Sand Dredging in Nigeria’s Waterways: Between the Economic Boom and Environmental Doom

Sand Dredging in Nigeria’s Waterways: Between the Economic Boom and Environmental Doom

Author ~ Bekeme Masade-Olowola

The trend of sand dredging from Nigeria’s waterways has led to indiscriminate commercialisation of such activity by the ‘killers of the mother earth’ – unethical business men. In his 1968 classic, ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, Garrett Hardin illustrates why communities everywhere are headed for tragedy, saying “It’s because freedom in the commons brings ruin to all. The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers”. This illustrates the potential tragedy of sand dredging in Nigeria’s waterways as a so-called ‘means of revenue generation’ for host communities and governments.

Sand dredging involves mining or excavation of sand from the bottom of rivers, seas, oceans and other water bodies for commercial purpose.

Why the Boom in Sand Dredging?

Originally, dredging in Nigeria’s waterways was done for safety purpose; especially to keep the sediments (solid materials that settle at the bottom of water) from building up or to increase the depth of navigation channels for safe movements of larger ships, vessels and other water crafts. It is also used to increase a channel or river’s water capacity in order to relieve flooding in some areas, and in land reclamation to create habitable space for an expanding society.

Sand has become an integral input for the provision of infrastructural facilities to meet the development pace and economic activities of Nigeria. As a developing country, construction companies in Nigeria are in enormous demand of sand to deliver modern infrastructure needed to meet the rapid population growth and urbanisation. For instance, research has revealed that Lagos may be the place with the highest sand need in Africa, especially with the development of the World Bank-financed Lagos Mega City Project, the Eko Atlantic City and other innumerable infrastructure development such as new roads, airports, seaports, residential and industrial estates which are cropping up in the vast Lekki Peninsula, in Badagry and other suburban areas.

The Director General of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), Adeniyi Karunwi, confirmed that though “the construction industry…has led to an increase in sand mining activities in parts of the State, with its attendant environmental and economic consequences… [c]ontinued dredging in the state’s shorelines has been described as an illegal activity capable of causing major environmental challenges for Lagos [detrimental to] its bid for sustainability.”

Impacts of Sand Dredging in Nigeria

To regulate the activities of sand dredging businesses in Nigeria, the law stipulates that dredge sites must be sited three hundred meters away from main roads; dredge machines must not be less than 500 meters from the shoreline; and dredgers must get valid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports before commencement of operations. Unfortunately, due to a lack of effective implementation of regulation, the activities of illegal and unethical sand dredgers have prevailed in Nigeria leading to the following:

Economic Loss

Research on the ‘Economic Burden of Sand Dredging on Artisanal Fishing in Lagos State, Nigeria’ found that “fishermen in the dredging area incurred higher cost per day”, and suggested that “this may be attributed to cost incurred on long distance travelled to catch fish in order to avoid dredging area”. Therefore, the sustainability of artisanal fishing as a food supplier and an employer of labour in the Nigerian economy depends on the adoption of ethical sand dredging in Nigerian waterways.

Environmental Degradation

Nationwide, sand dredging is leading to the loss of biodiversity, impairment of fishing activities, coastal erosion, soil contamination resulting from leakages of chemicals into the soil, damage to buildings, farmlands, and buried infrastructure in Nigerian waterways such as bridges, jetties and electric cables, amongst others. For instance, referring to illegal sand dredging in Lagos State, the State Government stated that such activities are posing threats to water transportation, oil and gas distribution channels, and could aggravate flood or fire disasters for those living along the coastlines.

Speaking on the loss of biodiversity, the Director General of the NCF stated that “…dredging in some places has been largely responsible for the loss of breeding habitats for sea turtles, which depend on sandy beaches for their nesting…” He also noted that a recent biodiversity survey by a team of ornithologists along the lagoon in Lagos State (from Sangotedo to Badagry) showed an unprecedented proliferation of dredging activities. “Such un-coordinated activities by dredgers are [also] capable of causing great depths of almost six metres in the seabed”, which can lead to river bank erosion.

Why Poor Dredging Regulation in Nigeria?

Government and Communities Are Silent Due to Economic Gains

A research paper on ‘How Men Eat up Our Land (Sand Dredging) in Niger Delta’ reveals that those engaging in this unsustainable and unethical sand dredging are sometimes approved and shielded by host communities due the economic gains and employment opportunities they earn from it. Also, the sand dredgers are mostly registered with State Ministry of Environment, Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, and National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), but these agencies often pay little attention to the impacts of sand dredging due to the rate of revenue it generates for the government. In these cases, EIAs are usually not carried out and there is little regulatory oversight to checkmate the menace of these sand dredgers.

