The Escravos River, a distributary of the Niger River is a 35-mile (56-kilometre) westerly watercourse that traverses zones of mangrove swamps and coastal sand ridges before entering the Bight of Benin of the Gulf of Guinea.
The Escravos is linked by a maze of interconnected waterways to the Forcados, Warri, Benin, and Ethiope rivers.
By 1960, although the natural passageway over the Escravos Bar at the ocean exit was only 12 feet (4m) deep, the river had already supplanted the Forcados as the main approach to the Delta ports of Warri, Burutu, Sapele, Koko, and Forcados.
Since completion of the Escravos Bar Project in 1964, the breakwater has been the gateway to the Escravos channel while the channel has in turn become the gateway to the Delta ports.
Indeed, the Escravos Channel has remained the only route for oceangoing vessels to the Delta ports.
This is apart from the Escravos river mouth being home to the Chevron oil station serving a submarine oil field 11 miles (18 km) offshore.
For about a decade or more, the Escravos breakwater has been submerged, and the channel silted. It is reported that the channel was last dredged in 1997.
This has resulted in its gradual abandonment by heavy tonnage merchant ships alongside the ports that it serves, namely the Warri, Koko and Sapele ports which have gradually grown dormant.
Pilots that navigate ships through the channel have for over five years decried the breakdown of the breakwater, noting that vessels were diverting from the channel to avoid grounding and that government was daily losing revenue in hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result.
In response to their calls the NPA installed fairway buoys to aid navigation to and fro the channel to the Warri port, but the stakeholders insisted that the attempt was mere palliative, and that nothing short of dredging would salvage the channel and redirect traffic from the congested Lagos port to the watercourse and the ports.
Presently, only coastal tankers transporting refined petroleum products from offshore to the ports can navigate the shallow channel because of their relatively lighter deadweight tonnages; foreign deep-sea ocean-going vessels transporting general cargoes no longer could.
Hence the loss of their traffic and the revenues they should have been generating for the country and the state.
Because of the importance of the Channel to maritime traffic and Nigeria's economy at large, the Federal Government recently approved the Dredging of the Channel and the replacement of its disused navigational aids.
Dredging International Services Nigeria Ltd (DISN) which is the firm handling the dredging project, is known for its international technical expertise and experience in handling such projects globally.
Since 1991, Dredging International Services Nigeria Ltd has continually and successfully delivered turn-key port and marine construction projects for its various clients in Nigeria.
Key among them are the Nigerian Ports Authority, Nigeria LNG Ltd, Rivers State Government, Oil and Gas companies, NIWA, Dangote Group among others.
It is hoped that with such expertise handling dredging works for these select clientele, DISN will soon make the Channel accessible to larger ships.
To affirm that dredging the Escravos Channel will boost Nigeria's economy is to restate the obvious.
Although the relationship between dredging the channel and economic grow this nota direct one, their nexus can be best pieced together by looking at the commercial historical antecedents of the port towns that the Escravos river channel served prior to Nigeria becoming the geographical and political entity that it is today.
From the 15th to the 17th century, Warri kingdom played active role in slave trade, later switching to the export of palm oil and kernels in the mid-19th century, before the kingdom came under British protectionism in 1884.
For long a commercial port and market centre for local produce, Warri town assumed new economic importance with the discovery of natural gas and petroleum in the area, and the establishment of a Petroleum Training Institute in 1972, plus a petroleum refinery in 1978.
Today Warri with its environs is synonymous with oil and gas from the upstream, mid-stream to the downstream markets.
Deregulation of the petroleum industry continues to impact expansion of the oil and gas market around Warri, although this market is still very much limited by the silted Escravos channel which hinders vessels that would wish to trade the products in larger volumes.
Burutu town and port is built on two sides of the Forcados River, a tributary of the Niger River, 20 miles (32 km) upstream from the Bight of Benin which is served by the Escravos River.
It has served as a link between river transport and the sea since the Royal Niger Company established a base there in the late 19th century.
'Modern' 20th century Burutu exported palm oil and palm kernels, rubber, and timber from the surrounding area.
It also shipped peanuts (groundnuts) and cotton from northern Nigeria and Chad, palm produce and timber from eastern Nigeria, and sesame seeds and peanuts from Kogi, Benue, and Plateau states.
Offshore petroleum deposits were discovered near Burutu in 1964, and in the following year the first crude oil from the state was exported (from a loading point at sea).
Sapele town and port which lie along the Benin River just below the confluence of the Ethiope and Jamieson rivers, 98 miles (158 km) from the Escravos Bar and entrance to the Bight of Benin was founded in the colonial period on land traditionally inhabited by the Urhobo (Isoko) people.
A centre for sawmilling (obeche, abura, Sapele, and mahogany) since 1925, Sapele's plywood and veneer-manufacturing plant used to be one of the largest in western Africa. Sapele was also known for the rubber plantations in the vicinity.
Its industry became more diversified in the 1960s with factories for making shoes, tiles, plastics, and chemicals.
Sapele is a local market centre in cassava (manioc), fish, palm oil and kernels, yams, and plantains, and it has a flour-milling plant.
Koko town and port lie along the Benin River, in the western Niger River delta.
A collecting point for palm oil and kernels as well as timber, it is accessible by vessels of 14-foot (4-metre) draft that navigate the 50-mile (80-kilometre) distance upstream to the port via the Escravos River entrance.
Although its port was subsumed by Sapele, 20 miles (32 km) upstream, the town still serves as an agricultural trade centre for the Itsekiri people.
It was reopened as a port of entry in 1958, and in the late 1970s the government rehabilitated its berths and promoted fishing and shrimping operation in the town.
Inherent in the foregoing analysis is the catalyst role the Escravos river, bar and channel played as an arterial watercourse linking smaller rivers to ports and towns of the Delta, and stimulating the towns' economies in decades past, with traders within and outside Nigeria thronging their markets to trade. With today's deregulation of the oil and gas industry, the opportunities of those times past are more than doubled.
Hence, dredging the Escravos channel and rebuilding its breakwater at this auspicious period is to breathe new life into the ports and towns of Warri, Burutu, Sapele, Koko and Forcados; attract bigger ships to stimulate domestic and international shipping traffic; and the gains of these activities will diffuse into the larger economy.
Akhidenor wrote from Lagos.