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How population growth is causing river banks to expand in Nigeria

Increased human activities around river banks are aiding expansion of rivers and subsequently flooding and other hazards. Daily Trust on Sunday reports.  “My household is…

Increased human activities around river banks are aiding expansion of rivers and subsequently flooding and other hazards. Daily Trust on Sunday reports. 

“My household is always in fear when the month of September approaches because it is during this period that we witness heavy rainfall and when it happens, water comes into the house because the river here would have expanded its bank, thereby, causing flooding in the area.”

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Those were the words of Zulayha Adamu, a mother of four who lives close to a river that straddles across the Gwagwalada Area Council, in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

Though her house, located at Angwar Hausawa Abattoir, is 5km away from the river, it is not spared when the river overflows its banks. This has led to flooding which occurs yearly, leaving damages to places residents have called homes for years.

“This used to be my room,” she pointed to a dilapidated structure overgrown by grass, “the next is the sitting room, followed by that of our children. The floods we had in the last four years have partially destroyed the rooms and damaged a lot of our properties.”

Nigeria is witnessing one of the devastating periods as floods have destroyed farmlands and properties. Authorities said the flood has killed over 300 people and more than 500 have been injured while thousands have been displaced this year.

Experts point to climate change for the phenomenon while the government blamed water overflowing from local rivers, unusual rainfalls and lack of planning in towns close to the river banks as a result of residents flouting environmental guidelines.

As the country’s population increases daily, its attendant effect is the demand for land as towns grow due to urbanisation and rural migration.

This situation has led to houses being built on waterways and when the rainy season sets, the water forces its way through houses constructed on its path.

According to the 2022 edition of the report by the Population Reference Bureau titled ‘World Population Data Sheet 2022,’ Nigeria’s population is projected to increase to 377.5 million by 2050 from the current 218.5 million with fertility rate at 5.1 per cent. 

The report also stated that the current number of people living in urban areas stands at 53 per cent and by 2050 over 70 per cent of the population would be living in urban areas, hence, stretching cities that are already populated as new cities are not springing up fast.

For those living in cities bordering rivers, lately, the rivers could no longer accommodate them to the violations at their banks as the water body expands and destroys houses with residents forced to abandon their houses, says Prof. Emmanuel Lufadeju, the National Coordinator of the Rotary Action Group for Reproductive Maternal and Child Health (RMCH).

While attributing the increased flooding to climate change, he noted that in urban centres, building on drainage can cause flooding because of the population, including emission of carbon.

For Zulayha, her husband has tried fixing their house but the floods kept visiting yearly till he gave up on reconstructing the house. Now, they only occupy two rooms from the six bedrooms they built on their land.

“We have tried our best to repair the house but my husband no longer has the financial capacity to continue. So, we left it and we are staying in two rooms like that. At times when it rains, water comes from the ground despite the remedial work we do to fill the ground with red sand. When the river is full, our threshold can’t stop the water so it enters.”

Though the community has not witnessed the major flooding happening in the country, she said the first rain in the year entered the house blocking access to their compound.

She said the flood led to the wife of one of their neighbours leaving her husband as she could not withstand the flood. “It has been four years since she left and it has been him alone since then.”

“I can’t quantify the loss we have recorded due to the flooding. I have lost my fridge, television sets, and couches.”

“We have been living here for the past 15 years but in the last four years, the flood has been worse. We had to leave the house after a few days and do some renovations as the house was destroyed. Then we had the financial means to do the work but now we can’t do it again.”

The family has considered packing out as they can no longer bear the floods but they have not been able to get a good price for the house to purchase another that is free from the tentacles of the river.

“There was a time we tried to sell the house and we were told it would be bought for N200,000, but when we tried looking for another house to buy with two rooms and not close to the flooding area, we were told it would cost us between N2 to N3 million. Supposing our house was in good shape, it would have been sold for a good price which we would add up to get another house but the price they are proposing for it is too low,” she said.

While stuck in apprehension whether the flood would visit again this year, she called on the government to extend help to the family as previous gestures did not trickle down to her family. 


