Climate change is having disproportionate impacts on people around the world, and indigenous communities in Nigeria’s Niger Delta are not left behind. In this report – which is the third in a three-part series exploring the plights of communities in the Niger Delta – JUSTICE NWAFOR reports how indigenous island communities in Akwa Ibom State are losing their land, culture and means of livelihood to sea level rise and river bank erosion.
In the early hours of September 20, 2020, a surging roar caused 58-year-old Grace Daniel to rice from her sleep. Worried as to where the noise was coming from, she pushed open her room’s wooden window a few steps away from her bedside. That’s when she saw the flow of water rushing from the direction of the river.
Grace screamed her husband’s name, and he awoke, panicking and staggering to stand. “The water is coming!” Grace shouted to him, her voice engulfed in fear and her feet trembling.
They rushed to the other rooms where their children and two grandchildren, who were visiting, were sleeping. One after the other, they shook them out of their slumber. Now the wind had gotten more violent, and the water had begun to flow into the rooms. As they carried the youngest of the grandchildren and directed the elderly to move far from the house to safety, some items in the house, like the mattress on which they slept, were being submerged. Empty pots and plastic plates in her kitchen were floating away. Her family’s safety was most important in the chaos, as she watched her household items afloat.
“I lost almost everything,” Grace told the Nigerian Tribune in September this year, standing in front of a two-room apartment built with mud and thatch. “The boats we used for fishing were swept by the water. Our properties and the house were lost.”
Although it is difficult to estimate the financial losses caused by the flooding, media stated that the value of the property lost was in the tens of millions of naira, subjecting the residents to economic hardship.
After the flood, Grace and her family, among others, of the Agan-asa village in Emereoke were displaced. They would later find a place in the community to build new apartments, but would hardly recover from the loss.
“Since I lost the house, I could not build another. I looked for a little space in the community to build, but I cannot build up to the standard of the house we lost,” Grace said, desolate. “I am now living in a thatched house. We have not been able to replace all our lost properties.”
Grace is only one of nearly 5,000 residents of Emereoke Kingdom, an island located in the east of Akwa Ibom State in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, devastated by a pouncing surge from the Atlantic Ocean.
The sea level has witnessed a consistent rise over the past century, and today the level is five to eight inches (13-20 centimetres) higher on average than it was in 1900, scientists say. Between 1900 and 1990, studies show that the sea level rose by between 1.2 and 1.7 millimetres per year on average. By 2000, that rate had increased to about 3.2 millimeters per year.
By the end of this century, scientists predict that sea levels could rise by more than 6 feet (2 meters). Given that Nigeria’s coastline is largely low-lying, this places many coastal communities in vulnerable situations, experts say.
In a 2012 study, the University of Plymouth in the UK discovered that even a little increase in sea level—three to nine feet, or one to three meters—would “have a catastrophic effect on the human activities” in Nigerian coastal areas.
According to a study published by Climate Central, some low-lying coastal cities may be permanently submerged by the turn of the century, and regions that currently house 200 million people may permanently teeter below the high tide line. Climate Central is an independent group of scientists and communicators who research and report the facts about changing climate and how it affects people’s lives.
The Emereoke Kingdom sits at the bank of Okwan Obolo estuary (on the fringes of the Atlantic Ocean in the south, into which flow the Otu-nene and Qua Iboe rivers, which surround the kingdom).
There are about 14 villages in the Emereoke kingdom – Emereoke 1, Emereoke 2, Emeremen, Okwan Obolo, Otunene, Agan-asa, Agbama, Amanwon, Emenokook, Emenasa, Ibot-son, Canyon Oron and Udum Unene – and they are all of Ijaw origin. These villages are connected to one another and the Otu-nene and Qua Iboe rivers criss-cross them.
The Ijaws are mostly found in the Niger Delta states of Bayelsa, Rivers and Delta as well as in Edo and Ondo States. Emere-oke people are the few who are found in Akwa Ibom State.
