BY TADAFERUA UJORHA, who was in Ondo
Ilaje, lying below sea level, has become a hot spot for global warming. The melting of the ice caps means that low lying areas on the planet may be flooded, unless steps are taken to protect the shore line. Sea surges have led to the erosion of the coast, and the relocation of many Ilaje communities. The original sites of many settlements are now fishing grounds in the Atlantic Ocean, and, as they ‘suffer territorial loss’, the displaced people, in a recurring cycle, are constantly moving to new locations to begin life afresh.
It is 4.00pm in Ilaje, Ondo state. An oil platform can be seen in the distance for this is the oil producing part of the state. Fishermen had left earlier in the day. They return with fish, and the men are in festive spirits and engage in a form of sport which has a fun, child- like aspect to it. It may be called a carnival of the boats, a marine pantomime of sorts in which fish, fishermen, water and boats are actors, with the sea and the wind providing a form of gentle helping music. Spray rises. The rising spray is a beautiful joyful sight in the May sunshine, and the visitor thinks that the pilots compete to see who can create the finest forms of spray. In the distance more speed boats can be seen coming along, and these will form part of the carnival of the boats.
Joy & Terror
But the delightful carnival of the boats masks the bitter reality which confronts Ilaje, and this is the fact of many years of an unchecked sea surge, which has been linked to global warming, activities of oil companies in Ilaje and land reclamation efforts in the Lagos area. The beautiful sea which gives the boatmen a robust economy revolving around fish and shrimps, is also the source of much destruction, displacement and loss of livelihoods within Ilaje, a fact which has made some communities to relocate five times within a relatively short period of time.
Relocation and loss is perhaps the main theme within the oil bearing communities of Ilaje. Coastal erosion explains why the dwellings in the area are made of wood rather than concrete, and these could be dismantled at short notice, if disaster threatens. Development freezes in Ilaje where almost every structure is of a temporary character, where nothing is permanent and migration is constant. Open defecation is common in Ilaje. It is impossible to build proper toilets in a place where the dwellings are makeshift. A small protected structure made of wood and zinc, at the edge of the community is the toilet, which empties directly into the Atlantic. A nearby bathroom also empties into the Atlantic. Everything here drains into the Atlantic, including plastics and dirt of different forms, and the Atlantic accepts everything. The Atlantic returns all these to the community at high tide, and this explains why so many plastic bottles and similar items can be found deep inside some of the communities. This is the story of Ilaje’s increasingly scarred topography which is a fall out of ocean surge. Ilaje lies virtually below sea level, and witnesses high levels of relocation every year by its human population. The Netherlands also lies below sea level, but over the years the locals have deepened their skills in hydro-engineering as a response to the environment. They created dikes, walls and canals which were used to check the North Sea, reclaim land from flooded areas and build cities upon the ocean. Today, the Dutch are global experts on water management and engineering.
‘Running Helter Skelter’
“On average people relocate three times every year. The whole community will have to move away. Sometimes, at high tide, even without the rain, the ocean surge comes. This sometimes happens at midnight and people will be running helter skelter,” says Kinga Olumide Claudius, Director, Department of Ecology, Ondo state Ministry of Environment, while speaking about the sea surge. He stresses while commenting on Ayetoro “The distance between Ayetoro and the Atlantic ocean used to be some 3 kilometres two decades ago. But the last time I was there it has reduced to seven hundred and fifty (750) metres. The rate at which coastal erosion is impacting on Ayetoro is between thirty five to fifty (35 to 50) metres each year.”
70% Of Coastline Gone
Sola Ebiseni, Lawyer and former Chairman of Ilaje/Ese Odo local government sheds light on the impact of coastal erosion within Ilaje, which is made up of five hundred communities “Territorially speaking, those who say that 70% of Ilaje has been lost would be referring to the coastline, that is if the distance used to be about 10 kilometres to the mainland, its now less than 4 kilometres, they would be right if they say 70% gone, and that would be in terms of territorial loss.”
Going down memory lane, he states “The incidence of coastal erosion became more noticeable in the 80s to 90s and thereafter. From what we know, coupled with stories told by our elders and relics of past habitation, Ilaje is not unlikely to have lost close to a kilometre territorially to the Atlantic.”
