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The UN Climate Change summit: strong action needed to protect the Niger Delta

The UN Climate Change summit in Paris is well under way, towards the agreement of decisive climate action plans which will lead the way towards greater protection of the environment. Tomorrow the summit focuses its attention on the Africa. The continent produces just 3% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet even the smallest rise in global temperatures could have far-reaching consequences in sub-Saharan Africa. Research by the World Bank found that without measures to help countries prepare for climate change, 43 million people, mostly in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Angola, and Uganda could fall into extreme poverty by 2030. The Niger Delta, home to over 30 million Nigerians who mainly reside in riverine communities, has witnessed the rapid rising of sea levels that have rendered increasing expanses of land unusable for agriculture.  Furthermore, the severe environmental damage associated with the extraction of fossil fuels, namely gas flaring and oil spills, are further contributing the destruction of natural resources and diminishing livelihoods.  A powerful climate deal is urgently needed to better protect the citizens of the Delta from environmental degradation and its consequences.

The Niger Delta is home to an estimated 33 million people, and a spatial extent of 75,000 km of rivers, mangroves and swamps, that form a vital part of the regional ecosystem and the services it provides.  The Delta’s mangrove swamp is the largest in Africa and is the natural spawning ground and nursery for thousands of marine species. It is also vitally important as a flood defence from rising sea levels, which are displacing communities and destroying farming land. Some of the essential services provided by the mangroves for the Niger Delta’s inhabitants include drinking water, fuel, timber, building materials, food, fruits, and medicines. The huge financial value of such wide-ranging and essential ecosystem services is only just beginning to be recognised and calculated.

Since 1958, oil exploration has resulted in the estimated spillage of 13 million barrels of crude in the Delta and shows no sign of slowing down. Coupled with this, hundreds of gas flares burning continuously for decades have contributed to the localised acidification of the soil and waters. Heavy pollution of the delicate and economically important mangrove ecosystem damages the fabric, lifestyle, culture, health and economy of the rural and urban communities of the Niger Delta and the country as a whole.

Failure to address the ongoing degradation of the environment is a perpetuating factor in the Niger Delta’s instability. The gravity of the effects of pollution and ecological corrosion on a region whose livelihood depends on the flora and fauna of its environment cannot be overstated.  Continuing erosion of the ecosystem significantly contributes to the growing number of displaced youth who are embittered, disengaged and left without access to traditional sources of employment and income.

Growing political consciousness in the region has further entrenched resentment and distrust of the administration over the lack of environmental regulation. Organised expression of this consciousness was violently articulated by the creation of armed militant groups with strong environmental messages and philosophies that helped drive local support for their cause amongst people living in a region devastated by heavy pollution. The Amnesty programme, coupled with a heavy security presence, has greatly reduced militancy in the region. However, there is still a widespread and deeply-held resentment amongst the residents of the heavily polluted and unproductive environment in which they now reside; compounded by poverty, unemployment and poor health.

Widespread environmental degradation and the loss of sustainable livelihoods has been a major contributor to the instability and conflict experienced in the Niger Delta over recent years.  As leaders move towards a climate deal in Paris, there is a critical need for policy to successfully lessen the impacts of pollution on human lives towards promoting peace and stability.

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