With over 10,000km of waterways and 3,000km of navigable network linking 28 states, Nigeria’s waterways are a largely untapped goldmine. Indeed, a lot has been lost all these years in terms of potential businesses not yet open, potential jobs not yet existing and potential revenues lost.
Instead, the biggest stories we hear about our inland waterways are the health risks that come from unhygienic practices. But over the years, there has been an increased understanding of the economic benefits of setting up our waterways for interstate transportation.
Already the Federal Government has spent billions of naira dredging our major river channels and constructing/restructuring river ports and jetties. This shows that the government is not unmindful of the economic opportunities that would accrue to the nation if the waterways become busy through inter-state transportation.
These opportunities include tourism, recreation and water sporting services, transportation services (runs and cruises), boat building and dredging services, dockyard services/management, engineering work, fishing and hydropower generation, hydrographic survey, irrigation, oil and gas exploration including support services, maritime education services, underwater engineering services and water supply.
If the waterways are made more navigable, it will reduce pressure on the nation’s road transport network and enable cargoes to be moved over long distances at very cheap rates. It will be one more strong cord that binds our great nation.
Having said that, government’s dredging of the nation’s waterways is just the beginning of what needs to be done to make them economically useful, as there are many other practical challenges that lurk in the corner.
First, majority of the channels are not buoyed. Buoys when installed along the channels will indicate safe routes for navigation.
Second is the issue of depth: most of the channels in Nigeria are shallow. The lower portion of the River Niger has been dredged but other routes on the waterways also need dredging if they are to be put to proper use.
Private investors should partner with state governments on this through Public Private Partnerships.
Third is the issue of security. The Marine unit of the Nigeria Police Force is not currently covering enough routes and needs to step up its game. The Federal Government should also ensure that the unit is properly equipped to perform its job and not be overburdened by inadequate equipment and staffing.
The National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) needs to do more to clear debris on the waterways. For instance, the water hyacinths littering Lagos waterways and water channels in other parts of the country have to go.
A very important issue in all of this is the issue of safety. Government must ensure strict regulation of coastal vessel operators to ensure that global best practices are observed at all times. Vices like the overloading of boats for selfish economic benefit and non-repair of faulty parts should be deterred by severe sanctions to prevent unnecessary marine accidents.
Vessel operators should aim to cater to the comfort of passengers by purchasing modern vessels.
With the shocks the oil sector is facing, government must urgently develop the inland waterways with a view to opening up interstate transport as a way of diversifying the economy.
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