We met the river tiny before building houses

Henry Andrew’s house is overlooking the river in the Anguwar Hausawa community.Sandwiched between settlements, the river was said to be tiny before the community grew in population.

With houses costly in the city centre of Abuja, Gwagwalada has been a succour for those who came to the city seeking greener pastures due to low cost of living even though a commute to the city centre would last for 50 to 60 minutes.

Henry said when he bought his land in the community 18 years ago, the river was very small. When he completed his house, there were four other houses after his own before the river but the perennial flood has consumed them with his own next in line.

“The river was very small when I came here but two years ago, we noticed the river was expanding. One of my neighbours’ houses was affected and he had to pack out because the house was pulled down by the ravaging flood. The last flood affected all of us. There is a house before mine that the flood also swept away.”

Even though his house still stands, the flood took away his plans to be landlord in the area as a building he erected was washed away.

“I have roofed the house, with the fence and everything, before the flood destroyed it. I spent around N450,000 then,” he narrated.

As he hears the burbles of the river when it meanders, he hopes not to be woken by the sound of flood since he decided to stay in the community because he doesn’t have the money to go somewhere else.

Malam Abubakar Yusuf, who has spent 27 years in the community, contended that the increase in population and lack of proper refuse disposal was the bane to the community.

He said the flooding has exacerbated overtime and when it occurs, a detour needs to be taken to come into the town or the service of canoe men required, as the water usually blocks all access to the community.

“Before, we didn’t have water coming into the town. Most houses around the river bank have collapsed. Despite my house not being close to the river, the flood also reached my place the last time. This started like seven years back. Also, the issue of pouring refuse at the river bank is there. We are relying on the help of God and the government to resolve this for us.” 

We got respite from flooding after demolition of houses on river banks

“Before, people live in big households with over 10 different families but now when a boy reaches a certain age, he will prefer to build his own house, that is how our town is expanding,” says Malam Salisu Kure, a village Head at Giri, in Gwagwalada Area Council.

Kure said the inhabitants of the village had no premonition that the little river that passed through it would expand, until three years ago when flooding occurred in the village.

“We gave warning to those building houses there but they never heeded us, when the flood happened, their properties were destroyed but no lives were lost.”

He said with the help of the government, those who own houses were settled and those who were not able to rebuild their houses left the community and since then there has been no flooding in the area. 

3 years of floods killed 10

When Trade Moore Estate, in Abuja’s Municipal Council, was commissioned in 2009, the vast land that ushers in visitors to the mini-city was untouched and left as fallow land, according to the Chairman of Landlord Association in the estate, Tunde Sholadoye. This was due to the area being a low land and close to a river that passes through the estate.

But after 13 years, over 100 houses have been built on it. Some have now been abandoned with their doors and windows missing, others in total rubbles and some partially destroyed, unfitting for an estate that got an approved plan before construction of homes for the rising population in the city.

The eyesore was due to demolition of houses carried out by the government after complaints from residents, but this came after three years of flooding which claimed 10 lives. 

With the river having a huge presence, it would have been expected that a good drainage system was built on it and bridges to allow the water flow seamlessly.

Sholadoye said the first flood came in 2020 and claimed a life. “Initially, the houses were not supposed to be there; the bridge we have was too small for the water to flow easily. The developer did substandard work and people have paid dearly for it.”

He said overtime, water started entering into houses as the path given to it was too small. He said if the prototype of the estate was adhered to and land was not encroached on, all the water lodgings there would not have been issues with flood.

The situation has led those who purchased the houses to convert them to shops and schools because the flood comes at night, he said.

“Nobody wants to be sleeping in the night and discover that their house is submerged. Initially, they were built for residential purposes but when the reality became clear, they turned it into commercial ones.”

While admitting that population was one of the causes, he added that global warming and human factors also played a key role.

The government’s intervention has made the developer rethink as the bridge has been expanded with an embankment built for more access to the river to flow. But Sholadoye is not convinced that this would solve the problem as he pointed to a section in the river where the old wall destroyed is retaining water instead of letting it go.

