Authorities of Nigeria’s federal capital, Abuja, have not taken measures to curtail rampant and uncontrolled drilling of boreholes for water in the territory, two years after the practice was identified as the major trigger for the nerve-rattling tremors that shook the city in 2018, a Dateline investigation has shown.
The unregulated activity has continued despite a presidential committee’s call for it to stop and a warning that chances of the vibrations occurring again were “fairly high”.
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Panic spread among the city’s dwellers when the earth trembled for days, causing people in most affected areas to relocate to places they considered as being safer.
For four days, the low intensity earthquakes jolted Mpape, Gwarinpa, Maitama, Jabi and Utako, between September 6 and 7, 2018.
The presidential committee that investigated the phenomenon related it to “indiscriminate sinking” of boreholes that was prevalent in Abuja metropolis at the time.
It described as “unsustainable”, the number of boreholes in the city and the volume of water that was being extracted through them daily and called for regulations to be put in place.
Recent checks by Dateline show that the practice has continued rampantly with no regulations being enforced to check it.
A private developer told this newspaper that: “Sinking of borehole is the only thing you can do in the FCT without anybody’s approval. If you want to drive a car in Abuja, you must get a permit; if you want to build a house, you must get approval; but if you want to sink a borehole, just a get the tools and start digging.”
A total of 110,000 boreholes existed in Abuja at the time of the quakes, the committee found. But investigation by Dateline indicates that thousands more boreholes have since been added to the figure.
An average of five new boreholes are drilled in the city on a daily basis, with new houses, offices and business premises and other private demands accounting for the number.
Places where the activity is going on daily include Idu, Dutsen-Alhaji, Dawaki and Jahi, all located minutes from the city centre.
Pushed by the absence of water supply to parts of Abuja, residents and businesses in those places rely solely on ground water through boreholes to meet their water needs.
Though it is also prevalent in all the satellite towns in the FCT, this investigation did not include such areas because they did not experience the 2018 tremors.
The devil is in the boreholes
FCT residents had feared for the worst when the grounds started shaking under them as they slept on the 4th of September, 2020. When the seismic activity continued for a number of days, people started speculating what they believed was the cause.
At Mpape, which was later identified as the epicenter, residents linked the occurrence to quarry activities in the area.
The Federal Capital Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in a statement at the time, said blasting and mining were responsible, while it ruled out the possibility of an earthquake in the territory, given that, according to it, the FCT was not situated in an earthquake-prone zone.
But in its report, the presidential committee headed by the Director-General of the National Space Research and Development Agency, Prof Seidu Mohammed, declared that though the Abuja “earthquakes have been of low-magnitudes, it is now certain that earthquake occurrence has become a potential hazard to the nation.”
In a 1978 investigation for Abuja by Julius Berger, the committee reported, Mpape was identified as a weak Shear zone with several fractures and fault system.
“Water extraction and recharge imbalance from aquifer is causing hydro-geological instability along the fractures,” Prof Mohammmed’s committee noted, adding, “Currently, there are 110,000 boreholes within Abuja metropolis with about 330,000 metric tonnes of water extracted daily. This is not sustainable.”
“In the light of the above, the spots and locations identified and considered as earthquake prone areas in Abuja in particular, and Nigeria in general, need to be further studied and continuously monitored. There is also the need to carry out detailed vulnerability studies of the identified seismic hotspots in Nigeria.
“Based on the results obtained using the probability of recurrence theory, we confirmed that the probability of recurrence in the very near future is fairly high in Nigeria.
“There is the need to regulate the exploitation of ground water resources of Abuja via indiscriminate sinking of boreholes because this has been the primary reason for the stress build up leading to the Abuja tremors of 5th-7th September, 2018,” it said.
“Borehole is the starting point”
Drilling of new boreholes is taking place in all parts of the FCT, with the exception of settlements enjoying pipe-borne water supply, like Garki, Wuse, Asokoro and Maitama.
Sinking of boreholes and building of houses go hand-in-hand and, in many cases, the number of houses being built determines the number of boreholes to be drilled in a particular area, our investigation has shown.
Private developers and property owners claimed that the inability of the Federal Capital authorities to provide pipe-borne water has made boreholes the only viable option available to them.
This is happening against the backdrop of a water supply expansion projects that the authorities have reportedly abandoned. Millions of naira worth of pipes for the project have been converted into roadside toilets in communities where they have been laying fallow for years.
A Private developer estimates that for any housing project embarked upon in the FCT that has up to 500 units, for instance, 500 boreholes will be built to service them.
“The boreholes are not owned collectively, they are paid for by individuals for their individual houses,” the developer, who doesn’t want his name mentioned, said.
“Drilling of a borehole is normally the starting point for anybody who wants to develop their plot anywhere in the FCT. If you don’t have a borehole on the site, you can’t develop your plot because you don’t have water,” he explained the problem further.
“If you pay, we drill”
To sink a borehole in Abuja does not require an approval from the authorities, rig operators and building contractors told Dateline.
At Dawaki extension, where a rig was seen drilling a borehole on a Sunday morning at an uncompleted building site on Efon Alaye Street, the operator promised to sink one borehole within a day in the same vicinity if paid N650,000.
“I will drill it and install the pumping machine for you,” the man who gave his name simply as Abdul said.
When asked if getting a permit from authorities was a pre-condition, Abdul, replied: “That is not needed. What is important is a survey that will confirm the presence of water and the depth of the water table.”
“This is Abuja, the Capital City,” he said, to allay fears of officials coming to stop the work. “It is not a local government. If they (the officials) face us, we face them. That is how we do it.”
He did not explain to Dateline what he meant by “we face them” but it was gathered that officials hardly ever visit such sites to demand for drilling permit.
With ‘X’ signs all over a couple of buildings in the area ordering them to stop, it was pretty clear that the authorities frequent the place to enforce other regulations.
Abdul was working on his fifth borehole in the area in a matter of days, he said.
A short distance away, another borehole had been sunk two days earlier, near a police outpost.
Phone numbers of borehole drilling companies have been inscribed on buildings to attract clients.
The rigs are also always at work at Idu, Dutse, Jahi and other areas under development, our investigation reveals.
At Idu, the FCT has approved building developments for estates, offices and even companies about two kilometers after the Abuja train station and the road has been just been reconstructed.
Here too, individual houses must have their boreholes. At some of the sites under construction, boreholes have been sunk to provide water for molding of blocks and building of houses.
A security guard at one of the estates, which has about 10 units of houses, said all the houses have their separate boreholes and they were all sunk about a year ago.
“Everybody here provides for their water and power supplies,” the guard told Dateline.
A building contractor, who criticized authorities for allowing the proliferation of boreholes to go unchecked, claimed that drilling is now a lucrative business that is attracting many firms into the nation’s capital.
An FCT official, who does not want his name mentioned because he was not authorized to speak to the press about the issues, said if people had subscribed to “industrial boreholes” which can serve multiple houses at once, the numbers would not have been frightening. Dateline was not able to verify the claim.
Efforts to get the comment of the FCT Water Board through its spokesperson, Umar Akko, did not succeed. Even when Dateline was asked to submit its questions on a letter paper, which it did, the Board did not respond to request for comment. Similarly, there was no response to a reminder sent to Akko, a week after our first email to the same official.