Fleeing Every 5 Years
Ebiseni explains “Within a space of five years, communities would have to relocate from their original settlement and move on, for the ocean would have swept that off, and that is why we need the intervention of government.”
He comments on relocation in Ilaje “several people have had to abandon their native communities as a result of the ocean surge, and have moved inland to places like Igbokoda and Okitipupa, and these are areas that the people are not naturally used to. Loss of employment and loss of earning, is the first negative effect of the ocean surge. The women trade on ocean products, on fish and shrimps, that men bring from the ocean, and virtually eighty percent (80%) of Ilaje women live on this. Some of the people have moved a few metres and established new settlements. Then again, after some time they move from there. ”
Next, he speaks on the impact of the sea surge on health centres “Government established health centres, in most cases with wooden materials. These have no life span in the real sense of it. None of them lasts more than five years, and up to now government itself has not directed its mind to the need to have more durable structures in those areas. Government is still involved in primitive ways of providing infrastructure for the people.”
‘Choked By Territorial Loss’
The former delegate to the 2014 National Conference, reveals the impact of erosion on schools “Indeed, there is no school in Ilaje along the coast that still stands at its original location. They have been wiped off by the Atlantic. No matter how small a community is, it has its own school either built by government or by community effort. But most of these schools have had to be relocated from their original location. A large population still exists in Ilaje, but now they have been choked by territorial loss.”
On initial efforts towards canalisation within Ilaje, he adds “The first construction of canals in the area was done by the numerous Churches such as the Cherubim and Seraphim Church of Zion. But many of the churches along the coast have had their churches destroyed by the Atlantic.”
We are taken to meet Banjo Akinruntan, the cheerful Baale of Gbarira, one of the many coastal communities which make up the local government. The Baale is the traditional head of the community. Each of the communities in Ilaje has a Baale, as well as a number of titled chiefs. He is seated with a group at a point along a wooden foot bridge which criss- crosses the community, and the winding bridge is a common feature of communities in Ilaje. The footbridge is narrow and some planks are loose, and we are advised to walk with caution. Then we head to the opposite side of the community which provides ample evidence of the destruction wrought by the Atlantic.
Before us is a broken, mangled shore. The sea races from a distance in a blue and white surge, which suddenly arrives and hits the shoreline with gentle force. From a distance we hear the sound of the powerful wind, which seems to rise and fall. It rises again as though hinting at the unfolding havoc around Gbarira. Within the viewed area are posts still fixed in the earth which indicate places where houses once stood. There are so many of these stretching as far as the eye can see, and extending right up to the neighbouring community. This is a community going through the process of a slow burial by the sea. Ilaje as a whole is trapped in the motions of this slow burial. Here too is evidence of houses in various stages of relocation. Wooden doors are being taken off, and other wooden supports have been brought down. Many are seen packing out. A man is bringing down the roof of a church which is seriously threatened. Children help to carry the little items which their little frames can bear.
“One night we noticed the sea incursion, and a lot of damage took place. Many dwellings were lost. That was in March this year, and it began in Mese, our neighbouring community,” says the Baale, pointing in the direction of Mese.
Gbarira has lost three churches and many houses to the Atlantic, and he mentions that the last church remaining is the New Nazareth Church, Gbarira. On account of the repeated destruction over the years, many of the inhabitants of the community have moved to Okitipupa, Igbokoda (headquarters of the local government), Akure as well as Sapele in Delta state.
The Baale adds “In the light of the sea incursion we are developing a new site within Gbarira. The new site itself is threatened, but we have no other place to move to. Nearly half of the community have already moved to the site.”
He fears that if the sea incursion worsens, this may result in the complete loss of Gbarira. We visit the new site, and make a short boat ride across the Atlantic in order to do so. We walk a little distance along another footbridge which is being extended into the new community, for it represents the major corridor for any type of movement. As we walk along, we observe the quality of life in the community. In a corner women are sorting large mounds of cray fish into bags. In another, a group is busy removing fresh fish from a boat. Children run about having fun, and their mothers hurry after them. Some parts of Gbarira look abandoned, unkempt and dour. The houses have been abandoned. A trader from Kebbi state comes along selling clothes and a few other items. He says he has lived in Gbarira for a number of years, and that he has had to move house five times on account of the ocean surge.