Indigenous Ijaw people have an estimated population of about four million, accounting for less than two percent of Nigeria’s population. They are primarily fishermen and have long lived in locations near many sea trade routes. As early as the 15th century, they had been well connected to other areas by trade.
They have deep connections with the water, and from it, many of their cultures emanate.
“We dance like fishes. Our dance steps are like the movements of the fish and the wagging of their tails in the waters. The Ijaw masquerades usually wear heads of fish,” said Ballard Benedick Bedewuru, an Ijaw man and Director of the Arts and Culture Bureau at the Bayelsa State Cultural Centre.
“All our festivals have their origins from water. Our ways of life are influenced by our environment which is surrounded by water.”
Flood eroding tradition
When Joseph Amon was growing up about four decades ago in Emereoke 1, he loved playing football on the elementary school football pitch down the road. Afterwards, he would join his friends to pick fallen, ripe Africa Star Apple in bushes close to his house. But there was a particular bush they were warned not to walk into – where the shrine of the community was. It was sacred and not to be walked into except on specific occasions, he said.
But now, the shrine has been desecrated. Though there have been others since, the flood of 2020, which destroyed Grace’s apartment, the shrine has been washed away. When it was built many years ago, it was more than one kilometer to from the river bank.
“Our ancestors laid the foundation of our shrine, but when the water came (and caused river bank erosion), it destroyed it,” Joseph said, standing where the shrine was located, which is no longer bushy and now less than 40 meters from the river. “So, we had to relocate it to a new place, but this caused deaths (of about 20 people).”
One of the effects that the rising sea has had on coastal communities is river bank erosion, which is the wearing away of a stream’s or river’s banks. River bank erosion has been connected in studies to climate change and sea level rise.
The study, published in the International Journal of Sciences: Basic and Applied Research (IJSBAR) in 2013, found that on the average, the riverbank erosion along the major three rivers in Bangladesh (Jamuna, the Ganges and the Padma) will be increased by 13 percent by 2050 and by 18 per cent by 2100.
At Lund University in Sweden, Golam Mahabub Sarwar conducted research for his dissertation on the effects of sea level rise on coastal areas. The findings state that “sea level rise has resulted in infrastructure damage, biodiversity loss, and river bank erosion.”
According to the study, “River morphological activities (such as changes in planform and cross-section shape) will increase due to sea level rise, resulting in increased river flow. “Accelerated river flow will increase river bank erosion.”
Joseph, who is now the head of the Emereoke 1 Community Council, explained that when the shrine was destroyed, there were cases of unexpected deaths in the community. As there was no scientific correlation between the destruction of a shrine and the death of people, Joseph explained that the “elders of the community met and performed some traditional rituals’’ as they believed that the deaths in the community were a result of the destruction of the shrine. “The ancestors were not happy,” Joseph said. “It cost us a lot of money and effort to offer some sacrifices to the spirits and ancestors for the deaths to stop at the time.”
Even at the new location, it never feels like home. “I grew up seeing the shrine where it was. Now, seeing people go close to the place where the shrine was, which, before the destruction, nobody would dare go close to, makes me feel as if something is wrong,” Joseph said. “It is awkward. I feel there is a disconnection and that our heritage is slipping away.”
Traditional worship places like shrines are carefully chosen for spiritual or cultural reasons, and moving them abruptly could have implications, says Godwin Egbucha, professor of African Traditional Religion and Intercultural Hermeneutics at the Imo State University.
“Cultural sites have spiritual implications and reasons,” Prof. Egbucha told the Nigerian Tribune. “The sites exist because the spirits dictated to be kept there, and there are powers attached to them.”
‘We have lost almost half of our community land to water’
The flooding in Emereoke is caused by the rise in the levels of the rivers that surround it and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as intense rainfall which occurred within a short time. The water from the ocean finds its way to the creeks and to the rivers and finally into the community. Sodiene Jonah, the community head of Agan-Asa, told the Nigerian Tribune that the community started experiencing flooding from the rivers more consistently in the year 2000.
