Nigeria: 2020 Floods - Another Precarious Year for Nigerian Farmers

26 October 2020

I am very fascinated by the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands, being some of the most bio-diverse and densely populated flood plains of the Lake Chad Basin. With the Hadejia and Jama'are waters and their multiple channels, coupled with flood lands as well as drylands, they support life and agriculture with potentials beyond imagination. Every year, flocks of migratory birds from the world over perch there. Every year, the wetlands support extensive wet-season rice production among other crops. When it's dry season, flood recession agriculture and dry-season irrigation are prevalent there. Thousands of fishing people earn a living there as well, year in year out.

However, as if in sharp contrast to the livelihood the wetlands support, almost every year, immense damage and hardship is caused to the millions of inhabitants of these lands by devastating floods or equally debilitating droughts. This year is no exception. Only, the floods are bigger and the effects more far-reaching because of worsening global climate crises, and an equally crippling global pandemic this year.

Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic is completely unprecedented for Nigeria, we were quite aware that we will record high rates of flooding in 2020 not only in Yobe or Jigawa but about 26 other states in Nigeria. Today, scores have lost their lives, with many missing or displaced and the true impacts of this year's catastrophic floods may never be completely known. No thanks to our abysmal culture of data collection and utilisation, which is not restricted to the agricultural sector.

However, for a country that claims special attention to agriculture, this neglect is reckless. Why are our dams harbingers of disaster, instead of the adequate means of livelihoods they should be? Why are we unable to track, understand, and employ measures against the persistently recurring floods caused by the overflows of our two main rivers for decades? What is the true cost of only 'cushioning the effects' of these disasters? Why do smallholder farmers with nothing more but their season's harvest have to repeatedly lose everything? What are the indirect impacts caused by this seemingly inevitable displacement, loss and utter bereavement for our most vulnerable populations? These questions are not only unanswered but never asked in the first place.

Both the Nigeria Meteorological Agency and the Hydrological Services Agency have forecast massive flooding to sweep across over 20 states in Nigeria in the beginning of the year. Donor agencies and even private firms have also repeatedly warned of the impending and imminent floods. Yet, farmlands and agricultural output worth billions, properties, and incalculable livelihoods were still haplessly lost. Whereas I understand how multi-faceted the disaster and its impacts are and that a universal prevention is an otherworldly infrastructural task to ask for, my grouse is particularly with the normalisation of the predicament of smallholder farmers who lose everything on the farmland from the flooding, a phenomenon they cannot control and a risk they cannot lower. If anything, can the farmers at least make it out with what they have invested in their flooded farms? Just the farm input that must have cost the farmers everything, and without which they are unable to farm the next season and are thus thrown into a vicious trap they have no means of getting out of.

Low-income, financially excluded smallholder farmers prone to adverse weather disasters are in-fact able to cover the cost of their farm input with a simple, affordable and yet sustainable product of index insurance against adverse weather. Index insurance is typically linked to an index like rainfall, temperature, or crop yield rather than the actual loss as opposed to traditional insurance. With Index Insurance, a threshold is created (the index), of either rainfall, temperature or yield beyond (or below) which loss is expected. If any of the events indexed against occur, farmers covered can receive payouts. Products like this have succeeded in India, Nicaragua, Malawi and Kenya where smallholder farmers, very similar to Nigerian farmers are counting money instead of losses contemporaneously with their damage.

I read with excitement two years ago, that a consortium of the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL) and other key partners have launched NIRSAL Comprehensive Index Insurance (NCII). Although I haven't heard any more of it since then and don't know if it includes weather index-based insurance, it was a glimmer of hope.

Imagine if Nigerian farmers who suffer the vagaries of weather every year had protection over their seeds, fertilizers, chemicals and harvest output. It isn't hard to do with weather Index Insurance, which is cheaper to administer since it is based on realisations of a specific weather parameter measured over a pre-specified period of time at a particular weather station. The insurance is simply structured so that it pays whenever rainfall or temperature is so high or so low that it is likely to cause crop yield losses. Imagine if the farmers in Kebbi State, where thousands of hectares of rice were also destroyed by floods and the farmers left at the mercy of 'palliatives' that may never reach them, had this type of insurance cover.

The truth is, Weather Index Insurance could make such a great difference to millions of farmers in Nigeria as it will not only sustain the livelihoods of many but will also be a key driver of responsible financial inclusion for even more.

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