As they continue to wait in vain for state intervention amid rising sea levels, people in Akwa Ibom are taking matters into their own hands.
As global sea levels have risen by 23cm in the last 150 years, Nigeria has been particularly hard hit. Along its extensive and populous coast, sea surges in recent years have displaced millions of people, killed hundreds, and destroyed homes, villages, and vast farmlands. With sea levels predicted to rise another 50cm by the end of the century due to climate change, floods are set to become even harsher and more frequent. Under this scenario, an estimated 27 to 53 million people will need to be relocated.
Scientists have identified numerous measures that the Nigerian government could employ to mitigate these risks. These range from the construction of canals, seawalls, and dikes to the preservation of wetlands or building of parks as green buffer zones. Few of these initiatives have been forthcoming, however, leaving many coastal communities to fend for themselves. Some are taking matters into their own hands.
Last year, for instance, Jonah Sodineye began building makeshift embankments in his hometown of Agan-asa in Akwa Ibom state. He ordered lumber from loggers who operate in nearby forests and then dug metre-long holes in the ground in front of his newly built thatch house. He fixed the logs firmly in the trenches and plans to nail more lumber perpendicularly to the structure when he can afford it. With help from fellow community members, he also filled 4,000 bags with mud from the mangrove creek to contract an additional barrier.
In the past year since he constructed these improvised seawalls, Sodineye says the protected area has not flooded. “So far, the mud has been effective,” he says.
This is a great relief to Sodineye, who lost his home to sea surges in 2000 and then again in 2014. After the latter disaster, he relocated to Bayelsa state where he lived for six years. He returned to Agan-asa in 2020 after he was made the community’s chairman, a role that rotates between households every four years. “Our tradition is that if they appoint you as the chairman, you must live in the community to solve the problems of your people,” he says.
It was in Bayelsa, however, that Sodineye first observed and learnt from locals who were building makeshift embankments. There, he witnessed various communities using mud and logs to build barriers that can mitigate the effects of floods – at least for a few years. As chairman of his community, he is now trying to replicate their practices and lead his neighbours in developing the strategy.
“[The makeshift embankments] will at least protect my house for some time until the government comes to assist,” says Sodineye, hopefully.
Although only temporary and semi-effective, the installation of improvised barriers has proven important to numerous coastal communities. Without any mitigating strategies at all, the impacts of sea surges are disastrous. In July 2022, floods in Agan-asa killed two children. Elsewhere in the Emere-oke kingdom – of which Agan-asa forms one of 22 communities – floods have even ripped apart the once well-protected naval base.
Nonetheless, locals recognise that their crude measures are insufficient given the size of the challenge at hand. Stop-gap methods are better than nothing, but nowhere near the level of investment and forward planning necessary to protect communities.
“We don’t have the resources to build a real embankment,” says Sodineye. “We don’t have the capacity. What we can do is to write to the government for them to help us.”
Gwungawaji Joseph, chairman of Emere-oke 1 community, echoes this and calls for the government to build a concrete embankment. “If they provide it, we are okay,” he says.
Unfortunately, these communities have been waiting in vain for promised state support for decades now. Set up in 2000, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) was supposed to facilitate the development of the Niger Delta region, which includes Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa states alongside seven others. From 2001 to 2020, the finance ministry reportedly released N833 billion (over $1bn) to the interventionist agency for projects such as construction of bridges and sea embankments.
Yet twenty years later, there is little evidence of its work beyond a list of unfulfilled promises. In Bayelsa, for instance, a shoreline protection contract awarded to Epenal Group Nig. Ltd for N5.4 billion ($6.9 million) in 2010 never saw the light of day. An embankment project in Akwa Ibom awarded to Messrs Smith Engineering in 2012 was similarly abandoned. Alagoa Morris, a project officer with Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), cites yet another case regarding the shoreline of the Opume community “where community leaders know nothing about the existence of such a contract and yet in the books of NDDC, funds were released in connection with the ghost contract.”
The NDDC did not respond to requests for comment from African Arguments.
In the absence of government plans, makeshift embankments provide at least a semblance of protection. But, as Archibong Akpan, a climate policy expert at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, explains, even well-funded permanent measures will only be temporary if temperatures continue to rise. “The first solution is to end fossil fuel exploitation,” he says.
Nigeria’s vulnerable coastal communities know that, for all their efforts in gathering sticks and mud to hold back the inevitable, they are ultimately at the mercy of the state, the sea, and polluters worldwide.
“As we are calculating, the mighty flood might come next year and, if it comes, it might take all these houses,” says Sodineye.
Ekpali Saint is a freelance journalist based in Nigeria.