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Ekpali SaintJune 01, 2023
Houses are submerged in flood waters in Lokoja, Nigeria, Oct.13, 2022. More than half of the 36 states of the country are affected. More than 600 people have died, with more than 1.4 million people displaced. (CNS photo/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters)Houses are submerged in flood waters in Lokoja, Nigeria, Oct.13, 2022. More than half of the 36 states of the country are affected. More than 600 people have died, with more than 1.4 million people displaced. (CNS photo/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters)

Twice each day, Victor Gbenwe climbs on his motorcycle for a 20-minute ride to his uncle’s nursery where he waters nearly 400 mangrove seedlings. In five months, they will be ready for planting along the shoreline in Bodo, his home community in southern Nigeria’s oil-producing Rivers State.

“I really like what I do at the nursery,” Mr. Gbenwe said. He describes it as an effort “to protect my community from floods and storms.” In Nigeria, 16 million people are currently vulnerable to flooding, with three Nigerian states—Rivers, Delta and Borno—each with over a million people exposed to flood hazards because they are living on flood plains.

Mr. Gbenwe, 35, has already planted over 300 mangrove trees. He was trained in mangrove caretaking by the Nigerian Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development. Nenibarini Zabbey, its coordinator, said the training offered to Mr. Gbenwe and other planters is part of the center’s plan to counter the impact of climate change in the region.

In Nigeria, 16 million people are currently vulnerable to flooding, with three Nigerian states—Rivers, Delta and Borno—each with over a million people exposed to flood hazards because they are living on flood plains.

Flooding is a global problem that accounts for about 47 percent of all weather-related disasters around the world. More than 1.47 billion people face flood risk worldwide every year. In Nigeria, a 2021 analysis reports that 16 million people are currently vulnerable to flooding, with three Nigerian states—Rivers, Delta and Borno—each with over a million people exposed to flood hazards because they are living on flood plains. A government study depicted even higher levels of vulnerability, reporting that as much as 20 percent of Nigerians—42 million people—live under the threat of flooding.

Nigeria experienced its worst flooding in a decade in 2022. High water caused problems in 34 of the country’s 36 states. More than 600 people died and more than 2.8 million people were affected—1.3 million were displaced by the flooding. According to the country’s National Emergency Management Agency, more than 300,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and almost over 1.4 million acres of farmland were partially or totally destroyed.

Nigeria faces a number of major challenges to flood adaptation, including lack of institutional coordination and early warning systems. The nation’s extreme poverty adds to the vulnerability. About 40 percent of the Nigerian population lives below the national poverty line, according to a poverty and inequality report released in 2019 by Nigeria’s statistics bureau. That means households do not have the resources to respond to climate-related shocks or mitigate their risks.

The most recent flooding began after unusually high rainfalls led to overflowing rivers, but other factors contributed to the crisis, including poor waste management (garbage can often clog water drains) and human settlements established on low-lying areas near rivers. The release of excess water from neighboring Cameroon’s Lagdo dam in mid-September made conditions worse. That overflow would have been contained had the Nigerian government completed the Dasin Hausa Dam project, part of the unfulfilled commitments included in a 1980 agreement involving both nations.

But experts agree that the global phenomenon of climate change is exacerbating the problem of flooding in Nigeria. Researchers at the World Weather Attribution group say devastating floods in Nigeria are now 80 times more likely because of the climate crisis. Rising sea levels that contribute to coastal flooding and erosion and changes in rainfall patterns and intensity have all been linked to climate change.

In Nigeria, devastating floods, rising sea levels that contribute to coastal flooding and erosion and changes in rainfall patterns and intensity have all been linked to climate change.

Taiwo Ogunwumi, president and founder of Geohazard Risk Mapping Initiative, which tracks susceptibility to flooding in Nigeria, said that the effect of the changing climate is evident in increased rainfall and higher temperatures in the region. Hotter conditions mean more evaporation and in the end more rainfall. “Rain is oftentimes beyond infiltration—what the soil can absorb—and this naturally causes surface flooding or pluvial flooding,” Mr. Ogunwumi said.

In Bomadi, a diocese in Nigeria’s oil-rich Bayelsa State, 37 of 53 parishes suffered severe flooding that displaced residents, including priests and nuns. Some displaced persons sheltered at the residence of Bishop Hyacinth Egbebo.

