Enewa Agbo returned from work on Wednesday, September 5, 2018, from Abuja city to the nearby Mpape suburb. As she made to take her bath, Enewa noticed a strange movement of her bucket of water as the earth shook. She was terrified and moved out of the bathroom, but her bed also moved a little.

This was a firsthand experience of one of those who witnessed a series of earth tremors that occurred in the Maitama and Mpape areas of Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria in September and November 2018.

Some of those who spoke with our reporter said they had to leave their houses out of panic while government officials were contacted on the strange occurrence.

Although there were no visible effects on buildings after the multiple occurrences, the incidents remain fresh on the minds of the people, six months after.

Ms Enewa, who resides at Baban Ba Street, said, “I experienced the tremor that occurred in Mpape twice in September 2018. At the bathroom, I felt the tiles were sort of moving. I held my bucket because it was moving strangely. By the time I went to the room to lie on the bed, it was shaking. It was as if it was moving mysteriously.

Report spells doom for borehole drilling

Shortly after the September tremors, a presidential committee on enquiries was set up. The committee, chaired by the director-general of the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA), Prof. Seidu Mohammed, predicted a likelihood of more of such incidents unless the indiscriminate clustering of boreholes was controlled.

A statement obtained from the head of Press and Public Relations, Ministry of Science and Technology, AbdulGaniyu Aminu, on the committee’s report revealed, “A study conducted by Julius Berger on the geological, hydrological and geotechnical investigation for Abuja identified Mpape as a shear zone that was weak with several fractures and faults system.”

The report further explained that the country was prone to seismic hazards following the earth tremor in Kwoi, Kaduna State; Saki, Oyo State and Igbogene in Bayelsa State in 2016.

Following the tremor at Mpape, the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel had ordered the suspension of rock blasting activities around the area for a preliminary investigation. But investigation revealed that drilling of boreholes and quarry activities in the area and its environs have continued unregulated.

Records published by the National Population Commission (NPC) put the estimated population figure of Nasarawa, Niger states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) at 11.6 million as at 2016. A breakdown obtained from Demographic Statistics document of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) shows that Niger, the most populated of the three states, has 5.556m. FCT has an estimated 3.564m population while Nasarawa State has 2.523m people living there.

However, a large section of these 11m people do not have access to public tap water across the states, including the FCT. This has caused a rise in borehole drilling, our survey shows. Such activities expose the affected areas to risks of earth tremor or even earthquake.

Permit not needed to drill boreholes

According to a section of the presidential committee report, for 30 years, the upland around Maitama has been exposed to unregulated drilling of boreholes. The record shows that 110,000 boreholes in Abuja extract 330,000 metric tonnes of water daily from the ground, posing further threats of tremor.

Our investigation shows that six months after the incidents at Mpape, there’s no formal regulation of borehole drilling in Abuja and the neighbouring states surveyed for over a four-week period.

Bulus John, a Mpape resident said, “We depend on open groundwater from quarry pits, and boreholes for those who can afford them. In a street, one can count about five boreholes. They are a common sight. Water vendors patronise them, selling a 20-litre jerry-can at N20 to residents who do not have access to those boreholes.”

At Mararaba town of Nasarawa State, said to be the most populated area, there’s no tap water.

Mr Kolade Segun, a house owner in the town said, “I did not request for any permission to build my borehole. I contacted a company to do that for me and they said they were licenced to operate and did not need a clearance to drill for a particular house. It took them about nine hours and they were done.

“I got a plumber who did the concrete slab work and connected the pipe to the reservoir and we now have running water. I spent about N550,000 because they said they had to drill deeper for about 50 meters to reach the waterbed.”

About 20 other landlords who have boreholes in Karu, Jikwoyi in FCT; New Nyanya and Masaka in Nasarawa State; Madalla and Suleja towns in Niger State, also related similar experience – they were not required to get approval to sink boreholes.

Musa Audu, a house owner in New Nyanya said, “I drilled it five years ago and I did not see any official to tell me it was illegal. I invited Geodrill Limited. They came and did the survey, and in one week, I paid the charges and the borehole was done.”

For David Olaiya, who lives in Suleja town of Niger State, it was surprising that he should get any approval to drill a borehole. He said, “Why do I need an approval for that? Government apparently failed to provide potable water, even when it is close to Abuja. So we had to resort to self-help. Besides, it is in my land.”

Results of a survey on the prevalence of borehole drilling conducted by Daily Trust on Sunday in Abuja and its environs for two weeks showed that vehicles meant for that purpose are a common sight. They move from the city centre to the outskirts to drill boreholes for interested house owners. Over 20 vehicles were seen along the Abuja-Nasarawa expressway on a daily basis. Did we make any efforts to speak to them.

Mr Henry Akpen, a geologist who heads a drilling company in Abuja said companies were requested to do a survey to locate the exact point for easy water extraction. He, however, confessed that due to government’s failure to provide tap water for residents, earthquake may not be ruled out in Abuja in the next 10 to 20 years.

“I said this in 2016, and by 2018 we experienced earth tremor in parts of Abuja. This is because of the alarming rate at which people sink boreholes because government failed to provide potable water in the entire city,” Akpen explained.

Mr Joel Nuhu, another borehole driller, confirmed that beside the preliminary survey to determine water sound, there’s no other approval.

“We are registered and guided by code of practice because we have a formal association. It is not illegal to drill boreholes within a specific mass,” he said.

The Association of Water Well Drilling Rig Owners and Practitioners (Borehole Drillers Association) (AWDROP) said its members were working within the extant Federal Government’s regulation, which is the Water Act of 2008.

