Africa, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-NIGERIA: Villagers Flee Landslides

Toye Olori

UMUCHIANI, NIGERIA, Mar 4 2006 (IPS) - It all started some 30 years ago as development began to creep into this small community following Nigeria’s oil boom of the 1970s.

As more buildings began to spring up, so did indiscriminate excavation of soil for foundation filling and sand for brick making and plastering.

What was seen as a development activity then has since constituted a major ecological problem in parts of eastern Nigeria. Dugout pits, created from soil excavation activities, have produced deep craters and gullies due to perennial erosion from torrential tropical rains.

”Several years ago, this community was more than half a kilometre from the excavation site. Today the excavation activity has reached the backyard of the community and almost half the buildings there have been pulled down by the gully erosion or landslides. Some communities have been deserted because of the erosion,” says Mike Mboye, an environmental analyst in Akwa, capital of Anambra State, eastern Nigeria.

In December 2005, the inhabitants of Umuchiani, one of the villages that make up Ikwulobia community in Anambra state, were woken up at night by a noise only to find some houses at the edge of the village giving way to landslide. They deserted their homes, taking refuge in nearby forest and villages.

By the time they returned to their village the following morning, several houses, a church and some roads were washed away. Their farmlands, palm and cashew trees were not spared either. Though nobody died in the incident, more than 250 families (made up of more than 1,500 persons) were displaced. Today, Umuchiani is almost a deserted village as most of the residents have taken up residence in new settlements away from their ancestral homes and shrines.

More than 1,000 erosion sites exist in eastern Nigeria with Anambra State being the worst hit as a result of the topography and the nature of soil, ecologists say.

”There are more than 700 erosion sites in Anambra state alone. The worst hit sites include Manka, Ikwulobia, Nnewi, Agulu and Ideani (villages). All the gullies are man-made. People excavate soil and with time, the sites become channels for run-off rain waters which dig deeper and wider. Some of the gullies have been there for more than 50 years and new ones are springing up daily,” says Boniface Egboka, a Professor of Hydrogeology, at Anambra State University.

Egboka told IPS: ”The gully erosion in Anambra State is horrible. It is better seen than imagined. The whole place is giving way to gully erosion. The people are suffering. Even before the rainy season which starts in March, the people are afraid of what could befall them.”

To sensitise residents, annual workshops have been held on the need to protect environment, construct embankments around some communities and fill pits with sands. But these measures have not had the desired impact because while government is tackling major gullies, other smaller ones emerge. Excavation continues in new sites daily.

The Anambra state government in collaboration with the Geological Survey of Nigeria Agency, a department of the Federal Ministry of Solid Minerals, recently held a one-day workshop in Awka. The theme of the workshop was ”Gully erosion and landslides in Southeastern Nigeria; Control Measures”.

Participants called for international assistance.

In her address, Nigeria’s Minister of Solid Minerals, Obiageli Ezekwesili said more than 1,000 active erosion spots exist in southeast Nigeria.

Furious about the activities of sand excavators which have aided erosion and gully formation, the minister called for a new legislation that would prescribe harsh punishment ”as a panacea to indiscriminate building habits”. No specific law exists against excavation; excavators pay unspecified sums for removing soil from the land to the landowners.

”We do not have to kill our green belt and desecrate our ecosystem in the name of building as there is the need to protect our children’s future. There is need to re-orientate our people,” Ezekwesili said.

Okey Eneuo, the Anambra State Commissioner for Environment, Forestry and Mineral Resources, called on the federal government in the country’s capital of Abuja to take care of larger erosion sites, the control of which, he said, are beyond the resources of the state government.

On its own, the state government has been able to check on less than 700 active erosion sites in the area. ”Any erosion site that does not cost more than 100 million naira (about 700,000 dollars) to contain, has been taken care of or is being taken care of by the state government. Anything above 100 million Naira is beyond our power financially, that is left to the federal government,” Eneuo told IPS.

The state government needs more than 400 million dollars to control erosion, according to Egboka, who conducted a survey on the subject recently.

According to Eneuo, the state has spent about seven million dollars to control erosions on a number of roads before construction could take place. The roads include Igboukwu, Ezinnisite, Uga and Umunze.

An example of erosion spot left to the federal government is the Umuche site in the south of Anambra state. It’s estimated to cost about 64,000 dollars, an amount, Eneuo said was beyond the scope of the state government. Many families have been displaced by erosion at the site recently.

In December ‘Aguata-Orumba Union’, a non-governmental organisation based in the United States, visited erosion sites in Anambra state.

”We decided to visit the site and donate to the affected persons to let the world know the problems the people of the region are going through in the hands of gully erosion, so that world attention could be paid to the region as much as is being paid to other ecological disaster zones of the world,” said Raphael Obijiofor, leader of the group.

”We want the international community to know that there are serious disasters in this area just as there are Katrina hurricanes (which have devastated New Orleans in the United States) and the rest in other parts of the world. We want the world to pay similar attention to this area as they are paying to the other disasters around the world. Erosion problem in eastern Nigeria is beyond the control of both the state and federal governments and we want the international community to come to our aid,” he told journalists in Awka after the assessment tour of the area in December.

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