13 Years After: Shipwreck Threatens Coastal Community

THE GUARDIAN Newspaper-Armsfree Ajanaku Onomo

Suddenly, life jackets became integral to the commencement of the voyage. Aided by the boatmen, we quickly strapped them on, as the boat's engine roared to life. As we began to board the prestigious looking vessel, one could hear some of the touring journalists fearfully muttering something to the effect that it was their first time of traveling by water. There was a need to assure others who were a bit hesitant; they had not told their families about the sort of voyage they were about to embark upon.

The destination was Agaja, now an endangered coastal community in Ojo local government area. The fine looking boat by the name, Monika took off from Tarzan jetty, gliding through the brackish waters of the lagoon. It was a breath taking sight seeing some of the fine trappings of Lagos from the lagoon. Posh looking houses, fine boats and people lounging beside the waterfronts gave the idea of a peaceful and different kind of life. Everything seemed sparkle against the flow of the lagoon.

Soon the grandeur of the waterfront faded away, as Monika made its way inwards. There were also smaller wooden vessels trying to stake their claim to ownership of a portion of the water body. From these little wooden boats, fishermen engaged in their art. They flung their nets into the water hoping that some stray fishes would find their way in.

The thick vegetation encountered as the boat made it way further into the lagoon reinforced the magnificence of nature. Gliding on the lagoonÕs brackish waters also revealed coastal communities, with their quaint schools, churches and mosques. Not many Lagosians preoccupied with the hustle and bustle of life in the metropolis would fathom that there have been people living in these coastal communities for centuries.

The tour party soon forgot about the splendid sights. The boat soon arrived at Agaja, to the sight of a beach community under threat. The community had always carried on with its peaceful and amiable coastal life, and its harmony with nature, until a marine disaster, in the form of a ship wreck interrupted and altered the workings of the environment around the area. According to the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), an environmental NGO that has been involved in efforts to mitigate the effects of the shipwreck, the impending disaster was the result of an explosion that occurred aboard a tanker vessel from the ocean around the Agaja beach area of Olomo-Meta in the Ojo Local Government in 1997. The wreckage has thus constituted an obstruction to around the coastal baseline, massively disrupting the hydrological flow of the ocean in the area. 'Downstream the wreck, the disruption of the flow has given rise to colossal erosion of the coast, and has almost merged the ocean with the lagoon freshwaters,Ó the NCF said in a release during a recent tour of the impact and wreckage site. Although the communities around the area have lived in the waterfronts of the lagoon, only a thin stripe of land of less than 200 meters now separate the two water bodies. If the erosion of the coastline between the ocean and the lagoon continues unchecked, this small remaining stripe of land would be washed away and the consequences could be disastrous. It would then mean all the coastal communities around the area would be submerged. The NCF underscored the nature of the threat succinctly: ÒHydrologists have warned that should this be allowed to happen, inestimable damage could be caused to the whole area, even as far as the Tin Can Island port. Amelioration measures to normalize such a scenario could run into billions of Naira. Already, the Agaja beach community and its environs are suffering some of the negative effects of this deeply embedded shipwreck, and this includes ocean surges.

There is no doubt that tourism is one sector that would suffer if the danger facing communities in the Agaja beach area not averted by robust and concerted efforts, the consequences could become costlier to mitigate in the long run. The area around the beach has for a long time provided serene space for tourists and holidaymakers. Although residents of the area have continued to build holiday tents along the coast in anticipation of coming tourists, erosion of the coastline has continued to wash away most of their best efforts.

To solve the problem, experts believe that the major task now is for the remnants of the wreck to be exhumed from the seabed so that the flow of the ocean can normalize, and the portion of the coastline that had been eroded would be naturally restored. Thus far, the NCF made efforts to get off the upper part of the wreckage, but there is still a good chunk of the wreckage under the water still causing problems. As the environmental group put the realities and challenges on the ground with regards to the project thus: 'Though tremendous progress has been made on the removal, some unforeseen factors affected the total removal of the shipwreck. For instance, due to the sedimentation of sand over the years, the wreck has sank deeply below sea level, making it to acquire a very high level work on building sand banks and maintaining them consecutively and effectively. Desmond Majekodunmi, Co-Chair Public Awareness and Fund Raising Committee of the NCF provided insight into the nature of work that has been done on the project. 'It was a very big involving five bulldozers, some pail loaders and all kind of heavy machinery. There was a floating jetty, and a floating barge for the accommodation of the people that were here. Using giant bags filled with sand, sea wall barriers were built 20 feet into the ground, and the danger of working in that depth is that there could be an ocean surge, and if it meets anyone 20 feet below sea level, it could result in death, but we than God that no life was lost. We were able to remove a part of the wreck, which is hardly visible now. The remaining part under has to go, or else, the erosion will continue to cause a catastrophe as you can see.

Those who may not know the intricacies of the situation may wonder how the wreckage of a ship could cause so much of the damage that has been ascribed to it. Majekodunmi gave details of the threats posed by what seemed an ÔordinaryÕ wreckage. ÒAs small as it seems, you have to remember that this is an ocean going vessel, and ocean going vessels are built to be able to withstand the pressures from huge giant waves that can come from storms. So we are talking of very thick steel; what has happened is that as small as it is, it has formed a barrier that blocks the normal flow of the ocean across, and causing massive disruptions to the currents. Those currents are now the ones that are causing the erosion. Even a small barrier can cause a big problem; sometimes, a small object in the wrong place can cause catastrophe; I pray that this beach would not experience such.

From the projected cost, the NCF has revealed that the sum of N300million would be required to remobilize for a return to site. This huge sum, the NGO has said it cannot afford. The group is thus calling on governments at both state and federal levels, and corporate bodies are being called upon to come to the rescue of the threatened communities in the area. For Majekodunmi, the government should immediately use the funds meant for solving environmental problems to assist the area. His words: ÒLet the government do something now, or else, any death in this community will be directly on the heads of those decision makers. We have warned them that this thing is coming; we are not government; we donÕt have the kind of resources needed; the NCF is an NGO. In the past, we begged one or two oil companies to intervene, now we are saying that if government is government, then it should do the job, otherwise, they should move out of there and let somebody else come and be government because this thing is going to threaten the lives of people in Lagos. So government should justify its position as a servant of the people.

He emphasized that the area being threaten by the ocean surge was in the state, and so the usual arguments about whether it is the state or the Federal Government that should act to avert disaster should not arise. ÒThey can continue that argument, but it is the State that is being affected. If you are living in a house and it is being threatened, and a landlord is saying you should not protect yourself, would you say because of that, you will go and die in your house, no, you will protect yourself. We can't afford to allow a tussle between the Federal and State over whose responsibility this is, leave the problem unsolved, knowing that it will affect the people here.

He added: ÒThe ecological fund could be used directly and immediately; we are still trying to see where the ecological fund has gone. It should be used as a direct intervention to solve this problem; they could find the right kind of specialist because it is a specialized job."


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