For the people of Agwagune, Ugbem, Okurike and Etono coastal communities River Biase is a lifeline for them. From it, they do not only engage in fishing but engage as canoe paddlers and pontoon drivers.
They depend on the river to transport their farm produce to markets in neighbouring communities as well as attend social and religious festivities.
However, all this is being threatened following the drying of the river making movement by water difficult. It is more threatening for the pontoon operators because of its large size, which requires deep water to move.
Pontoon is a large flat bottom barge that conveys heavy equipment, including vehicles, etc across big waters.
At Ugbem beach, many young men rely on pontoons for survival.
They pull resources together to construct one or two.
The use of pontoon at the Ugbem beach is the only option of moving goods and people because there is no bridge over the river to Etono and other adjoining communities.
The pontoon drivers usually charge N2000 per vehicle. The larger pontoon usually ferries eight vehicles at a go while the smaller ones ferry two.
It takes about 25 minutes or less for a pontoon to cross the water unlike the smaller speed boats, which convey passengers and sometimes motorcycles. On a good day when there is huge traffic, especially when members of religious organisations have their events, the drivers can make 30 trips in a day ferrying vehicles to the other side of Etono Community.
On such days, business would be said to be very good and they will go home smiling. And this would be when the water is at its peak.
But due to the dry season, the water has reduced so much that the pontoon cannot pull through the sand, thereby affecting the fortunes of the pontoon drivers drastically.
They now merely manage through the side of the river that is deep.
A community leader, Monday Esu, urged the government to help dredge the river, replace the aging pontoons and work on the terrible roads that lead to the beach.
“Asking for a bridge may seem too much but it is very important to reduce risks. We need the water to be dredged to sustain our livelihood. We need the pontoons to be replaced,” he said.
Egim Kanu, 45, one of the drivers inside the only serviceable pontoon, said: “Whether the water recedes or not we can still navigate through the side of the river that is deeper. However, we cannot navigate freely as we have to watch out against heavy sand. But our major problem is the lack of pontoon.
Peter Akpan, who waited for two hours before his vehicle could be ferried, said receding waters and lack of pontoon, have affected not only the pontoon drivers but the locals and travellers from either side of the river.
“Even if there were more pontoons, they still cannot alleviate our plight because the water has receded due to the dry season. But we pray for the government to construct the long overdue bridge. This will tremendously reduce the time wasted. Farm produce will move freely and cheaply. The risk of vehicles falling from the pontoon will go away..”