- In Biu, farmers grow crops on rocks amid water problem
By Henry Akubuiro
CURIOSITY seized this reporter on seeing a group of five locals picking stones on a blazing, rocky hill along Gombe-Biu Road as we approached Biu town, Borno State. Not far away, two caterpillars struggled to break a defiant rock as the temperature peaked 39 degrees Celsius. “What are they doing over there?” I asked.
The response from my guide was shocking: “They are farmers preparing for the planting season. What you are seeing are farmlands.” If your idea of a farmland is a lush, fertile land used or suitable for farming, a typical farmland in Biu will make you cry. Instead of rich, loamy soil blooming amid greenery like elsewhere, what you see everywhere is a bleak, harsh landscape.
Biu, the second largest emirate in Borno State, is a food basket in northeastern Nigeria, with the states of Borno, Adamawa, Yobe and Gombe depending on the food produced here for sustenance, which has made it a centre of commerce.
This in itself is a miracle, for Biu lies on a plateau, which dominates its topography. The hilly table formations, which transverse entire Biu, pay witness to extinct volcanic eruptions, yet farming has remained a major occupation for majority of the populace.
When this reporter visited Biu in April, the rains had yet to come, and there were little signs of cultivation, unlike in the eastern and western parts of Nigeria, where cultivation had since began in earnest. Some farmers were seen clearing dry farmlands waiting for elusive rain.
The soil in Biu is of two major types: alluvial and rocky. The rocky soil is a mix of coarse earth, granite, and pieces of rock. The abundance of bigger rocks usually poses a problem to farmers here. Most parts of Biu have rocky soil, which does not come as a surprise, for Biu is a town on a plateau, which itself is made up of basalts.
Findings by Daily Sun reveals that laterite beds found in Biu and other mineral deposits, such as limestone and calcrete, have influenced the nature of surface. In terms of vegetation, Biu falls into the savannah region of northern Nigeria, especially the drier northward Sudan savannah of the northeast, known for its dense grass and few trees.
In this kind of savannah belt, trees are scanty enough from each other to allow the sun direct contact with the sandy/clayey soil. However, the stubborn shrubs of the Sudan savannah and its resilient economic trees have ensured that the area is not unduly stripped of nutrients and vegetation.
The farmers have no alternative. Farming on rocky lands and hills has become a way of life for the Biu farmers. To survive themselves and cater to the overwhelming needs of others, they can’t but get used to farming the hard way. But their headache is not just farming on tough farmlands: water concerns are a major problem to Biu farmers and residents.
In Biu, water supply comes from streams or wells obtained from water tables 12 or more metres beneath. During the rainy season, water is abundantly supplied as the banks of Gongola and Hawul Rivers overflow. It is always a time for the farmers to smile broadly.
However, during the dry season, such as the time this reporter visited Biu, water concerns are often a talking point among the farmers and residents, as water levels in many wells recede drastically. Unfortunately, the most topographically elevated areas in Biu have fewer rivers than the downhill parts.
But the woes of Biu farmers ought not to have been so excruciating if the Biu dam, which its construction began in 1979, had been completed. It would have been a major source of irrigation for farmers. When this reporter visited the dam, it stood placid like a museum monument, its surroundings overgrown with weeds.
Worse still, most of the administrative buildings under construction had either fallen down or waiting to have a fall. They looked more like ruins from a war zone. The only signs of life were the Fulani cattle rustlers and their ubiquitous cows, as well as nomadic shepherds of goats and sheep searching for scant green grass to graze amid abundant dying grasses. Close to the dam, herds of cows, flocks of sheep, and trips of goats took turns to drink from the deserted river.
With the stalled development at the dam, which was initiated during the tenure of Alhaji Mohammed Goni as the governor of Borno State, most farmers have no option than wait painfully for the rainy season to begin to avoid burying their fortunes on scotched, rocky soil. This comes with attendant loss of precious time, which would have been used to cultivate farmlands and produce multiple yields all year round.
Daily Sun gathered that, during the military regime of President Babangida, in the 1980s, hope was raised on the abandoned dam, as promises were made to restart it. But it was never to be. However, there appeared to be another glimmer of hope when the federal government took over the project during the last regime of President Goodluck Jonathan.
At the Tum Junction, about 7 kilometres from Biu, Daily Sun reporter saw hundreds of pipes supplied by the federal government meant for linking the vast farmlands to the dam to irrigate them. But the hope faded away all of a sudden, just like previous attempts. Biu dam, thus, has remained a glorified effigy.
Since the advent of civilisation, man has been constructing dams for irrigation. During wet seasons, dams store surplus water which can be used for irrigating arid lands. A major benefit is that water flows can be regulated per agricultural requirements of a particular region.
It is estimated that 80 per cent of additional food production by 2025 in the world would be available from irrigations made possible by dams and reservoirs. Dams and reservoirs are mostly needed in meeting the irrigation requirements of developing countries, especially the arid zones, which constitute a large part. For Biu, the yeoman service the abandoned dam is expected to provide is only imagined.
Ibrahim Hamidu Kika works with the Borno State Agriculture Development Basin Programme and doubles as the Agriculture Officer for Biu. He told Daily Sun: “Actually, this is a critical time for land cultivation, more especially rice farmers who want to farm early. They are the ones you saw clearing farmlands now, preparatory for the rains. Others, who farm groundnut, sorghum, maize and soya beans, cannot but wait for June-July when the rainy season is in full swing.”
