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Most Of Our Environmental Problems Are Caused By Human Activities - Udoh

The state commissioner for environment and petroleum resources, Mr   Charles Udoh, in this interview with  ETEBONG AKPAN and VICTOR ESSANG takes a look at the challenges in his new beat which he says are exciting and promising. The former information boss  who is a little more than one month old in the ministry, says the state government will soon commence the construction of the World Bank supported flood control project on IBB Avenue in Uyo, even as he says that adequate provisions have been made by the state government to resettle those affected by the construction exercise.

How are you coping with the change of beat?
The only constant thing in life is change and for you to succeed in anything you do in life you can't stay permanently in your comfort zone.  No one succeeds in everything he does in life staying in his comfort zone.  So I find it very exciting and also see a lot of prospects in the Ministry of Environment and Petroleum Resources.  It is really exciting for me and I am grateful to God. And I am also grateful to His Excellency, the governor, for giving me this second opportunity.

 What kind of excitement are you really talking about here?
 I am excited because I have been given an opportunity to learn something new and be exposed to something different from what I have been used to most of my life; that is where the excitement comes in.
When it comes to the environment there are challenges which will always be there. But as a government, we have been very responsive within the bounds of our resources. Environmental issues are not just domicile within the preview of state government funding alone. The Federal Government and the international community have roles to play. If you ask, since 2015 till now, have we had any help coming from the government at the centre?  The answer is emphatically no!   However, we have  found favour in the eyes of the World Bank and, of course, we know they don't come cheap because  there are  series of processes and steps you must fulfil and there are due diligence you must make. We have been able to scale those hurdles and, to the glory of God,  we have three major World Bank projects in the state; the Etim Umana , St. Luke's Hospital Anua erosion control and the IBB flood evacuation project whose contractor has just been mobilized by the state government.   Erosion and flood have  been  major challenges but fortunately the Nigeria Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) had raised this alarm earlier on even before l assumed   duties as commissioner for environment and petroleum resources. We have commenced series of engagements with the chairmen of local government areas, village heads and clan heads. But again, like I said earlier, state government alone cannot do it; we need Federal Government to come.
  One of these days we are planning to take journalists to the sites we are constructing - Etim Umana, for instance, we are spending billions of naira with World Bank assistance. Farer down, some people have already started building on the scope of the ravine while some have started farming. I have asked my people to go round, map those houses and, of course, I'm going to put a paper on the table of His Excellency for approval and any of those houses that are not authorized, we are going to pull them down because one, we are solving one problem here and then you are creating another one in front. It took years to get World Bank, and you know the processes of getting a World Bank approval is tedious - you must fulfil several criteria that they put infront of you. So we also want people to help us help ourselves. Every part of the world is experiencing flooding but, as a government, we were making efforts way back in 2015; we constructed Nsikak Eduok underground channels that take water to across Tropicana to Ibesikpo. Yes, the last flood we had issues there. Right now we  are about getting a process to begin the distilling of that drain because it is has clogged. Further down Ibesikpo, there is another problem that human activities have created which we are also going to tackle. The outfall of that drain people have started escalating through sand and gravel mining

Why is the Federal Government treating us this way?
  Help me ask them!  Like I said we are the highest oil producer in Nigeria. In the oil sector I don't know how many Akwa Ibom people are highly placed in terms of appointment. In terms of physical infrastructure, I don't know how many structures of NNPC or DPR that we have in Akwa Ibom State and that is the song that we have been singing, at least, since this government came on board - that look we deserve more than what we are getting. We contribute 25 per cent or more into the covers of Nigeria, so why are we not getting that? But of course, all hands must be on deck.
 The international oil companies are here and half of them are not doing what they are supposed to do. As a government ministry, we are directed by the governor to put in place processes to ensure that we can get thee IOCs to the roundtable. We are looking at a situation where we can get everybody on the table to stop the exploitation of our people because we have been exploited in many ways. Take, for instance, Total E and P takes oil offshore Akwa Ibom, yet they have taken us to court that they are not in Akwa Ibom.  But the laws clearly states that they are in Akwa Ibom.  We are asking everybody to rise up in one accord to say, look! Guys we need to get our dues. We are  also educating our people and saying, look, you need to bring these guys to the  table. Don't negotiate behind our back,  let us know what you are doing because they  must employ our  people according to the  Local Content Law of Nigeria .

