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Shrinking rivers, wilting lives

How climate change, drying rivers are making Nigeria’s fishermen extinct

 In the first of a two-part report, our correspondent Terkula IGIDI travels across Nigeria to find out how Nigeria’s drying up rivers have caused fish species to disappear, while fishermen and their families suffer


SEVENTY-two-year-old Salihu Abdullahi paddles his canoe to the bank of the River Niger, shivering from cold, having stayed on the water for over four hours, fishing. Before he moored the canoe to the sandy bank, he calls out his elderly wife, who stoops and scoops the few fish that splashed the dirty water in the dugout. “I didn’t make a big catch today,” he said in Hausa. “It is the will of God.

Salihu may be too old and uneducated to understand the impact of climate change on his lifelong occupation but some of his colleagues do.  They have lived on the banks of the river long enough to notice that it is shrinking thus making fish scarce. Nigeria has failed to meet its fish demand due largely to the environmental changes in the two main rivers which have been exacerbated by factors ranging from climate change to anthropogenic activities and corruption by the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), the government agency saddled with the responsibility of managing the rivers.

The country has a fish supply gap of 2.197 million metric tonnes given that the total fish demand for Nigeria based on the 2014 population estimate of 180m is 3.32m metric tonnes annually, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, but its domestic fish production from aquaculture, artisanal and industrial fisheries for 2014 is 1.123m metric tonnes.

Also, Nigeria’s per capita fish consumption is 11kg, which is remarkably lower than the global average of 21kg. And it is reported that Nigeria spends about N288 billion annually on the importation of fish to bridge the deficit. This, no doubt, has negative impact on food and nutrition as well as the economy generally, as fish provides nutrition for 3 billion people and at least 50 per cent of animal protein and minerals to 400 million people from the poorest countries.

According to World Fish Centre (2008), over 500 million people in developing countries depend, directly or indirectly, on fisheries for their livelihoods.   Climate change impacts negatively on Niger, Benue Rivers.

For 67-year-old Jihad Idris Ahmed, who lives by the riverbank at Adankolo, Lokoja in Kogi State, water levels have receded significantly over the years and that has affected the drainage system of the River Niger, hence the fish population has declined over the last 20 years. He said he started noticing rising temperatures and shorter rainfalls about 15 years ago and since then, progressively, the Niger has dried up quicker.

He said before climate change impacted negatively on the ecology of the river, fishing was lucrative and many a fisherman rejected white-collar jobs with ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) but now many are leaving the profession and wishing they had accepted the government jobs.

Also, Sarkin Ruwa, the lord of the River Niger in Lokoja, Alhaji Abubakar Tukura, said because of the declining fish population in the river, he has gone into fish farming, saying he hardly goes to the river to fish these days.

He recalled his fishing days as lucrative in the ’80s and ’90s, up till the early 2000s. But this has changed since ecological and climate changes have silted the Niger.

“The river dries up quicker now and all the ponds in the river where we used to make big catches have all become dry land,” he said. Now it is even difficult to pay his children’s school fees.

“If you have two children in the university or polytechnic and you want to depend on this water, your children will drop out of school. That is why we have been encouraging fishermen to go into crop farming or animal husbandry because it is no longer profitable to fish in the Niger,” he said.

Abama Joshua Abegye sits under a neem tree and stares at the surging waves, which ebb at the chasm by the Kwatan Boron Numan bank as the Gongola River flows into the Benue at the old town of Numan, Adamawa State. He is a former secretary of fishermen at the confluence town but the association no longer exists. He said sedimentation and siltation in the river have shrunken the fishing community of about 120 households to just about 40 in six years, most of them now living in poverty.

Investigations have revealed that due to the alluvial nature of the two rivers, the frequent flash floods occurring along their plains means that mud, silt and sand are washed to the beds of the rivers, accelerating the shrinking process.

Agasa Ibrahim, a 66-year-old fisherman in Imburu village in Numan, Adamawa State, lost his house to flooding some years back. He said erosion has washed half of the fishing community into the River Benue.

“When the river was deep, I used to catch big fish but now fish is scarce and the situation has affected every fisherman in the village, not just me. I built a house which rainstorm destroyed and the river washed away; I also bought a motorcycle and was paying my children’s school fees without hassle but now I have nothing to show for the stress I go through,” he said.

“There are no much rains now and the small rivers and streams that are tributaries of the river do not supply it with adequate water. Besides, the embankment of the Lagdo Dam at the headwaters of the Benue River makes it difficult for some fish to swim downstream. On the Gongola tributary too, the Kiri Dam retains certain amount of water and fish, making it scarce down here,”

Geoffrey Binauto, Chairman of Nigerian Union of Fishermen and Seafood Dealers in Numan, said. Professor Nasiru Idris, the Dean, Faculty of Environmental Sciences, Nasarawa State University, Keffi, confirmed that anthropogenic interferences along the Niger and Benue and the impact of climate change have resulted in siltation, thereby making it difficult for fishermen to carry out their business profitably.

“As a result of climate change and human activities, several changes have occurred in these two principals rivers in Nigeria. For instance, changes due to the atmospheric process have significantly contributed to flash floods and river flooding,” he said.

At the peak of rainy season, River Niger is still shallow/DAILY TRUST

Fishing for sand In Makurdi, Benue State, at a village of Iniongun, on the south bank of the Benue, Boniface John Imanche, an Agatu fisherman, is scooping sand with a shovel into a tipper. The 43-year-old has been fishing for the past 25 years but has abandoned the occupation for something else. Now when he, and his former fishermen colleagues get into the river, he does so to excavate the sand that has silted the river bed.