Akinruntan points to the nearby oil platform which is more than two kilometres from where we are standing, and says with regret “Thirty years ago the site of the oil platform used to be land. Our forebears once lived there.”
The topography of Ilaje is a constantly changing one. The sea takes the land and the people are forced to move. Soon the sea gets to the new settlement they had moved to, and the inhabitants must move again. It is a permanent cycle which the people are exposed to. There is no embankment provided anywhere protecting the communities. Ilaje is a potential nightmare for archaeologists and all those who study the material remains of communities, for purposes of historical reconstruction.
Gbenga Makun, an inhabitant of Gbarira adds “We are not happy, but we have no option. We are seeking help from government. Perhaps, it can sand fill the area we recently lost to the sea, so that we can regain the land.”
The Baale explains that the new site has been set aside solely for those inhabitants of Gbarira who lost their houses to the sea incursion. He stresses that this is an arrangement between the Gbarira community and its leaders.
‘We Need an Embankment’
Abiye Timilehin, is a resident of the nearby Awoye community, which is also being ravaged by the sea incursion.
His words “We are facing a lot of problems on account of the sea incursion. We think that oil exploration led to the sea incursion. Many houses have been destroyed by the sea, and people have had to move inwards.”
He says that Awoye has had to relocate five times, and that it now sits in its fifth location. Fishing is a big activity around Awoye, he emphasises, stating that sometimes it’s possible to find fifteen thousand persons from distant locations who have converged on the Atlantic to purchase fish from the fishermen of Ilaje.
“Government should assist us and create an embankment, so that our community will not be erased completely from the face of the earth,” he argues.
Ayetoro, Seriously Threatened
“Coastal erosion is an age old thing in Ilaje. In recent times it has attained a frightening dimension. Places like Ayetoro which were left out of it in the past are now seriously threatened, and houses there have been completely destroyed. Ayetoro has lost not less than three hundred (300) metres of its land, all of which is now in the sea. I recall that in 1984/1985 I was a teacher at the Ayetoro Secondary School which was made of modern blocks and classrooms. It is now in the sea,” says Amuwa Benson, Lawyer and former member of the Ondo State House of Assembly representing Ilaje,
Lamenting, he says “In the east of Ayetoro are communities like Jerinwo, Mese, Gbarira, Awoye, Molotehin and Igo, which had over the years relocated from their previous sites, some one kilometre northwards as a result of constant threat of coastal erosion. Communities like Igo, Molotehin and Awoye are in their third sites. The Igo I knew as a boy of ten years of age, cannot be less than a kilometre into the sea by now. Our present location is the third one. We were south of the canal. Molotehin, Igo and Awoye were south of the canal, but now they are north of the canal.”
Amuwa recalls “The beach that used to be a buffer between the community and the coastline is completely gone, completely eroded. The sea is almost right in the community. The original sites of most of these communities are fishing grounds in the sea.”
“The implication is that an average Ilaje man at the age of 70 years from that zone would have built his house three times, while our contemporaries elsewhere will build once in a lifetime. They have to keep rebuilding their houses, and this affects the growth of the community. It has led to stunted growth of the communities. Nobody in those communities can go and say this is the house of his father, or that this is the house of his grand father. Everybody has to build all over again, and it costs twice the amount of a building of the same size upland. It’s a complete drain on the resources of the people. The town cannot grow, development is stunted, and economic activities are at zero. The original sites of most of these communities are fishing grounds in the sea, and these are not problems that can be solved by the locals, except there is concerted effort on the part of government.”
According to Amuwa thirty(30) communities within Ilaje have had to completely relocate between 1969 and 2019. Other inhabitants of Ilaje however provide a much higher statistic, in terms of the number of communities that have had to relocate over the years.
On its impact on fishing, he explains “We have countless fishermen and if they keep relocating, this has implication for their resources, for it drives them away from their primary source of livelihood. If a fisherman relocates one kilometre inland, he will not go to fish as and when due, and in the manner previously done.”
