Nigeria: At the Mercy of Erosions

31 July 2019

Gideon Arinze highlights the plight of some Nsukka communities in Enugu State, where lives and properties are at the mercy of deadly erosions

Each time the clouds begin to gather, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa naturally fall into spates of happiness, but for the residents of some communities in Nsukka Local Government Area of Enugu, it is a clear sign that they need to get prepared for the unknown.

It was a blistering Tuesday afternoon, and the clouds had only started gathering strength before this reporter left the house of 60 years old Leonard Ngwu. Soon, the rain started and on a return to Ngwu's house after the cry of nature, the once dry environment had become difficult to walk on and potentially wrecking.

By the time the rains stopped, Ngwu who is a teacher had been subjected to turmoil, standing by one corner of his house with his hands wrapped around his chest and his eyes wide open. Anger clearly written all over his face. At one end of the house, members of his family were scooping water and other debris out of their rooms. His compound had just been submerged again. The flood went away with some of his property as usual.

"This erosion has dealt with us," he said pointing towards the direction by which the erosion channel passes through his house. "This is not the first time we are experiencing this situation. It has caused a lot of damages to me and my family. We have lost many of our properties. We don't even know how to recover them again", he lamented while visibly trying to stifle his anger.

Over the years, Ngwu had devised a means, or what seems like a means, of mitigating the erosion by building a wall around his house. But this does not often work. The situation is even more terrible now as he and his family are almost forced out of their home.

NEWMAP to the Rescue?

Ngwu is a member of a 10-man committee that has been selected by the Nigerian Erosion and Watershed Management Project (NEWMAP) to look into the issue of erosion which till now, has become a major source of concern for the people of Onuiyi, a community that sits sedately in Nsukka Local Government area of Enugu in South-eastern Nigeria and other surrounding communities.

A World Bank assisted project aimed at addressing the Nigerian gully erosion crisis in South-eastern Nigeria and land degradation in Northern Nigeria on a multi-dimensional scale, NEWMAP is supported by the International Development Association (IDA), the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Trust Fund and the Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF). The project was borne out of the request for assistance made by President Goodluck Jonathan to the World Bank in 2010.

"We have lost about 34 people" Ngwu speaks of the erosion which has existed in Nsukka for over 35 years. "Every year, it causes destruction at least four to five times before the dry season sets in and this usually happens between the months of June and September. Sometimes, we even wish there is no rain", he added.

Deleterious Effect of Climate Change

Erosion which usually starts off with the relatively uniform removal of the soil surface by excess runoff aided by steep sloping topography, soil/rock types, removal of vegetative cover and poorly designed construction works, becomes concentrated with time, forming channels and rills and if not properly checked, progresses into the monstrous gullies which are found scattered all over the South-eastern region of Nigeria.

Across the globe, the number of reported weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Every year, these disasters result in over 60,000 deaths, mainly in developing countries.

A report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reveals that Africans especially Sub-Sahara Africans, are more vulnerable to climate change effects- among which is erosion- and unfortunately they have the least capability of adapting to its deleterious effects.

Prof. Francisca Okeke, the Director, African Climate Change Adaptation Initiative at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) said the most prominent and dominant erosion category in the South-east region is the gully erosion as the geology of the region has a lot to do with the propagation of gullies.

Among the effects of erosion in the region, she listed farmland destruction, vegetation loss, disease outbreaks that affect humans, loss of property and effect on life.

"If we refuse to address this crucial issue overtime, roads would be totally inaccessible, there will be no social, environment and economic balance. There would also be loss of facilities and infrastructure for research, hence, non conducive atmosphere for learning, teaching and research would not work in the nation," she said.

Loss of Lives

Last year, three people lost their lives to the erosion, following heavy downpour between July and August. The first victims were a motorcycle rider and a student whose bodies were discovered in Alor Uno community, about one kilometer from Onuiyi. The second victim was a little girl who was carried away as she tried to cross a water channel on her way back from school.

The death of the three victims threw the entire community into pangs of fear, not because it is the first time the erosion is washing away lives but because they feared who the next victim would be.

Each time it rains, especially at night, Ngwu, like every other villager, does not sleep a wink. He usually stays awake to keep watch and know when the rain will overflow, leaving the erosion channel and finding its way into people's homes.

"For me, that is a way of making sure that the rain does not swallow me and my family when it comes. As soon as I hear the sound, I quickly carry my wife and children away," he said.

Ngwu and his family are part of over a hundred households whose livelihoods are constantly being affected by the menace of erosion in Nsukka and the South-eastern region of the country.

Damage to Properties

Seated in front of his house nestled somewhere at the backwoods of the picturesque Alor Uno rolling hills is 76 years old Simeon Omeje who intermittently looks in the direction where the house he had built for his children now lies in ruins.

"My son," he says as he tries to recall when the house was destroyed. "It happened on a Tuesday in July. Myself and my wife had gone into our own room after a busy day when the clouds started gathering strength by 8 p.m".

Omeje who now shares a single room with his wife and children was fast asleep when the rain began. At exactly 12 midnight when the rain had become intense, he heard a reverberating sound and when he came out to see what was happening, he discovered that the house he had built for his children had been brought down by the rain which had completely submerged his compound.