For the victims whose houses were destroyed, he said a court case has been initiated against the developer, seeking compensation as a temporary proposal was made for them to be housed outside the city.

Farm on me, not build houses

Unlike in Anguwar Hausawa, the river that passed through Oversea community at Nasarawa Local Government Area in neighbouring Nasarawa State only had settlement on one side of the river. The other part had cultivated land with the crops planted on it being lush to indicate it would be a good harvest for the farmer.

On the other hand, wreckage of destroyed houses borders the water on the part with settlement, their presence gives a tale of nature fighting back to claim what belongs to it but now it is flowing silently with a gait of victory to show it succeeded pushing back human encroachment.

Zulay Ahmad’s house was lucky to still stand after the flood that visited the community last year, not after it left some destructions that led to her packing out till when they could afford to repair the damage the water caused.

“The flood happened in the night. It happened twice during the period. The first was on the 12th of September and started around 11pm before it receded around 4am. It destroyed houses that were before ours. While the second was on the 20th and started around 3am,” she recalled.

After the floods, her family had to relocate due to the level of destruction the flood caused but she had to come back home due to her business and sleep in one of the rooms not affected. Her husband and the children are staying in an apartment given to them by a family friend.

But when they moved to the community few years back, the river was not as wide as it is now. The land surrounding it was affected by the river during those periods as the river overflew its bank. But last year, it finally submerged the area.

“There was a woman who had a big house but when the flood happened, it reduced it to rubble, with just plain land existing there. A lot of people have left the area.”

She said the state government later intervened with a levee being built and this has prevented the flood coming back.

The government has been making repairs to the waterways in the last 5 months. When we were told that the flood would come again, the contractors came again. But we were assured that they would finish it. We are happy with the work they are doing because we want to stay as we do not have anywhere to go. If we had another place, we would have left. We are confident with the repair and it is making us stay,” she enthused.

Though data of the number of residents in these communities is not available, as the country is yet to conduct a census for the past 16 years, projections by the United Nations indicated that the population of Gwagwalada is 475, 000 which would increase to 827,000 in 2050 while there is no recent data of Nasarawa Local Government Area, though the 2006 census said it had 189,835 persons. 

Government can’t solve it alone

Prof. Emmanuel Lufadeju said the solution does not lie on the government alone as people need to obey city ordinances in urban cities.  

It is not everything that the government can do. I think in terms of controlling population, people must obey the city ordinances of urban centres and not build on drainage ways to make sure.

“Government has the capacity to improve infrastructure in drainage but flooding occurs in rural areas, especially in farming communities, when there is no water control for agriculture purposes like dams. These infrastructures are important to divert the water into farmlands instead of homesteads.”

On his part, a Town Planner, Tpl Sam Atsar, said lands on water ways should be marked as green areas and used as recreational areas that can be visited when the environment is suitable.

“But in some cases, the government will allocate the place for building. Probably, some developers have given them money and they will allow the buildings. The issue is that everyone is complicit.”

On the need for the creation of more cities to decongest the existing ones in anticipation of population growth, he said investments need to be made on infrastructure to create space for those coming from urban areas.

“Even in developed countries, the population is increasing, but they have their ways to checkmate it. In Abuja, it is urbanisation that attracts people from rural to urban areas and will lead to population increase or over stretch of a particular place. We can solve this when the government or individuals create job opportunities in rural areas.”

He urged the government to build hospitals and government agencies out of urban cities to depopulate them and endeavour to reduce the fertility rate in the country.

But for authorities in Abuja, demolition of such structures is the only option to stop floods. The government, through the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA), has demolished several houses constructed on waterways.

During one of the exercises, the Senior Special Assistant to FCT Minister on Monitoring, Inspection and Enforcement, Mr Ikharo Attah, said the demolition was done due to the failure to heed all legal warnings by residents over the valid devastating forecast on flooding disaster in Abuja.

He said that the FCT Administration could no longer wait for unwilling residents to comply with early warnings to save lives.

Attah explained that the owners and occupiers of the buildings on the waterways had been warned and asked to leave the area from the onset but refused to comply, hence the forceful ejection.