Migration out of Ilaje is high, he points out “Today, the Ilaje population in Okitipupa as a result of migration triggered by the sea incursion, can be put at 30% . The figure is the same for Ore, as well as Okitipupa.”
100 Houses Gone
Aralu Emmanuel is the Acting Secretary, Ayetoro Youth Congress. He says of the sea incursion “It has affected our community to a great extent. It has destroyed our properties, displaced people and taken away our buildings. Between September and November last year, we lost over one hundred houses to the sea surge. Happy City College Ayetoro has moved from its original location, it has shifted for the third time. The Holy Apostles Church has been taken away by the sea, as well as the fish depot.”
He explains that rebuilding a destroyed house in Ayetoro, is a huge effort “The cost of building houses in our terrain is more costly than the cost of building houses in the urban areas. There are special woods meant for building houses both in size, quality, length, shape and quantity. These variables must be considered in building houses here.”
Community Primary School, Ayetoro is the only public primary school in Ayetoro with a population of over four hundred pupils. The devastating effect of ocean surge has had impact on the school as well as its academic calendar.
On The Move Again
He says “Since the beginning of this new calendar for 2019/2020 both the pupils and the teachers cannot make use of the school on account of the surge. The school is being relocated to another site, and this means that it is being moved for the third time from the shoreline.”
Speaking on the Happy City College, Ayetoro, he opines “It is the only public secondary school in Ayetoro, founded in 1977 and it has a population of nine hundred and fifty students. This school too is being moved for the third time from the shoreline.”
City Hall Ayetoro is also affected by the ocean surge as well as the Oba’s palace which was built in 1961. The Ayetoro Community Electricity Power House has been hit too. Ayetoro, the largest community in Ilaje with a history of communism as well as excellence in educational efforts and the spread of Christianity, is perhaps passing through its roughest season since its founding in 1947.
Ayodele Elero, a housewife in Ayetoro, speaks on the simple basic way she copes with the surge when it comes at high tide. Hear her “During the high tide we have to raise the items in my house. We use platforms to raise items in the house. I have been living here for four years, although now I am looking for a place to relocate to. My neighbours left long ago.”
Return To Ilaje
A follow- up visit is made to Ilaje in August. During the visit the Baale of Gbarira mentions that more than forty(40) houses were lost to the sea, between my visit in May and the follow –up in August. He shows me the altered landscape with posts in the ground indicating houses which had been hit by the waves.
If forty houses are lost in Gbarira every three months, very soon there may be nothing left of the community.
Hear him “We have no option. We need an embankment to protect the shore. The Cherubim and Seraphim Church of Christ here is also being affected by the waves.”
No Water,No Toilets
He laments that there are no hospitals or clinics, and there is no water in Gbarira and this too is common in many other communites. He adds that in order to get water to wash and to cook, inhabitants of the communities go to the nearby oil platform “to collect water which is bad and is of no use at the platform. People collect it and use it to cook, to wash clothes and to drink. The water is hot, and our people collect it in large drums and return to sell it in small jerry cans, at fifty Naira for each one.”
Above all, he explains that there are no toilet facilities in Gbarira, and this is linked to the transitory quality of life in the area.
“There are no toilet facilities in Gbarira. People defecate and urinate right into the water. There are no toilets in our houses. Indeed nobody constructs houses with toilets in Ilaje. But we hope to build houses with toilets at the new site which is being developed. Not a single house in Gbarira today has a toilet.”
6 Sites & Counting
Akinruntan mentions that Gbarira has moved six(6) times from the time his father was Baale, right down to the present day. He laments that the community cannot develop when it is constantly relocating.
According to him “even if people have money they will not build here, knowing that the sea incursion will soon bring everything down. Therefore, people build houses in nearby Igbokoda. Here, many don’t build houses made of blocks or concrete. They prefer houses made of wood which can be easily transferred.”
Mese, At Mercy Of Waves
A brief walk alongside a wooden foot bridge gets one to Mese, the neighbouring community. So far, countless houses have been lost there, says Prince Atolorun, an elder in the community. Like Gbarira, Mese lacks hospitals, and many have been taken away by the sea. All the primary, nursery and secondary schools are in the sea. The Cherubim and Seraphim Church of Zion has been taken by the ocean, and many of the locals have packed to other communities. He adds that the General Hospital as well as the Basic Health Centre , Mese are in the sea.
