A river chief's story

12 August 2010 | News story

The family of Sarkin Kogi (Hausa for chief of the river) Adamu Tiga once inhabited the land that now lies covered by two billion cubic metres of water behind the 48 metre-high Tiga Dam in Nigeria. Since the time of his great-grandfather, his family has lived here through the civil wars; they hid in the mountains, and from the river caught fish so big they needed donkeys to haul them to market. But times changed since the dam. He has suffered setbacks over time, from uncompensated displacement to shrinking fisheries to floods without warning.

“What is saddest is the loss of loyalty to traditional institutions surrounding the river,” said Sarkin Kogi. “There were rites and rituals that were respected, and people were obedient to the ceremonies and allocated rights. There were crocodiles and snakes which served as safeguards against unlawful fishing because only locals knew where they lived. But now the government has taken over everything. Now wild things have disappeared.”

In their place, the most visible sign of a changed order has been the thickening infestation of alien typha grass, which clogs the first miles of the remnant river beneath the spillway. Before, when the river was seasonal, the weeds could not survive; but constant flows around the clock and throughout the calendar provide the habitat they need to thrive.

Sarkin Kogi could not know that the weeds were metastasizing throughout the entire watershed, causing drought in some localities, and flooding in others. But he knew an evil thing when he saw it, and he pointed out the absence of responsibility: “The government sees itself as owner of the irrigation canals, which they maintain since they earn revenues on its water. But waters released into the river are left to anyone.”

A political vacuum

That vacuum led to problems downstream, when people along the river asked the Water Board for more water. The message was conveyed to Engr. Abdulsalam Ibrahim, Principal Irrigation Engineer of the Hadejia-Jama’are River Basin Development Authority (HJRBDA) in Kano.

“In the past, the water board never came to bother us about low flows,” said Ibrahim. Now, in a democracy responding to demands, the government released more from the dam. The problem was, the water never arrived at its destination. Some might suspect foul play, but it was not some person who was stealing and diverting the flow, it was some object.

“The regular river led to continuous and aggressive meandering,” explained Engr. Yahaya D. Kazaure, Asst. Director of Operation and Maintenance for the HJRBDA. Starved of sediment trapped behind the dam, the hungry year-round river ate into banks and river beds downstream, increasing the erosion and deposition of sediment. The once narrow and deep river channel spread out wide and thin. It provided an ideal home for typha, which accelerates sediment, blocks the inflows, and spreads the floodplain even wider.

“So the more the dam operators increased the flow, the more the waters were held back by the typha weeds, the worse the sedimentation,” added Ibrahim, shaking his head. By trying to send water downstream, they only increased the likelihood it wouldn’t make it.

But the Komadugu Yobe Basin project offered a link between cause and consequence, it informed the right hand what the left hand was doing, and vice versa. First the Water Audit highlighted the nature of the problem. Then the pilot clearing – though tedious and laboor-intensive – demonstrated a practical and cost-effective way of treating it.

Now the project’s emerging Catchment Management Plan will help implement plans for water throughout the entire Komadugu Yobe Basin. “Before, we did not have the resources and capacity to know who needs what, when, and for how long,” said Kazaure

“But the data collection brought trust, within and across boundaries as we share. By getting a better sense from the audit and from feedback about what was going on, we were better able to improve service delivery.”

Beneath Tiga Dam, Sarkin Kogi recently caught a huge fish worth US$ 100. It reminded him of the old days, and raised hopes that with more typha clearance, the flows will resemble their former selves.

Kogi is no scientist. He can’t read data points, hydrographs, flow charts or legal documents. But he can read water, and he likes the story it is starting to tell.

For more information contact:

Claire Warmenbol of IUCN's Water Programme: email: claire.warmenbol@iucn.org