A drilling guide document obtained from the AWDROP did not show any provision for permit for borehole drilling. According to the guide, under the Water Act 2008, any borehole or well yielding less than 20 cubic metres per day (4,400 gallons daily) does not require consent to drill.

However, industrial water plants, which are not common sight in the capital city, require the permission of the authorities concerned, the AWDROP stated.

For drilling above 20 cubic metres, it stated, “At this stage, it is worth noting that you may also require planning permission from your local council. Please make sure that you ask questions from the relevant council. This should not incur any cost.”

Quarry and artisanal mining activities are spreading across Abuja and its environs due to massive demand for building materials and solid mineral deposits. A survey across Mpape in Abuja, Auta Balefi and Uke in Nasarawa State and parts of Suleja in Niger State shows continuous mining activities.

Driving through Mpape road, one could clearly see new residential buildings springing up in a valley once known as a quarry site. The densely populated suburb is a sight to behold as heavy duty vehicles (tippers) which convey quarry materials, as well as motorcycles, nearly take over the narrow road.

Few meters from the main town lies a sprawling untarred dusty road to a rocky terrain that houses over four quarry sites. Mr Abubakar Musa, who guided our reporter through the town, said a traffic gridlock caused by the trucks was a normal sight.

“Some days, you can count up to 50 trucks ferrying stones and quarry materials from the sites here in just about 30 minutes. They have to pass this narrow market road. They only stopped after an initial three-week ban of such activities when the tremors occurred,” he noted.

Gabriel Magaji, a quarry worker who lives in Mpape Durumi village, said there were three more sites in neighbouring Jikoko village. He said he had not seen government officials after the minister of the FCT, Malam Muhammad Bello visited.

Despite the hazards, he was happy that the quarries were reopened. “I was happy when they lifted the ban and loading of gravels and stones started again. This is because the livelihood of our people depends on this,” he said.

Josiah Bello, a driver in one of the construction firms and resident of the place, said quarry operators paid taxes to the ministry in charge of mining and the FCT, and blamed government for the bad road. “If the government knows that we are here, this road should have been tarred,” he pointed to the dusty road as a tipper loaded with gravel crawled past.

He said that on a daily basis, about 100 trucks load from the five quarries in the area.

Speaking of the dangers of uncontrolled quarry activities, he said, “That is one of the risks involved in it. There could be tremor or even earthquake when such open pits and lakes become too many.”

Our reporter observed that estates are already springing up at the entrance of the suburb, in valleys where excavations were done before.

“They have even christened those areas as Maitama Extension, because of its closeness to Maitama and Aso Rock Villa. Unless measures are taken, they could pose a risk if tremors occuring in that valley,” Haruna noted.

A geologist and member of the presidential committee that investigated the tremor in Mpape, Dr Adepelumi Adekunle Abraham of the Department of Geology, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife said, “The unregulated and indiscriminate borehole drilling needs to be curtailed immediately. Mining should be decentralised and the issuance of licenses regulated without any preferential treatment.”

In his submission, an expert on medical geo-hazards and lecturer in the Department of Geology and Mining, Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Dr. Nghargbu K’tso, advised government to set up a regulatory body backed by an act of the National Assembly.

“The body should, amongst other responsibilities, specify a maximum number of boreholes and square areas with spacing requirements. An embargo should be placed on indiscriminate drilling of boreholes and mining. The ministries of water resources and that of mines should strengthen inspection to this effect.

“We have said that the clustering of boreholes and quarries in the Mpape, Bwari and Dutse Alhaji axes is unhealthy. They are constituting hazards to the environment. Imminent cracks have developed on some of the buildings in those areas. Also, whenever, quarry activities were taking place, the buildings in the area usually vibrate excessively.” Dr K’tso noted.

The director, Artisanal and Small Scale Mining Department of the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, Mr Ojeka O. Patrick, confirmed the effects of rock blasting, which he blamed on small scale miners and quarry operators. He, however, exonerated artisanal miners who use their hands to crack stones.

“Earth tremor is not a result of the work of artisanal miners who crack stones with their hands. It may be as a result of rock blasting that was going on there before these people got there,” he said.

Ojeka further confirmed the suspension of new quarry permit for the Mpape axis since 2018. He said: “They are being monitored daily, that is why you don’t see those major players. In conjunction with the minister of the FCT, no permit is granted by anybody to operate quarry in Abuja for now and it is still binding.

But our investigation shows that existing quarry operators are still blasting rocks at Mpape.

Survey agency procures monitoring tools

In response to our enquiry, the director-general of the Nigerian Hydrological Survey Agency (NGSA), Dr Abdulrasaq Bello, said a natural phenomenon like earthquake was beyond his agency. He explained that an investigation by Julius Berger, a construction firm, and NGSA records show that where the tremor frequencies were recorded in Mpape and Maitama is the shear zone. “A shear zone is where there have been previous mining activities. What we are sensing now is that it is the re-activation of what has happened before,” Dr Bello clarified.

He said the Federal Government had acquired and installed seismometers around Abuja to capture information overtime. “With that we can now confidently start predicting and advise appropriately. It has been installed and it is recording now. Even the last one that happened, which people said was tremor, was actually blasting,” he said. He said there were efforts to have enough seismometers that would cover the density of the country. “With that, we can now key into the Worldwide Network of Seismometer, which countries like South Africa belong to,” Bello said.

This investigation was supported by Tiger Eye Foundation.