  Why is erosion and landslide becoming more pronounced now in the state?
  I think the present factor is caused by human activities like I said earlier.
  But people have always been there?
  The volume of human activities in Uyo compared to five years ago has gone higher. For instance, the number of houses in Ewet Housing is more; the number of houses in Shelter Afrique is more. And let's take Ewet Housing as a case study;  Ewet housing was designed and built many years ago, the gutter were designed for certain number of people to contain certain volume of waters and then that time the large expanse of land was not occupied. So when rain falls water find a natural habitat to sink into. Suddenly Ewet Housing is built up and everybody puts concrete on his compound so when it rains all the water comes to the gutter and the gutter is smaller just like three of us trying to enter keke, we can't enter, that is the reality. That is why, for instance, in Ewet Housing we are expanding the gutters. One thing we are beginning to look at as a ministry is that if everybody builds and put concrete on his floor what happens to water harvesting. So that is another thing that we are going to look; we harvest water. You guys are trying to build this house you must show me a plan how to harvest water, otherwise you create another problem like we have in Ewet Housing. That is why for instance the Airport Road, a few people have asked why is the government expanding the road and putting gutters. We are trying to solve the problem of Ewet Housing in future, if you don't do that today, when that airport is built up; it is going to become Ewet Housing.  We don't have  to wait until that time,  so we must be proactive.
There are a lot of gabs that we are looking at and in the ministry there is what we called environmental health
On the issue of oil companies' responsibility in Akwa Ibom State, has the state government taken any step to make a case out of that?
  We have been doing that religiously. If you recall; one of the first things  I did as commissioner for environment was to approach the wife of the minister of petroleum resources and graciously His Excellency, the governor, granted me the request and accompanied me on that visit and I personally met with the minister on some of these issues and, of course, if you also recall, immediately after that the entire board of the management of NNPC hosted their retreat in Akwa Ibom State. That was a fallout of that meeting that we had. As a fallout also, NNPC has also promised that they are going to take four floors of the 21 storey building and also promised to build a depot in Akwa Ibom State which we have one of the committee which we are working on now. The chief of staff is the chairman of that committee. We have a committee already working to actualize that depot. You realized that because oil, for instance, is in exclusive list, we can't on our own deal with it. We are trying to reach out to every stakeholder at the centre to let them know our problem. I have had meetings with the chairman, House of Representatives  Committee on Nigeria Local Content, so it is part of the engagement process which we need to do, we can't sit down because there are things we can't do without the oil companies. For instance, TOTAL says, no they are not operating in Akwa Ibom but by laws they are operating here, Adax the same. We are in court, so there is nothing we can do unless we have the support of the Federal Government, that is why we are courting the support of Federal Government privately, publicly and also by engagement.
From your observation so far, what do you think will be the outcome of the engagement?
So far we have had some positive results, like I said, NNPC is about coming here to build a depot which has never happened before.  They have also agreed to take over the four floors of the 21 storey building.  When that is done, there will be jobs, wealth creation, poverty alleviation and  more investment will come  to Akwa Ibom and, of course, our IGR will also improve. So it is one step at a time but, of course, we can't sit back and say we have recorded a success here, we need to keep on saying, look! We need more. Let's keep on playing the Oliver Twist.
Apart from the local content issue, one of the problems after Akwa Ibom is that of  oil spill because it affects the ecosystem, have you done anything in that direction?
  Yes,  I was in the National Assembly recently  to present a paper on behalf of the state government on oil spill over the last five years in Akwa Ibom. So we have made our presentation to the House Committee on Oil Spillage. Like I said, we can't do it on our own, because oil spillage does not only affect our shores, it affect the shores of all  oil producing states.  It is something we are coming together to say, look guys, we need to sort these things out. It  is a continuous process and then we need to continuously raise the flag and say, guys we need you to support us and help use to get these international companies to do what they are supposed to do.
One of the problems you came to inherit is the petition by Oron people that they have been excluded from the oil producing community, have you had any interface with leaders from that area?
  Well, I am just a new commissioner in that ministry. So, for me, there are so many issues on my table. What I have done is look at what are in the front burner, what are the issues first. The problem with Oron has always been here. So we will deal with that once we get there. What we are trying to do is to pick the low hanging fruits to give us result but definitely we won't ignore that request, we will look at. And again, it is not my decision to take. I will look and my team is looking at it to come up with a recommendation which will be presented to the State Executive Council for deliberation and whatever comes out of there we can take it from there.
