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Nigeria’s river basins and agricultural development

Nigeria’s 11 river basin development authorities are largely failures, especially in promoting all-year round agricultural activities, reports Nigeria’s Newswatch magazine

Water, water everywhere, but there is no water to drink.” This line taken from S.T Coleridge’s the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, aptly describes the irony of the Nigerian food situation. The country has vast arable lands, abundance of water and river basin resources to drive all year round farming activities, yet it is still trapped in rain fed agriculture and one seasonal farming period that cannot satisfy its foods needs.

Nigeria has 11 River  Basin Development Authorities, RBDAs, created in 1976 by the Federal Government to harness the country’s water resources and optimise Nigeria’s agricultural resources for food self sufficiency. The RBDAs include the Sokoto-Rima Basin, Sokoto; Hadejia-Jema’are Basin, Kano; the Lake Chad Basin, Maiduguri; the Upper Benue Basin, Yola; the Lower Benue Basin, Makurdi and the Cross River Basin, Calabar. Others are the Anambra-Imo Basin, Owerri; the Niger Basin, Ilorin; the Niger Delta Basin, Port Harcourt; the Benin-Owena Basin, Benin City and the Oshun-Ogun Basin, Abeokuta.

The RBDAs were established to provide water for irrigation and domestic water supply, improvement of navigation, hydro-electric power generation, recreation facilities and fisheries projects. The basins were also expected to engender big plantation farming and encourage the establishment of industrial complexes that could bring the private and public sectors in joint business partnership.

The river basins authorities were also expected to bridge the gap between the rural and urban centres by taking development to the grass roots and discourage migration from the rural areas to the urban centres. These objectives were to be achieved through surface impoundment of water by constructing small, medium and large dams, which would enable an all-year round farming activities in the country.

While appraising the RBDAs in 1981, JBE Awachie, professor of Zoology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka and former chairman, National Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research, said that policy was to use the “basins as development modules to bridge the widening gap between rural and urban areas and stem the drift of rural people to overcrowded cities.”

In furtherance of these objectives, the Federal Department of Fisheries, FDF, was also established in 1976. According to I Amusu, of the FDF, Victoria Island, Lagos, the fisheries department would collaborate with the RBDAs to promote fishery development through a number of different kinds of projects that provide financial and technical assistance to promote fisheries in commercial and small-scale fish farming. “The need for the development of fisheries in the river basins cannot be overemphasised as it is essential for complementing the production from marine sources,” Amusu said.

However, these objectives are yet to be fulfilled 33 years after. Currently, Nigeria spends more than $2 billion annually to import 1.6 million tons of fish yearly. The country is also the highest importer of rice and wheat in Africa.

Francis Idachaba, professor of agricultural economics, who chaired the recent Newswatch Colloquium on Agriculture and Food Crisis in Nigeria, said that the RBDAs have not been able to live up to the expectation of contributing to the nation’s search for food security by reducing the country’s dependence on rain-fed agriculture and increase the proportion of irrigated agriculture that would make possible two, and sometimes three, cropping seasons in one year. He doubted the ability of the RBDAs to realise the government irrigation action plan, which projected that a total of 454,021 hectares would be brought under irrigation between 2008 and 2012.

This would have reduced high levels of instability in crop and livestock production in the country. Rather, the basins development authorities have produced unintended consequences such as undue focus on large-scale dams with their heavy capital and management intensity that have threatened their sustainability. The scheme has benefited the multinational companies more than the country.

“The unintended beneficiaries of RBDAs have tended to be multinational companies engaged in the design, construction and maintenance of the dams and the reservoirs, which is why the RBDAs have made little or no impact in their contribution to drastic increase in the proportion of total agriculture that is under small-scale irrigation agriculture,” Idachaba said.

Now, the challenge is to re-orientate RBDAs away from the newsworthy, attention-catching large scale dams and reservoirs to a drastic increase in the proportion of small scale irrigation in all RBDAs irrigation intervention.

The large dams also pose serious environmental problems. Awachie pointed out that the resort to large dams could pose unmitigated negative impacts on fisheries, as was the case with the Kainji dam.

A number of factors militated against the successful running of the RBDAs. One of these factors was the development from above syndrome whereby developmental plans were imposed on the people by governments. “ Local populations who bear heavy social costs of the developments including loss of homes, fertile farm lands, fishing and fishing grounds, are not usually consulted in any of the critical decision making phases of project planning, implementation, management and evaluation,” Awachie said.

Other militating factors include policy discontinuity, inadequate funding due to government dwindling revenue and lack of understanding and focus on its core mandate. Particularly, the sacking of the Shehu Shagari’s administration in the military coup of 1983 denied the basins government attention and funding as the new military government paid it little or no attention.

In 1992, as a result of the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, substantial subsidy on irrigation was dropped. This was a fallout of the government’s inability to shoulder the cost of development in the face of slumping revenue and mounting foreign debt obligation. Moreover, the underlying economic philosophy of SAP was predicated on the assumption that agriculture was purely a private sector business.

Dupe Olatunbosun, professor of agricultural economics, told Newswatch that the RBDAs failed because they were used to divert funds to other functions that were unrelated to their mandate. They were also not properly monitored to ensure that they achieved the objectives for which they were set up.

“There is need to review and restructure the basins to make them perform reasonable functions within the economy, because whether we like it or not agriculture is the future of the Nigerian economy,” Olatunbosun said.

The setbacks suffered by the river basins authorities over the years notwithstanding, a new era may soon dawn for them as a number of state governments are mapping out ways to seriously engage them to drive their agricultural projects.

Ogaranya Tabs-Tabowei, Delta State commissioner for agriculture and natural resources, told Newswatch that the state government was going into joint venture with the River Niger Basin Development Authority for the cultivation of rice. “Even though many of them went into limbo, we are going into joint venture with the Niger River Basin and we think we are going to succeed with them,” Tabs-Tabowei said.

Imo State government is also rearing to go into collaborative programme with the Anambra-Imo River Basin Development Authority. Longers Anyanwu, commissioner for agriculture and natural resources, said the state’s commercial agriculture programme would be used to revitalise the river basin.

The state’s seed multiplication programme would be anchored by the river basin. “They suffered because of lack of focus on agricultural activities. Now, the ministry of agriculture and Natural Resources is determined to ensure that agricultural activities go with irrigation of the body waters in the state,” Anyanwu told Newswatch.

In May, this year, Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu, governor of Niger State, indicated the willingness of the state government to engage the Upper Niger River Basin Development Authority in a partnership that would add value to its agricultural programmes. The partnership would also produce an effective action plan that would grow the state’s agricultural sector and complete irrigation and dams projects littered around the state.