“Sometimes at midnight, the water will rise and flow into people’s houses. People will lose their property, and the unlucky ones will lose their children,” Jonah said. He explained that in the early days, losses were minimal, and the flood would recede after some time, though not totally. But in recent years, the magnitude, as well as the attendant losses, has increased, and the flood hardly recedes. This, he said, has led to the loss of community land.
Loss of land, Sarwar’s study found, is one of the impacts of sea level rise. According to experts, submergence – permanent coastal flooding – occurs when water levels rise. Submergence is also “the most significant factor responsible for land loss” in many coastal areas (like Emereoke), according to a study published by the United States Geological Survey.
According to Jona, the loss of land has reduced the standard of living for many locals.
In Emereoke I, there is an elementary school. Though the students were on a lengthy break when this reporter visited the community, the football field was still logged with water from the previous incursion, which occurred early on in March.
Every time the waters come, the school is affected and the students typically don’t go to class, according to Joseph.
Like other Niger Delta residents, the Emereoke people are farmers in addition to being fishermen. This indicates that there isn’t much land left for farming as a result of the loss of land. It is also a big deal in a community where the majority of people live in poverty and make far less than $2 per day.
Local markets in the area, as well as those in a nearby city like Uyo, are dependent on agricultural products from rural areas like Emereoke, particularly for a staple like garri, a creamy granular flour made by processing the starchy tuberous roots of recently harvested cassava.
For instance, the recent flooding in Nigeria, which last month affected more than a third of the states, inundated farmlands in the north of the nation. According to experts, the cost of food would rise. In fact, as a report from late last month stated, the price of rice, has already been impacted.
“In recent years, we have lost almost half of our community land to water. This time, after the flood, the water hardly goes back, it remains there, and the affected people get permanently displaced,” Jonah explained.
The 2020 incident, which displaced Grace, is a case in point. The playground that was near her house is now covered in water, and a stranger would hardly believe that a few years back, kids played football on what now looks like a normal river. It is difficult to forget about the losses, especially when she walks out of her new apartment and sees that the water has taken up permanent residence on the spot she once called home.
“That mango tree,” she pointed to a small tree growing on a tiny, elevated piece of land surrounded by water about one kilometre away from a seat out where she sat, “was at the front of my house where my children used to play with sand.”
“When I look at that tree, I remember how the house I struggled to build with my husband was destroyed. The water around that tree is a constant reminder of my loss. That water is a symbol of my pain,” Grace said, casting her face down in an effort to fight back her tears.
“We are not even sure if this current house will last the next five years,” Grace said of the new thatch house she built with her husband. “Sometimes when we sleep, we wake up by 3 a.m. to see if the water has started coming again. Nobody is sure when next it will come like how it came in 2020.”
Emereoke, like other island communities, is in the crosshairs of the impacts of climate change: rising sea levels, coastal storms, shoreline erosion, and irregular rainfall patterns. They are already being experienced and are intertwined and linked to rising global temperatures, says Clinton Ezekwe, Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.
Rising temperatures have a snowball effect. Prof. Ezekwe explained that the increase in temperature leads to glaciers – water that has been frozen in the Arctic and Antarctica for hundreds of years – melting. “When these glaciers melt, they find their way to the oceans, and this increases the volume of water in the oceans. And naturally, the ocean begins to expand into the land.”
Connecting the rising temperature to increased storms in coastal communities, Prof. Ezekwe, a former Director of Weather Forecasting Services at the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NiMET), said winds drive intense waves, and the winds are caused by differential heating of the ocean surface.
Also, high temperatures lead to higher evaporation, and evaporation leads to higher precipitation. “Higher precipitation, coupled with very strong winds, leads to heavier rainfall delivered over a short period of time, which brings rainfalls of high intensity,” he said.
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The rising sea temperature seems not to be halting. A new study published on January 11 this year in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences shows that for six consecutive years, the world’s oceans have been hotter than they have ever been in recent history due to human-induced climate change.
As the temperature keeps rising, the sea levels follow suit, and scientists say the crisis may deepen and coastal communities could be further affected.