The moribund Biu dam has continued to take its toll on the agrarian community. “It has, indeed, slowed down irrigation in Biu,” said Kika. “Once it is fully functional, over 200 farmers will benefit from the irrigation scheme. Right now, only 40 percent of Biu farmers are improvising irrigation for themselves.”
Water pumping machines are not easy to come by for many farmers in Biu. They cost between N30,000 and N50,000 depending on the size, and not everybody can afford it. Sadly, during the dry spell, most farmers don’t do anything. This is a loss of precious time, which wouldn’t have been the case if the dam was operational.
However, there is optimism that, if the Biu dam is fully established, more people will be involved in farming, and food production will be bursting at the seams. Kika echoed: “It means more people will be producing tomatoes, pepper, onions, groundnuts, garden eggs, okra, cabbage, and many others. Now that the federal government is emphasising on agriculture, it will be a welcome development.
“The 40 percent of farmers in Biu who produce vegetable can’t satisfy our people and others who depend on us. Biu is a food basket of not only Borno State, but also neighbouring states of Gombe, parts of Adamawa and Yobe,” he said.
It remains a puzzle why the dam hasn’t been completed despite its apparent importance. The locals blamed it on the lack of will power on the part of the political class, for, despite the interest of governments at state and federal levels, nothing much has been done to bring succour to the aggrieved farmers.
Kika lamented: “I am sorry to say that the Biu dam has been politicised, and it is meant to be a source of revenue for the local farmers. Every government that wants to be voted to power will campaign with the dam. But once they enter, they forget it. The dam has been there for almost 40 years, and there is no sign it will be completed soon.”
Not wishing to resign themselves to fate, Biu farmers have continued to soldier on, toiling the rocky farmlands scattered all over the local council in a bid to feed not only themselves but other states. At the popular Biu Monday Market, off Gombe Road, between 15 and 30 trucks visit on each market day to buy agricultural products from Biu meant for other markets in Nigeria and industrial uses elsewhere.
Kika, who visits the market every Monday and Thursday from Maiduguri as part of an ongoing research, said these trucks are usually filled with maize, groundnuts, sorghum, soya beans, rice and other cash crops. Though soya bean is a new crop in Biu, the farmers have adopted it, and produce it in large quantity.
“It was brought to Biu by IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan). But, looking at its high production, you might think Biu has been producing it for ages. Biu is gradually taking over as the major producer of soya beans in the country,” Kika testified.
Needless to say, Biu has turned to a safe haven for border communities whose towns and villages were attacked by Boko Haram last year. This has also added more pressures on Biu farmers who now have to produce more to feed many hungry mouths. Currently, Biu has about 6,000 persons in 5 IDP camps, most of whom abandoned their farmlands.
“Directly, Boko Haram has not affected life and agriculture in Biu,” explained Kika. “The insurgents attacked Biu once, and our vanguard youths killed about 1,115 terrorists. Having lost that number, Boko Haram wouldn’t want to take that risk again. However, the population of Biu has increased because of the number of displaced persons from surrounding communities who ran to Biu for solace, meaning more demands for food.”
In the course of searching for viable farmlands in Biu, this reporter found to his dismay, many deplorable access roads to the town, including Maiduguri, Damaturu, Yola and Gombe roads. For a food basket, this presents a great disincentive to marketers who throng Biu regularly to patronise the ever busy Biu Monday Market and a disservice to the frustrated farmers and residents, who have defied Boko Haram to make the town a hub of agriculture and commerce.
If the farmers in Biu main town are hoping for the surrounding river to overflow its bank someday and water their farms, those in remote parts of Biu with dry streams and mountainous terrains are constantly singing songs of sorrow.
The woe begone face of Sanusi Ibrahim, a farmer in the remote village of Viukuthla, about 10 kilometres from Biu town, said it all. He told Daily Sun: “Our stream has dried up, and we only rely on well water to water our farms until the rainy season comes.” Stored in his silo are precious grains to feed the city dwellers. Life here is dreary. With no motorable road, he has to trek more than an hour to the city to sell his farm produce.
Daily Sun also learnt that the abandoned Biu dam is also meant to provide clean water for human consumption. Good drinking water is a rarity in Biu, and the people rely on table and sachet water produced in neighbouring towns of Yola and Gombe.
Umar Midala, a native of Biu, told Daily Sun: “What we have in Biu is hard water because of the rocky terrain. Some of us manage to drink it here; but, if you try it yourself as a stranger, you will fall sick. If you put it in a cup, after sometime, what looks like cement particles will form at the bottom of the cup.”
Experience has shown that properly designed and well-constructed dams play a great role in optimally meeting the drinking water requirements of the people. Regulated flows of water from reservoirs help in diluting harmful dissolved substances in river waters during dry seasons by supplementing low inflows, thus maintaining and preserving quality of water within safe limits.
For now, the Biu farmers will resign themselves to watching the increasing number of Fulani herdsmen and their cows, goats and sheep grazing around and drinking undisturbed from the abandoned dam, hoping that the endless wait for Biu dam won’t turn out to be waiting for fabled Godot.