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Climate challenges faced by coastal communities in Nigeria, by Nnimmo Bassey

Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nnimmo Bassey, at Coastal Community Fishers Dialogue/Training at Uta Ewua, Akwa Ibom State on Thursday, August 5, 2021, highlighted a range of climate change related challenges that coastal communities encounter

Crayfish beach at Uta Ewua
Crayfish beach at Uta Ewua

 Climate change and variability in Nigeria is starkly illustrated in the northern and southern regions of Nigeria by desertification and coastal erosion respectively. This is so because attention is often focussed on these phenomena in the North and in the South. The implication of this is that the extent of climate impacts in the region between the north and south is often underreported. These emblematic phenomena do not however tell the full story of environmental changes in the impacted communities in Nigeria’s northern region and in the coastal communities.

It should be noted that within regions, as among nations, climate impacts are unevenly distributed due to differential exposure to certain physical and socio-economic factors. Other factors that affect the distribution of impacts include community structure and organisation, risk perceptions, economic systems, and available resources.

Nigeria’s 850 kilometres coastline is notably challenged by activities of oil industry in the Niger Delta and the mammoth refinery being constructed at Lagos. Deforestation is another key factor as the shoreline protection provided by mangrove forests is rapidly being lost. Canalisation and sand filling for infrastructural and urban development are other major factors.

The attention paid to coastal communities also vary depending on whether such areas are urban or rural. The flooding and projected impacts of the refinery on Lagos, a mega city, attracts global attention, while smaller towns such as Ibeno and communities such as Uta Ewua, Ibaka or Ago Iwoye hardly get a mention.

Coastline communities depend on aquatic ecosystem resources to secure their livelihoods and maintain their cultures. A distortion of this environment brings about both subtle and direct impacts on the social, cultural, and economic lives of the people. Canalisation, for instance, and sea level rise, bring in salt water from the sea, thus contaminating freshwater sources. This brings about the stressful contradiction of living on water and yet having none to drink. Besides the pressure on potable water, the intrusion of salt water also alters the diversity of aquatic and terrestrial species in the territories.

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The threats of sea level rise to the Niger Delta are compounded by the fact that the region is naturally subsiding. This means that the net sea level rise here is higher than in other parts of Nigeria’s coastline owing to the unique combination of factors.

We often hear of the description of some ecosystems as being fragile. That fragility is not attributed to such areas because of an inherent weakness in the ecosystem but to camouflage the harm visited on them by corporations and individuals. Perhaps we should speak of sensitive ecosystems rather than fragile ones. In this sense, sensitivity places a duty of care and respect on humans and institutions led by them.

The fact that hydrocarbon pollution on the coastal communities of the Niger Delta is not restricted to communities that host oil company facilities is well known. When an oil spill occurs at an offshore rig or at a Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) vessel, the extent of the spread of the pollution cannot be predicted and can only be determined after the act? Mobil offshore oil spill in 2012 off the Ibeno coastline spread as far as 32 kilometres from its source, devastating fisheries in the area. Multiple oil spills in the area in 2012 and 2013 led to the coating of the entire Akwa Ibom State coastline with crude sludge.

Other incidents include the rupturing at the Forcados terminal of Shell Nigeria Production and Exploration Company (simply known as Shell) in 1979 where 570,000 barrels were emptied into the estuary and adjoining creeks. Chevron (then Texaco) had a major spill in 1980 at Funiwa, where 400,000 barrels of crude oil were emptied into coastal waters, and which destroyed 340 hectares of mangrove forests. Mobil also had 40,000 barrels spilling in January 1998 at their Idoho offshore platform. That spill affected at least 22 coastal communities.

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One major offshore oil spill recorded in Nigeria is the Bonga oil spill of 11 December 2011 at Shell’s Oil Mining Lease 118 located 120 kilometres offshore. The oil company reported that 40,000 barrels were spilled, but the significance of this spill goes beyond the volume of oil spilled. It is significant because the oil company, Shell, claimed that it pumped the 40,000 barrels into the Atlantic Ocean in error, thinking they were pumping the oil into a tanker, MV Northia. An investigation of the incident found that the pumping of the crude oil into the ocean was because of an equipment failure at the FPSO. The oil spill spread over a large extent of the coastline. It was reported to have impacted 168,000 persons in 350 communities in Delta and Bayelsa States alone.

Following the Bonga oil spill, the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) slammed a fine of $1.8 billion on Shell “as compensation for the damages done to natural resources and consequential loss of income by the affected shoreline communities.” NOSDRA also fined Shell another $1.8 billion as punitive damages. Shell refused to pay the fine and instead brought a case in 2016 to a Nigerian federal court challenging NOSDRA’s power to impose any fine on it.

Two years down the road, the court dismissed the suit filed by Shell and found that NOSDRA was right to impose a fine of $3.6 billion on the offending oil company. That fine is yet to be paid by the oil major. While Shell and NOSDRA engage in their tug of war, the communities are left high and dry, suffering the impacts of the oil spill, and getting a signal that succour may not come after future incidences. The Artisanal Fishermen Association of Nigeria (ARFAN) continues to urge Shell to pay the fine imposed on it by the Nigerian government.

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Of the 7 million artisanal fishers in Nigeria, 80% are found in the Niger Delta. These fishers produce about 9 million tonnes of fish locally, meeting only a fraction of the fish needs of Nigeria. Interestingly, some of the offshore oil fields are named after animal and fish species, probably to preserve the memory of species destroyed by oil company activities for posterity. An oil field is named after bonga fish, and another is named ebok or monkey. A lot of monkey business obviously goes on at those locations.

With the recalcitrant attitude of the polluting oil companies operating in Nigeria, coastal communities cannot depend on them in the struggle to maintain their aquatic ecosystems and defend their livelihoods. While communities are forced to live with these companies in their territories and off their coasts, they must take steps to protect their environment, livelihoods, culture, and overall dignity. Some of the necessary steps include a mapping of their ecological resources and preparing a matrix of what they had before and what have been lost due to multiple factors. Communities must equip themselves with knowledge on how to monitor their ecosystems as well as how to organise and advocate for the changes they wish to see.

Groups such as Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), the FishNet Alliance and others work to learn from the existential struggles of vulnerable coastal communities and to support efforts to expose ecocide and end destructive extraction, overfishing and other harmful activities. We recognise that healthy aquatic ecosystems ensure the security of communities when their knowledge and conservation norms are respected.

Community wisdom provides essential platforms for protecting shorelines from the ravages of raging waves, protect aquatic species and promote the wellbeing of the peoples. Efforts of communities to hold to account, individuals and corporations who wilfully inflict harms on their ecosystems must be adequately supported.

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