livelihoods rely directly or indirectly on the river in the basin.

Perhaps the most catastrophic change in the basin is the increase in dangerous floods. In August 2001, over 225 people were feared dead and more than 200,000 people displaced by the flood resulting from poor management of the Tiga and Challawa dams. Farmlands, livestock, crops and natural biodiversity were lost due to changes in the river flow pattern caused by damming the rivers.

The physical problems caused by the dams are compounded by weak legal and policy frameworks, poor management and maintenance of the dams, inadequate stakeholder preparedness for effective participation, insufficient consultation by decision-makers of directly affected people, the absence of grassroots advocacy groups, and low levels of citizen participation at all levels.

Adding to the problems is the increase in population, which is putting more pressure on water resources. Over-fishing has resulted in the decline in fish stocks, especially of the most commercially attractive species, and has caused a consequent sharp decline in income among riverine communities.

Livelihoods in the wetlands

The floodplains and wetlands support communities stretching along the river course by providing them with source of income and nutrition from agriculture, grazing lands, fishing, non-timber products, fuel wood, drought fall-back security and tourism potential. Ramsar estimated between US$34-51 per hectare as the economic value of the wetlands. The total economic value of the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands has been estimated at $15.9 million.

The floodplains and wetlands have been intensively cultivated and frequented by domestic animals, especially during the dry season, when nomadic pastoral groups migrate there in search of grazing areas. In the dry season, the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands support approximately 320,000 cattle, 370,000 goats and 375,000 sheep.

The largest irrigation scheme in the basin - Kano River Irrigation Project (KRIP) - is located upstream, and is fed by Tiga and Challawa Gorge Dams. The irrigation project has not been a major economic success. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, "The economic value of production from the wetlands is very large, many times greater than that of all the irrigation schemes for which the inflowing rivers are dammed, diverted and their waters used."

The upstream communities whose access to water was boosted with the construction of the dams and other hydraulic structures and development of public irrigation schemes now have higher per capita income and enjoy higher standards of living compared to communities downstream, which have lost natural resources from these developments. Communities downstream have complained seriously over their increasingly poor access to water.

The priority issue for wetlands communities is regulation of excessive and persistent floods, which have overtaken more than 70% of their farmlands. The priority issue for communities downstream is that of water recession and desertification, which affect their ecosystem and economic productivity.

Moving toward solutions

For a number of years, communities were left to fend for themselves in face of floods, siltation, invasive weeds and other impacts from poor water management in the basin. Today, however, they have joined in partnership with other stakeholders and decision-makers to begin to reverse the basin's worst problems. The process to solve these many problems started with creating a knowledge base of information about the basin. Local academics and researchers have compiled socio-economic and environmental studies, and undertaken an audit of water resources in the basin. The information allowed for the creation of a Decision Support System and a Catchment Management Plan, which were developed for the entire basin. The various stakeholders were consulted to reaffirm their interests, hope and aspirations.

Top government functionaries and politicians were brought to the region to enlighten them on the need for action and canvas their support for improvements. This resulted in the emergence of a strong movement and agitation calling for urgent action to rescue the basin resources from further deterioration. The governors of the six riparian states and the federal government called a summit of local leaders to map the way forward. One of the declarations of the summit was the urgent need to develop a water charter for the sustainable and equitable management of basin resources as well as the formation of a Trust Fund in the basin. The Trust Fund was formed with the soul aim of coordinating and sharing available water and land resources in the basin in an equitable, efficient and sustainable way among all stakeholders. It also links up with the six states Integrated Water Resources Management Committees (IWRMCs) and community organizations in the basin, such as the Wetland Development Initiative, which has about 400 NGOs and CBOs to carry out its project activities from inception through construction and maintenance.

The traditional authorities, user groups and community-based organizations are involved at the grassroots level with conflict management. They also participate in decision-making on project conception, execution, operation and maintenance, policy formulation, sensitization and advocacy issues. For example, upstream and downstream communities that were previously competing for water have agreed to and signed a memorandum of understanding to share water on rotational bases, one community skipping one or two days for each other to ensure equitable share of the flow along the river, thereby improving their livelihoods.

By addressing the same problem at different levels, the various stakeholders have provided the basin with a practical demonstration of how an "integrated water resources management" (IWRM) approach can lead to more equitable and sustainable use of water resources in a basin. This has triggered a number of related developments, including the reform of flawed existing institutional arrangements in the basin, and policy changes and budget allocations to strengthen and sustain the new IWRM-related structures and processes. Civil society groups, water committees, donor partners and the technical team for the Trust Fund discuss projects to be executed and how to carry them out. There is better coordination, cooperation and understanding within the basin as no government or individual carries out any major project or activity without the consent of the Trust Fund, state water committees and the communities. The process is providing a model for basins across the country.

In June 2006, a Summit of Governors of the riparian States of the Hadejia-Jama'are-Komadugu-Yobe Basin was attended by the President of the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Minister for Water Resources. It took nearly three years from the time the plan was first hatched to bring these key high-level stakeholders together to bring resources at their disposal to address the basin's problems.

Today, a workplan of proposed activities to resolve the ongoing problems in the area is starting to be implemented. The plan includes the following elements:

  • Install hydro-meteorological instrumentation to provide quality data for better water management planning.
  • Install warning systems on all dams to alert downstream dwellers in case of dam break
  • Coordinate water management activities in the two basins.
  • Hold workshops on managing and operating the dams to improve the equitable sharing of their benefits and reducing risks to downstream dwellers.
  • Carry out pilot projects to remove silt and typha plants along the river course to improve inflow to Lake Chad and thereby reduce flooding and increase agricultural productivity.
  • Capacity-building for the communities on conflict management.
  • Provide micro-credit loans to community groups and NGOs in the basin.
  • Formulate a Water Charter that will assist in effective implementation of the plans and activities in the basin of all concern stakeholders.
  • Hold a stakeholders meeting twice a year to account for stewardship of the Trust Fund.

    Broad Lessons

    Lessons learned in the basin include:

    • Public participation generates tangible benefits, by fostering cooperation in developing and implementing strategic actions.
    • Normalization of flows and fostering efficiency and multiple use of water can be managed without huge impacts on dam operators and upstream users, while greatly improving the lot of downstream dwellers.
    • Improving accountability and service delivery is critical. All project execution in the basin follows due processes and with effective monitoring strategies and benchmarks for improvement.
    • Conservation of water, soil and biodiversity is the responsibility of everyone in the basin. Sustainable use and regulation of groundwater must be a top priority for any water-management plan to succeed.
    • Good political will is imperative to back up sustainable development in the basin.

    Today, communities and traditional authorities in the basin have renewed hope that they will one day see reduced conflicts over water resources. They dream of the day when river flows will be restored to their pre-dam construction era when the various user groups were living in harmony with each other because the resources were quite abundant for all to reap.

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    The author chairs the Joint States Integrated Water Resources Management Committee in the Komadugu Yobe Basin. He was born in the basin and has worked there for over 30 years as a hydrogeologist.