For instance, the report further reveals that when “a number of sand beach owners in Ugolo, Effurun, Uvwiama, Agbarho [and] Oteri communit[ies] in Ughelli, Ughelli main town and Ovwian Community, Udu Local Government Area were spoken to … quite a sizeable proportion [were in favour of sand dredgers and] insisted that aside from minor damage to infrastructure which they even help to fix/repair, their activities do not in any way negatively impact the ecosystem rather they are helping government to solve [the] unemployment problem as well as helping to grow the economies of where they operate”.

Lack of Clear Regulatory Bodies and Standards

Sand dredging regulation should clearly indicate who should control, monitor or collect revenue from dredgers. It is hard to ascertain which government agency has the statutory right to provide guidelines and regulations for ethical sand dredging in the waterways. For instance, while the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development is statutorily empowered to formulate policy and regulating operations in the solid minerals sector, it is unclear what differentiates it from the activities of the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) which also regulates inland water navigations.

Although, sand dredging is contained in the Exclusive List of the Federal Government, often state governments insist that since the impacts are mostly borne locally, it is proper that dredgers be registered with the state government authorities. Sometime ago, the Lagos State Government was accused of “undue interference” in the regulation of sand dredging activities by NIWA. Commenting on the Lagos State Government’s order for dredger to stop work, Mu’azu Sambo, NIWA’s area manager in Lagos, emphasised that his organisation remains the only body statutorily empowered to grant permit and licenses for sand dredging across the country.

Strategies for Sustainable Sand Dredging

Implementation of Clean Dredging Technology

Transition to innovative clean technology is what Nigeria needs to mitigate environmental pollution and play a vital role in the sustainability of its waterways. Interestingly, these technologies are available in the mining sector and are highly efficient in managing negative impact.  However, such technologies are capital intensive, and to encourage companies from this industry to use them may need government incentive programmes.

Supporting local companies to research and develop emerging technologies for sand dredging can also be a strategy to reduce the environmental impacts of dredging activities in Nigeria waterways.

Reuse of Construction Resources Policy

The reuse of construction materials such as sand, stones, or bricks can reduce the pressure that high demand of sand causes in the waterways. Although to meet the development gaps in Nigeria more resources may be needed, with effective building material reuse or recycle policy, activities of dredgers in Nigerian waterways will reduce. This policy is already in practice in sustainability-driven countries like Switzerland, where every material excavated from demolished buildings are designed for reused in erecting new structures.

Collaborative Regulation and Monitoring

Effective collaboration between all state and federal government agencies and ministries in the mining, environmental, maritime, and other related bodies will ensure that a precise dredging policy is administered in Nigeria. With such clear regulation, dredgers can easily identify the appropriate government agencies and obtain necessary approvals for responsible activities in Nigerian waterways, and the government can in like turn keep on top of activities within the sub-industry through maintenance of appropriate data for planning.

If India can reduce illegal sand exploitation from around 70% to circa 30%, Nigeria can also achieve sustainable management of sand dredging activities in its waterways and avoid the freedom in the commons that brings ruin to all to generations.


  1. Curtailing Illegal Mining and Dredging in Lagos, Lagos State Government
  2. Economic Burden of Sand Dredging on Artisanal Fishing in Lagos State, Nigeria, Sowunmi FA, Haogarh JN, Omigie CO, Idiaye CO (2016), doi: 10.4172/2375-446X.1000171
  3. Effects of Sand Dredging in Niger Delta, National Reformer News Online, 24 February 2017
  4. Environmental Impacts of Sand Dredging in Awoyaya, Lagos State, Nigeria, Muyideen Alade Saliu1, Abiodun Ismail Lawal , and Ismaila Adeniyi Okewale
  5. Environmental Impacts of Sand Exploitation. Analysis of Sand Market, Marius Dan Gavriletea, 26 June 2017
  6. Group Decries Lagos Sand Mining, Dredging, EnviroNews, March 2, 2017
  7. How Men Eat Up Our Land (Sand Dredging) In Niger Delta, Okies Veeky, Delta News Room, November 29, 2016
  8. Sand Mining Facts, The Ojos Negros Research Group
  9. Waterways Authority Issues New Guidelines to Sand Dredgers, Happiness Otokhine,  Guardian Newspapers, 18 April 2016
  10. You Can’t Stop Sand Dredging, Inland Waterways Tells Ambode, The Cable, March 17, 2016

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