Atolorun explains that there is no proper waste disposal system in the community, and he explains that like many other communities in Ilaje, there are no toilets. Mese, like Gbarira, is developing a new site.
Chief Happiness Abiye is the Baale of Awoye. According to him “between 2016 and 2019 three hundred(300) houses have been taken by the sea.” This is an average of one hundred(100) houses taken each year. The rate of construction does not rival the number of houses destroyed, and this indicates that Awoye may disappear in the future, if it continues to lose one hundred houses every year.
“Between 1941 and the present time, Abiye has relocated a total of five(5) times,” the Baale points out.
We are in a speed boat within a part of Awoye, with a great population of houses. He tells me that by the end of September 2019, most of the houses in the area would have been lost to the sea. It is easy to believe this point, given all the destruction one has seen in Awoye as well as in neighbouring communities.
“It is hard for development to take place in Awoye. This community would be a small London if there was no incident of sea incursion. It may even be bigger than Igbokoda, the local government headquarters. Meanwhile, Awoye citizens are moving to other towns unaffected by sea incursion,” the Baale adds.
Potentials Of Ilaje
Chief Ebiseni explains that the territory of the Ilaje people extends from the Lekki peninsula in Lagos, up to the mouth of the Benin river in Delta state. This vast territory is over one hundred kilometres long, and is arguably the longest shoreline by any state in the federation. He adds that the people of Ilaje are great fishermen.
Hear him “We are one of the most extensive ocean going tribes in Africa. Ilaje people are found every where there is water. We have a large population in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Benin and Gabon.”
He looks back into history, and peers into the future “During the colonial times Ilaje was among the earliest areas to be linked by telegraph from Lagos to Warri, as far back as 1890. As at 1895 Ilaje and Epe were under a joint administration. When the British came to Nigeria , the first treaty the British made was in Lagos in 1861 with King Dosunmu of Lagos. By 1864 the next treaty was here in Ilaje, with the Olugbo of Ugbo. By 1885, the third treaty was with the Amapetu of Mahin. If coastal erosion wasn’t happening, Ilaje would be very different from what it is today. Ilaje supplies fish, it is the greatest supplier of fish in west Africa, and I say that without mincing words. In Nigeria we have Ilaje communities dotted along the river Niger up to Sokoto. You find our people wherever there are rivers. If the ocean had not been there, probably by now we would have had a road that links Ilaje with Lagos along the cost and up to Warri. The muddy part of the Atlantic has really affected road development.”
“The future of Ilaje is very bright because development is pushing from Lagos eastwards. It’s not all lamentation. What Dangote is doing in Ajah and Lekki is significant. The overcrowding of Lagos is pushing development eastwards, which is in the direction of Ilaje. As of today, people take motorbikes from Ilaje to Lagos along the coast. It takes just 25 minutes on a bike.” He explained that the current Ondo state government has awarded a contract in conjunction with NDDC to link Ilaje with Lagos and it’s a distance of fifty kilometres along the coast.
According to him “50 kilometres is what can link the core part of Ilaje land with Lagos along the coast.”
He concludes “Ilaje is that part of Nigeria, that is the future of Ondo state in terms of development. That’s where everybody is going to.” This is a naturally endowed part of the state, and there are currently plans to build a deep sea port at Araromi.
Josiah Babatola is a Professor of Civil Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Federal University of Technology, Akure. On practical ways of halting or reducing the sea surge, he suggests “ The construction of an embankment is a good one, but its very capital intensive. They need to sensitise the community about the problem at hand, and then see what needs to be done to solve the problem. The government can build an embankment, but it depends on the length of the embankment. If you put an embankment, and the wind is coming and hits on the embankment, it will not be able to go into the community, but it will create a problem elsewhere. The body of water is not diminished, but the effect is transferred.”
