Nigeria’s population is growing at a rate that makes existing transportation infrastructure grossly inadequate, despite efforts by governments at all levels not just to improve, but also to expand the infrastructure to accommodate present realities.

With road network of 195,000 kilometers and 4,174 kilometers of rail (3,505 kilometers Cape gauge and 669 kilometers standard gauge) as of 2019, there is a compelling need to make water transportation part of the transportation infrastructure expansion programme that is going on around the country to cater for the transportation needs of the over 200 million Nigerians.

On Monday, January 17, 2022, the country took the major step of diversifying its economy with the formal inauguration of the Expanded Committee on Sustainable Blue Economy in Nigeria by the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, in Abuja. This is aimed at preparing the grounds to explore the potential that abounds in the country’s ocean, rivers, lake, creeks, estuaries and tributaries for optimal economic benefits and improvement of the lives of citizens. The potential, which is to be found under, above and around the waters – blue and brown – have remained largely untapped.

The Blue Economy holds the potential of enhancing the country’s transportation system when fully developed, thereby significantly reducing the challenges being experienced in that sector. The programme was originally designed to accommodate the eight littoral states of Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo, Delta, Ondo and Lagos, considering their location on the Atlantic coast. It is also inclusive of Ogun and Borno states. But for the purpose of enhancement of water transportation, it will include states with rivers and creeks.

It bears mentioning that there is virtually no state in the country where a river does not run through. Seven states – Kogi, Nassarawa, Taraba, Adamawa, Kwara Niger and Kebbi, lie on the banks of the Niger and Benue rivers. What this means is that there is no state in the country that would not benefit from the Blue Economy, from the perspective of the development of an efficient water transportation system.

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Insecurity in the nation’s waterways has been a major challenge that has adversely affected maritime activities for decades, especially in areas where the predominant occupation is fishing. Issues like robbery and kidnapping had also dampened interest in commercial water transportation, thereby putting pressure on-road transportation, even with the challenge of inadequate infrastructure. However, efforts by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) at tackling piracy and other maritime crimes in the waterways have begun to yield results. This is evident in the significant reduction of such cases in the last one year. The war on maritime criminality, which is a continuous process, is going to rekindle interest in water transportation not just in the littoral states, but all over the country. It will encourage private sector participation in water transportation as a lucrative venture; in the same manner road transportation all over the country has become the exclusive preserve of the private sector. This is basically the philosophy behind the development of the Blue Economy, which seeks full participation of Nigerians in a relatively new area that holds so much potential.

The Lagos State Government has shown the way to go in the effort to develop water transportation with the expansion, in 2021, of the capacity of the Lagos Stare Ferry Services through the delivery of seven new high-capacity speedboats to increase the agency’s fleet of passenger ferries for rapid transit operation in the state’s waterways.

For some time now, the state has been operating an efficient and effective ferry service between Apapa and Marina, which has been helpful to commuters who no longer have to travel the distance from the Apapa-Amuwo Odofin axis by road to go to work on the island. The additional boats will increase passenger traffic on the Apapa-Marina route, as well as other routes, like Ikorordu-Lagos Island.

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Other states, especially Niger Delta states where some communities lie in riverine areas, need to follow the example of Lagos by looking at ways to resuscitate moribund water transportation systems or develop new ones where there was none. That is the purpose of being fully incorporated into the Blue Economy programme.

A more secure maritime environment should encourage private individuals and organizations to consider ferry businesses on a maritime route to run side-by-side the East-West Road as an alternative to road transportation. If well developed, it should be an attractive option for someone travelling to any of the South-South states from Lagos, Ogun and Ondo to go by ferry, for the simple reason that it is a shorter distance and time-saving.

Water transportation in other parts of the country with rivers and creeks should hold a similar attraction, even if on a small scale. It is one way of increasing the source of livelihood for rural communities, which the Blue Economy is out to encourage.

The programme will create a huge opportunity for the National Inland Waterways Authority to achieve on a larger scale one of its very critical objectives, which is the provision of an alternative mode of transportation for the movement of goods and persons.

When fully developed, the Blue Economy will not only enhance Nigeria’s transportation system by reducing pressure on road and rail infrastructure, it would also increase participation in water transportation with the benefit of stimulating economic activities, creating jobs, increasing revenue generation and boosting the nation’s gross domestic product.

Dr. Jamoh, Director-General and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, writes exclusively for The Guardian