Environmental experts agree geological pressure on several states, but say call for clean-up campaigns will be difficult
Countless Nigerians have died from advancing shorelines and soil-thickening erosion in their coastal villages, according to a report by environmental experts commissioned by the Nigerian government.
The study, which examined 15 towns and villages throughout the state of Ondo, found evidence of a similar condition in other states of the north-eastern oil-producing region.
Environmental experts have increasingly been describing a degree of nation-wide erosion as the result of external forces, including the international movement of the lava and ash of destructive volcanic eruptions, sand-grinding industrial activity and desertification and digging associated with oil exploration.
“We are flooded all the time,” says the Onwuneme community leader, Mr Opi-Okpu, gesturing around his riverfront village in a rural part of Ondo. He estimates that up to half the community’s 70,000 inhabitants have died in the ravages of erosion or perished in landslides.
“We’re abandoned in many ways. We have no light, no water, no roads, no clinic, no school,” Mr Opi-Okpu says.
The erosion in Anambra State, the country’s second largest, was believed to have been caused by a landslide after flooding left the land an “explosive rock” last year.
The state governor, Mr Peter Obi, told state legislators at a recent hearing: “In my three-year old administration, the problem of erosion became the second highest challenge of my administration.”
Further north, the king of the villages of Umunawo, Onnimo and Ohuma in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta states says erosion has forced his people from the river they depend on for water, food and livelihoods.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re living on borrowed time. In fact, I will say it’s life or death,” says the king, Mr Francis Ogudim, a grand wizard in the Efik nation in a remote part of the Niger Delta.
The high price of imported wood for making paper and building wood houses is the main cause of the erosion, he says. It also brings in a terrible byproduct of sinking land – polythene.
Around Etor Ibi in the River Niger delta, where oil exploration began, 150 square miles of land has been depopulated of trees for logging and farmland. At the same time, torrential flooding and hail-producing winds constantly push saltwater into the delta’s sea.
Environmental experts and community leaders agree that structural degradation has a role to play.
In the village of Timodola in Rivers State, water mixed with sand has washed away many communities’ bridges and culverts, reaching as far as within several blocks of houses. Locals say there is also a strong feeling that mineral sand was dredged from the river at a site near their homes.
Oil exploration is to blame for soil and sand mining and sand-grinding on a large scale, say environmental scientists, who are keen to study the incidence of erosion, as well as the link between greenhouse gases and climate change.
“Any human activity that impacts one area and causes environmental change in another, will need to be considered in terms of impacts over time and of further interrelationships,” says Olatunji Oguntade, an environmental economist at the University of Ibadan.
Mr Agboola Nabebigho, an environmental engineering professor at the university, said the findings of the report strongly suggest that environmental pressure should be a priority in the country’s economic strategy.
The government should focus more of its mining work in the Niger Delta basin and agriculture in inland regions, and should ensure that land acquires essential quality before mining activity in the area begins, he says.
“An integrated approach to land management is necessary to reduce adverse environmental impacts of industrial and developmental activities,” says Nabebigbo.
People in the Niger Delta are more affected by the effect of man-made by-products than those in coastal communities, say environmental experts.
“What happens in inland farming communities is always a tremendous problem,” says the Umunawo king, Mr Francis Ogudim. The farmers have to make a lifestyle out of coping with loss of lands. In many cases, they have just one hectare left to cultivate, usually for food.
“If I had a land, I would have grown food on it for the next 100 years,” Mr Ogudim says. “But people want to live. They want to use the land for money, and the government wants to make money.”