“The priests were devastated because the flood overwhelmed their parish houses. Some of the priests had to take shelter in the bishop’s court and the bishop took care of them until the flood subsided,” Zachariah Fufeyin, a priest in the Bomadi diocese, told America. Father Fufeyin, who is also the director of the Justice, Development and Peace Commission in the diocese, added that some “schools and the cathedral compound in Bomadi were used as camps to accommodate victims of the flood.”

Catholic institutions and parishioners in Nigeria are working to prevent future floods. In February, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria launched a campaign that aims to plant 5.5 million trees over the next five years to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Mr. Zabbey and his team are planting mangrove seedlings in coastal intertidal zones like the Niger Delta. Mangrove forests are an important natural solution to the interconnected problems of flooding and climate change. Mangrove forests store carbon, of course, but they also prevent coastal erosion and act as shoreline barriers against storms and floods.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria launched a campaign that aims to plant 5.5 million trees over the next five years to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“Mangroves are a very unique ecosystem because they provide a lot of [ecological] services in addition to shoreline protection,” Mr. Zabbey said. “They are breeding and nursery ground for commercial fishes, and they also serve as maintenance of water quality” by filtering pollutants from the water, he added.

Mr. Zabbey is a professor of biomonitoring and ecology. He described mangrove forests as a “major carbon sink; they sequester carbon [per equivalent area] five times more than a tropical rainforest.” This is because most of the carbon stored in the mangrove ecosystem is in the soil, not in above-ground plant materials as with tropical forests.

Mr. Ogunwumi said ecosystem-based solutions such as mangrove restoration are critical in protecting the Niger Delta region from flooding.

He called mangrove restoration crucial, “not only because they have the capacity to absorb excess water that often leads to flooding, but they also provide additional benefits [like providing nursery habitat for fish] and good air quality that reduces urban heat.”

Two years after an oil spill occurred in Bodo creek that destroyed the mangrove ecosystem in 2003, the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development initiated its first community-led mangrove restoration project in the Niger Delta. That work has had to face additional setbacks caused by other devastating oil spills in 2008 and 2009.

Mr. Zabbey and his team sponsor environmental clubs in communities in Rivers and Bayelsa States, including in Bodo, to engage young people and train them to begin their own mangrove restorations. In April 2022, the center created what it called an environmental protection vanguard, teams of young people who planted 200 mangrove seedlings in Rivers State’s Bundu community.

Mangroves "absorb excess water that often leads to flooding, but they also provide additional benefits [like providing nursery habitat for fish] and good air quality that reduces urban heat.”

“Our approach is participatory [and] we work collaboratively with [the people]. We build their capacity, and then they take the lead,” Mr. Zabbey said. The training and experience equip local people “to be able to adapt to climate change, especially flooding associated with sea level rise.”

So far, the center has sponsored the planting of mangrove seedlings in eight communities in Bayelsa and Rivers States. With funding from California’s PADI Foundation, which supports efforts to protect ecosystems in coastal regions; the Global Greengrants Fund, which supports community-based solutions that promote environmental and social justice; and the Dutch embassy in Abuja, 3,500 hectares of mangroves have been restored in Ogoniland in southern Rivers State. In Bodo alone, residents have planted over 380,000 mangrove seedlings, Mr. Zabbey said.

But even as these restoration efforts continue, existing mangrove forests remain under threat. Mr. Zabbey said the mangrove ecosystem in the Niger Delta still faces overharvesting and vulnerability to more oil spills. And mangrove forests have been used for illicit garbage dumping that often includes plastic products that do not biodegrade. As that material accumulates, it can hinder tidal flow in and out of a mangrove swamp, reducing the ecosystem’s diversity and vitality. And marine debris can cause the death of animals that live in the mangroves, according to a 2016study by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

And “when mangroves are lost, the stability of the land is lost, and the land becomes vulnerable to flooding and erosion,” Mr. Zabbey warned.

Mr. Zabbey is still encouraged by the progress the center has achieved despite these ongoing threats. He co-authored two reports commissioned by the United Nations Environment Program. Meanwhile, Mr. Gbenwe is attempting to raise community awareness of the fragility of mangrove habitats and train other community members on how to manage mangrove seedlings.

“We live very close to the sea in my community, so there is a need to lay more emphasis on mangrove [conservation]. That is why I want to train others in my community, so they will have the knowledge about the mangrove and…its importance to the environment,” he said. “If they have the knowledge, they will protect the mangrove.”

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