“We excavate the sand, put it in canoes or boats and ferry to the shore to sell to builders. This appears to be more profitable now than fishing,” he said. He recalls with nostalgia that he built a house and paid his school fees and those of his children from fishing. That is no longer possibly. He has also abandoned his fishing boat. It would cost money to fix and the business was no longer paying. Bestriding the Makurdi-Gboko road at Kilometre 18 is the village of Angbaaye, once a buoyant fishing hub in the 80s and 90s. The village, which is in Guma Local Government of Benue State, has lost its allure, according to Jukun fishermen, who spoke with our reporter.

One of them is  Daniel Audu, 37, a fisherman for at least 21 years. “Those days, we used to catch plenty fish but these days it is sometimes difficult to get what you will eat with your family, talk more of what you will sell and make gain,” he said.

According to him, some fishermen have abandoned fishing for farming because it cannot be done all year round like it used to be. “We are hoping that if the river is dredged, the depth will return and fishes will reproduce and the profession will be gainful once more. Since some of us did not go to school, this is the only profession we have and since we do not have land, we cannot go into crop farming,” he said. Also, Abegye, the Jukun fisherman in Numan, said that farming activities by the river banks have contributed to the siltation as shrubs and grasses are cleared leaving the banks denuded and vulnerable to erosion and subsequent sedimentation on the river bed. He has converted his fishing boat into a ferry, transporting passengers across the river.

In Lapai Local Government of Niger State where Mohammed Mahmud, a native of Muye, a  fishing community, lives the story is not different. Now he has gone into rice farming at subsistence level. It is nothing compared to the boon he enjoyed as a fisherman 20 years ago.   Species of fish are disappearing Another fisherman in Iniongun, Makurdi, Akuma Benjamin has gone into burnt bricks making to augment his earnings. “There are a lot of fish species that you cannot see around here anymore, but were available in abundance in the 1990s and the early 2000s. It is a big concern for those of us that are fishermen.”

In Lokoja, Ahmed has noticed the same thing. “We have noticed over the years that some species of fish have gone extinct. While some have migrated to deeper waters downstream, some were destroyed during the dredging of the river that was done haphazardly. The dredging distorted, and in some cases, destroyed the habitats of certain species of fishes.

“The big fishes used to hibernate in the deep waters but the dredging rather filled the depths with sand and there is no hiding place for them anymore,” he said. Before the dredging, fishermen used to catch crayfish between August and September but it is now difficult to get the fish in the river. A fish seller at Girinya market, a riverine community on the border with Kogi and Niger states, Salamatu Ndako, complains about patronage. “Some years back, I used to sell three to four baskets of fish when I come to the market. There were enough fish varieties customers could choose from and buy but most of the delectable species have gone extinct or they have migrated,” she said. Now she hardly gets good supplies from the fishermen who mostly turn up with only catfish.

“But what will one do? We are helpless but we just manage the little we get because I cannot remain idle at home,” she said.   Changing limnology of rivers increase vulnerability of communities Biological, chemical and physical changes occurring in the two flood plains have significantly made livelihoods in fishing communities much more vulnerable.

This investigation has discovered that due to poor management of the inland water resources by the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), which constitutionally has the mandate to, among other responsibilities, maintain a balanced ecosystem for the well-being of aquatic life, more fishing communities are sliding down the poverty cesspit. Use of chemicals to fish results in the killing of fingerlings and even the eggs of fish, which means there would be less fish in the waters,  leaving artisanal fishers jobless. The indiscriminate use of chemicals to fish, dumping of waste in the river and the clearing of vegetation for crop farming on the banks have impacted negatively on the availability of fish in the rivers, thus throwing some vulnerable groups into hunger and deprivation.

Binauto, the Chairman of the Nigerian Union of Fishermen and Seafood Dealers, Numan, agrees that using crude fishing methods like clearing the aquatic flora to cast nets and hook and line as well as using chemicals to catch fish end up killing fingerlings and even the eggs.

Danjuma Audu, an 11-year-old son of a fisherman has dropped out of school in primary three and there is no hope of him ever going back to school again as his father makes less money from fishing now. The boy, who spoke with our reporter in Angbaaye, Benue State, said, “I have seven siblings and it was only two of us that were staying with our parents and were in school here but now even just the two of us can no longer go to school because our father no longer catches much fish.”

No longer in school, Danjuma helps his father to fish but often the catch is only enough for their meals. He, however, said life was a little bit better now, adding that he dreaded life between  February and July when the river dries up and fish is very scarce.

“I still feel happy when it is fishing season like the one we have had from late August to December because I eat enough fish even if food is not much,” he said. He said most times he feels like going to meet his other siblings who are with his aunties and uncles in Taraba State but his father would always tell him that one day he and his younger brother would go back to school.

Daya Danladi, another child who has felt the full brunt of lack and want, the declining fishing occupation is unleashing on families, said he detests the months his father goes fishing in the Lake Chad, saying they usually go to bed with empty stomachs most nights. “Sometimes my father pays my school fees but other times he has to beg the headmaster to allow me stay in school pending when he will get money.  Sometimes I even leave school for fishing with him in order to get money and pay my fees,” he said.
This report is re-published with permission

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