These are no longer projections and warnings; they are manifesting and have become the lived reality for millions across the world. For instance, in October this year, the two major rivers in Nigeria that connect to smaller rivers and flow into the Atlantic – Niger and Benue – witnessed a massive rise and flowed into communities and city centres.
In a coastal state like Bayelsa, homes, bridges and roads in two-thirds of the state have been submerged. And there were reports of corpses being washed up from a public cemetery by the flood. Other coastal states like Anambra, Kogi, Rivers, and Delta have been affected too. Already, authorities say the disaster has killed more than 600 people and displaced 1.4 million.
Despite the realities, the warnings are still stark and the future bleak: “It is virtually certain that global mean sea level will continue to rise over the 21st century,” scientists wrote in the August 2021 report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN scientific body focusing on the climate crisis. Such warnings worry Grace. “I’m afraid one day in this village we will wake and our children may have no place to call home again,” she said.
While the impacts are visible in Emereoke, the residents are making efforts to protect the community from further incursions. After the 2020 surge, the residents built a makeshift embankment to prevent the water from surging into the community. Given that it was made of sticks and not concrete, it did little or nothing to protect the community.
“We built the embankment to prevent the water from the river from coming in, but it did not work; it is not strong enough to hold the force of the water when it comes,” said Joseph, the head of Emereoke 1. “What we need is for the government to build a real (concrete) embankment to help protect our community for us.”
On September 2020, the Emereoke Central Council, an umbrella body of all the villages in Emereoke kingdom wrote a ‘save our soul’ letter to the Akwa Ibom State Emergency Management Agency for immediate assistance. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) responded. The agency provided bags of rice, beans, cartons of tomatoes, pasta, bags of salt and sugar, detergents, cartons of soap, plastic buckets, bundles of roofing sheets and other building materials, cooking utensils, gallons of groundnut oil, and mattresses for members of the community who were adversely affected, according to a December 2020 report by Vanguard.
But these only provided temporary relief, Jona said. The lasting solution they seek, for which they had reached out to the state government and the Niger Delta Development Commission, is the building of an embankment to prevent future surges into the community.
The answer the Emereoke people are looking for would indeed help them adapt to the fast-changing climate and build resilience to future climate shocks. The embankment of shorelines has been a crucial strategy for preserving imperiled coastal communities. For instance, the World Bank’s Coastal Embankment Improvement Project, which supports the rehabilitation and improvement of protection polders to safeguard coastal areas in Bangladesh from frequent storm surges and tidal flooding, has assisted in preventing further encroachment.
According to the World Bank, since 2013, the project has assisted Bangladesh in reducing some of the significant effects of flooding and enhancing emergency response in the coastal area.
Building artificial physical defences, such as sea walls, dykes, and levees (embankments of soil, stone, or cement that hold back water), and flood barriers, is one way coastal communities can adapt to sea level rise, according to C40 Knowledge Hub, an online hub of climate information maintained by C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.
More importantly, coastal communities can adapt by restoring their ecosystems: coastal wetlands, coral reefs, marshes, and mangroves provide a nature-based defense against coastal flooding and storm surges.
The Nigerian Tribune contacted the Commissioner for Environment in the state, Charles Udoh, for comment, but he declined. Udo declined several calls to his mobile line and ignored messages requesting comment on the efforts the government has made to fix the problem in Emereoke.
While the residents await response from the government, there are measures they could employ to keep safe, Prof. Ezekwe said.
“People should think about new designs for their homes, like having an upper chamber or a floating house where they can move their property to when the flood comes,” Prof. Ezekwe suggested. “They should also have psychological preparations, emergency homes, and provisions for the period of these disasters.”
But these measures may not be feasible in a community where poverty is rife, like Emereoke. Being psychologically prepared may be a big battle for some, like Grace, who is yet to recover from the impact of her losses.
The solution is simple and in sight, she says. “We live every day not knowing what the situation will be. But we may have some certainty if the government decides to build an embankment for us.”