  One of the burning issues that have been overlooked is the issue of the scrap  metal industry, the market in Akwa Ibom State, and recently the House of Assembly wanted a regulation to control the activities of vendors of scrap metals, how has it been so far?
  Well, there are several aspects of the environment, so I cannot in one day tell you everything that we have done  and what we are not doing.  What I can tell Akwa Ibom people is that we are in talks with an investor who is proposing to convert waste materials for power generation. So that has reached advanced stage which we hope  will be able to solve some of these problems that we are having. Again, like I said, one step at a time. We will try to look at each except, there are so many thing to do when it comes to environment. So we want to take it one step at a time, not try to put everything into our pot and then we are not able to make success out of it.
  Some parts of the state are seriously affected by erosion menace, what is the government doing to rescue those in the villages?
  Like I said, you have a responsibility and government has a responsibility. Ravines have always been in Uyo, I grew up to see it, now what people must understand is that you can't build certain structures within the parameters  of the ravine because once you do that you begin to distort the natural ecosystem. That means a dormant ravine, will become active because of the activities of pounding yam within the premise of the ravine.  That is why we said, look, move away. Yes, it  is your ancestral home, there is no point holding fast to your ancestral home and then you degrade the environment and then you end up losing it. But if you move away you can still come and play around there. So that is what people must understand.
   Like I said, for instance, Asutan Street, there has been a dormant ravine there, and because of our human activities, people are building storey buildings around there. Of course, the fact of digging foundation, pounding and all that littering, they are naturally beginning to weaken the already weak soil structure and it becomes a problem. People must also understand and appreciate that government cannot do it alone in reality. If we could we would have done it in Anua and same with IBB, we wouldn't  have needed to go to World Bank. IBB have been here since when I was a child, after we have to need help to fix all those. Human activities must also take part of it. There is another thing also which government also determines to do. We inherited some issues, for instance, wrongly terminated drains. Right now Ikpa Road is at risk, Uyo Village Road linking to Science Park is at risk, because  of a culvert that was  wrongly terminated.
  There are massive ravines coming up in those areas. We are spending billions of naira in Etim Umana supported by World Bank because of wrongly terminated drains. The entire water in the underground pipe jacking is emptied there. When you are emptying drain you must be able to break the speed of the water, and that was not done, same thing with Anua. That is why I said I am going to take journalists there, if you see the pictures, they are shocking. Why would anybody do that? Of course, we inherited it because government is a continuum, we would be talking about that. Who say some of our contractors may not have been making some mistakes? But again, we must also create this awareness, that is why I am talking about awareness, because it is one thing we must do, people don't even know about what they are doing.  For instance,  a guy is farming  in Etim Umanah at the erosion area and we can tell him stop farming! He might be ignorant. We only go hard on them, if we say stop farming and they are still farming. They may not know what they are doing, but guess what, they think they are trying to plant yam and they are doing ridges and they are bringing new fingers of erosion and we are already spending billions of naira up hill. So it is also awareness that needs to be done for people to understand and we need you to be able to help us do that.
 Most of these erosion control checks could lead to displacement of some communities, has the government done anything about that?
  Oh yes! For instance, IBB, 7 kilometer stretch cut across three local government areas. While World Bank has given us the funding to carry out the project, the state government's bid is to ensure the resettlement plan which is to pay compensation and move people out. Right now His Excellency, the governor, has approved that.  Working with the commissioner for lands, we are going to commence the process. Yes the contractors are on ground ready but, of course, we won't move to site unless we have begun to engage the community, and next week we will do that. We are going to make the move, so as we are paying them, and when they move out we move so that we can start the work immediately. So government will not start any of those project without doing that.
  How do you reconcile that with our own politics that if you don't stay in your place you cannot participate in the politics of other places when you go to somebody's place?
  Well, there are two options. Either you stay and die there, or it is better to have something at hand than to have nothing at all.

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