"At first, I did not know what to do. But when I saw that the rain was gradually finding its way into our own room, I quickly rushed in and took my wife and our little daughter out and carried them to a place where they slept till the next morning," he added.

By the time Omeje came back in the morning, his room had also been filled with water. His properties comprising chairs, motorcycles, food items and other valuables had all been damaged. Not even his livestock which he reared at one end of his house was spared.

He recalled that sometime in 2016, a part of his house was also lost to the erosion. "I was still trying to see if I can put that one together when this one was destroyed. Now, I don't even know where to start rebuilding the house again," he said.

Omeje who said that his older children had all travelled when the rain came that night explained why the erosion continues to ravage his community.

According to him, he said the drainage through which rain passes each time it comes is too small compared to the amount of rainfall. As a result, each time it gets to that point, it does not move further anymore. Often times when it overflows, it starts finding its way into people's houses.

"We are the worst hit because we live very close to where the bridge is located. Many people who were living here have all relocated due to disturbance by the erosion," he lamented.

For 35 year old Sunday Uguoke who is only struggling to survive, life has literally lost its grandeur. He does not know where to begin as he has almost lost every of his belonging to the erosion that is ravaging his community.

At one end of his house, Ugwuoke, like Omeje formerly reared livestock which he always sold to provide food for his family and take care of other needs. But now, all of them are gone.

Ugwuoke and his family are not staying in their house anymore, as the rainwater, each time it overflows, finds its way into their house. He is married and has six children. But they all share a single room in another house he secured in his community.

On this day, Ugwuoke had just returned from working on one of the water channels to prevent more erosion. He explains his situation with his face forlorn while his shirt hung around his neck "I am tired of everything. I have been trying to see what I can do so I and my family can at least return to our house because we are not comfortable in the one room we are staying now.

"As you can see, he said pointing in one direction, "my wife is bringing out debris that the rain packed into our room the last time it came. We are back and trying to fix things again. Maybe before we finish, it will rain again and destroy everything we have repaired" he said.

Because of the menace of the erosion in Alor Uno, Ugwuoke's brothers have all left the community with their families. But he does not have money to go anywhere. So, he and his family are forced to remain and suffer the menace of the erosion.

Alleged Silence from Government

When asked what the government has done in address the problem of erosion in his community, Omeje said that there have been successive governments in the state, but regretted that none have tried to address the issue which has always had devastating effects on the community.

"Successive governments have always come here to make promises each time they hear that the erosion caused destruction. They have talked about it on radio and written about it on newspapers. Each time they come around, we become happy that our problems are over. But as soon as they leave, we don't hear from them anymore," he said.

He recalled that operatives from the local government paid him a visit when they heard that the erosion destroyed houses in the community and made promises thereafter. "But after then, no one heard from them again," he stated.

He also remembered that operatives from World Bank came last year and even two years ago and surveyed the erosion site, taking pictures and measurements in the process to reassure the community of their readiness to deal with the issue. Yet still, nothing has been done.

"Now, we are completely helpless. We don't have anywhere to go to. The erosion is almost forcing us out of our home. We have lost almost everything and the government has refused to help us out".

Confirming the words of Omeje, Ngwu said the problem of erosion has existed in the community for a long time and that they had written past authorities several times, yet no positive result was recorded.

Chinwe Eze believes that her community is suffering the menace caused by erosion because those who claim to represent them in government are only after their personal gains.

Eze and her family are presently finding refuge in a nearby house following the heavy downpour that entered their home in August and rendered most of their property useless. That was not the first time the rain is entering their house. But it was the last straw that broke the camel's back. They could not bear to stay any longer.

When this reporter got to Eze's house, her frustration was quite visible on her face. She had only come around to prepare what her family would eat for the day.

In front of the house that had now become uninhabitable, Eze and her family usually set a small fire where they prepare meal each day. "That is the only thing we come here to do now as everything has been destroyed" she said pointing in the direction where a portion of their house now lies in rubble.

When asked what the community is doing to help remedy the situation, she said that nobody has done anything yet.

"Nobody cares. They are all minding their business since it does not affect everybody in the community" she lamented.

Hope for Better Days

Over the years, successive governments in Enugu and other states in the South-eastern region have only paid lip service to the menace of erosion. But Ngwu hopes for better days ahead.

He believes that the present government in Enugu State will take bold steps to address the situation, as it is so far the only government that has truly realized the extent of damage erosion is causing in rural communities.

In August last year, the state governor made available the sum of N500 million to demonstrate its political will to qualify for the additional financial programme of the World Bank and also approved the Anyaurum Ohom Orba, Onuiyi Nsukka and Enugu Ngow gully erosion sites as priority of his administration.

Despite that, Ngwu called on the state government to speed up measures to deal with the menace of erosion in the communities affected so residents can heave a deep sigh of relief.

Eze and her family are afraid of returning home. She believes that if nothing is done to deal with the threats posed by erosion in her community, the government may wake up one morning to discover that everybody has been swept away.

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