He proposes a master plan for the Ilaje communities “In the master-plan there would be routes for drainages. If the sea incursion occurs, along the route back there will be drainages, which will already be in place. These drainages will take the water back to the sea at a prescribed velocity which will not have impact on the soil. Once the water is coming, it will enter the drainage and go back to the sea. Ilaje needs a master plan that will have drainages all around. Again, houses should be built in a planned form, so that water from the sea, or the run –off will flow normally.”
He speaks of buried drainages “These buried drainages are pipes laid underground. When water is coming from the surface, the pipes are laid at intervals and they capture the water that is coming. Even when water comes, either from the sea or as run-off, it goes into the soil. There will then be increased capacity for the soil to absorb water. These pipes will capture the water and release it underground, release it back to the sea, or into a bigger drainage. These are part of the engineering devices that can be used, and these are capital intensive projects which have been used successfully in other parts of the world.”
No Funds To Intervene
“The state government on its own says that it doesn’t have the capacity to intervene in Ilaje. It has made several representations to the federal government on the issue of the intervention. What OSOPADEC has been doing is basically to provide the necessary logistics and support for the government agencies, and then to make representation to the NDDC,” says Dr. Victor Koledoye, Secretary of the Ondo state Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (OSOPADEC).
Explaining that OSOPADEC is handicapped, he states “My office is also an agency of the Ondo state government, so the state as a whole does not have the capacity to intervene alone. OSOPADEC is funded on a fraction of the subvention that comes from the state. The issue of sea incursion in Ilaje is a big problem, and it is worrisome to everybody, including our own agency. We are trying to see how we can collaborate with the state government, to see how we can work with all the relevant federal government agencies that have capacity to handle the matter.”
The Director of Ecology, says “As a muddy marine coast, our coastline is different from the regular sandy coastline we have in Lagos and Badagry. This type of muddy terrain has defied every engineering approach to solve the problem of sea incursion that we have. Ours is a muddy environment, and the proposed work is capital intensive. Majority of the raw materials needed to actualise this project is sand, and in a muddy environment we will not be able to get sand as a major raw material.”
He relates the absence of sand in Ilaje to the Ayetoro shoreline project “Around 2012 the NDDC awarded a contract worth N4 billion for the Ayetoro shoreline protection project But the fact remains that the project hasn’t taken off. The equipment were already on site, but by the time the issue of sand as a major raw material came up, the contractor realised that he has to travel many nautical miles before he will be able to get sand. The cost of haulage affected the cost of the contract, and the contract was abandoned. If we are to carry out the same project in Ayetoro today, we should be looking at something in the neighbourhood of N10b.”
On the muddy beach, Ebiseni explains “The larger part of the coastline of Ilaje is what is called muddy beach. It’s unlike what you find in the Lagos area, and it is peculiar in the whole of Nigeria. For a distance of over ninety kilometres starting from Araromi in the west, up to the estuary of the Benin river, you have the mud beach.”
Massive Land Reclamation
Chief Ebiseni, commenting on the way forward, posits “It is incumbent on the government, if it wants to save the lives of Ilaje people, to find technological solutions to the ocean surge, otherwise we are on the verge of being wiped out by the Atlantic. The first of these is massive land reclamation along the coast that will push the ocean back, so that the people and the government will have land for their activities. We can take a cue from what is happening at the bar beach, Lagos. Lagos is going 3 kilometers into the Atlantic, sand filling and reclaiming land. You will require such in Ilaje. This is possible if you have synergy among the agencies and organs of government.”
The former Commissioner advises “The Ondo state government must provide the lead through the state government, and its agency for the development of the oil producing areas, in synergy with NDDC, Ministry of Niger Delta and the federal government. It’s the government which knows where the shoe pinches. Seventy percent of the revenue of the state comes from Ilaje. It is the only place which makes Ondo an oil producing state.”
He comments specifically on Ayetoro “It is representative of over two hundred communities living along the coast. We all suffer the same thing, but Ayetoro with a very interesting history represents what I would call the metaphor for the rest of the Ilaje coastline. This is why most of governments efforts at finding solutions to the ocean surge, is more in Ayetoro. Whatever experiment succeeds in Ayetoro can be replicated along the coastline of Ilaje local government.”
PHOTOS CREDIT: Tadaferua Ujorha and Aralu Emmanuel
Ujorha is a Freelance Journalist