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Environmental Issues Affecting the Niger Delta by Benaebi Benatari

  1. Sustainable Development and Environmental
  2. Pollution and Ecological Destabilisation.
  3. Coastal and River bank erosion.
  4. Flood Control.
  5. Free Flow of River and the effects of upstream Damming.



Situated on the southern most part of Nigeria, the Niger Delta covers an approximate area of 70,000 km2. It is Africa’s largest delta, and within it are a number of distinct ecological zones which, starting from the coast are, coastal ridge barriers consisting of sand bars and small islands, mangrove swamp forest, freshwater swamp forest and lowland rain forest.

The Niger Delta is a gigantic natural resource reservoir, and because of its natural resources such as crude oil, natural gas, timber, sand/gravel, and agricultural resources, it has attracted intense attention from successive governments and organisations that see it as a source of unlimited wealth.

On a human level the Niger Delta is the home of several Nigerian peoples such as the Ijo, Urhobo, Isoko, Ogoni, Ikwerre, Ndokwa, Abuans, and Itsekiri, with the Ijos (Ijaws) comprising the majority people of the Niger Delta.  The bulk of the Niger Delta falls within the Ijo homelands. Any initiative that seeks to address the various ecological and environmental problems of the Niger Delta must take this into consideration.  It is important to stress this because what we find is that many enterprises set up by the Nigerian government or any other organisation that has an economic interest in the area, that seek to solve the environmental problems of the Niger Delta, seem not to involve the majority people.

The Niger Delta is a fragile environment that is very sensitive to natural resource exploitation. There is a lot of industrial activity going on in the area ranging from oil exploration and exploitation, timber extraction and deforestation, fisheries, wetland agriculture, to name a few. Because of these activities, the fragile environment is rapidly deteriorating, resulting in ecological and social instability.

Sustainable Development and Environmental  Sustainability:

Environmental sustainability means different things to different people. It is sometimes confused with sustainable development, which is also a controversial term. Whereas Environmental sustainability is the ability of a particular natural environment to cope with the various activities imposed upon it by human beings, without negative consequences or minimum negative effects to the natural environment and the local human population, sustainable development is interpreted as the ability of a particular society to “meet its present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”[1]. Because of this vague definition, sustainable development is subjected to various interpretations according to the economic and ideological perspective of the interpreter[2].

Environmental sustainability encompasses the sustainable development of a particular environment, from the ecological, economic, social and political points of view. Environmental sustainability is a holistic concept that tries to make sure that the environment human beings live in, is utilised in such a way that a balance is achieved between natural processes and human development activity, in the form of agriculture and natural resource exploitation.

The Niger Delta is a vast natural freshwater and marine ecosystem with a fluctuating system dynamics between itself, the Atlantic ocean, and human activity. A delve into the traditional life style of the people who inhabit the delta shows that before the advent of the colonisation by Britain, the people had achieved a complex system of traditional regulations that allowed them to exploit the natural resources of the delta without impairing the natural ecology on a significant level.[3] With the discovery of crude oil and natural gas deposits, and their exploitation, plus the importation of European style industrial activities, the Niger Delta’s natural ecology and human populations have been put at risk. In other words the present level of industrial activity is non sustainable. Likewise modern agricultural practices, road building program etc., seem to have created more problems than they have solved.

The aim is not to put a stop to industrial, economic and agricultural activities that benefit the people, but to make sure that the resources of the Niger Delta are exploited in such a way that negative effects to the environment are reduced to a minimum. Also that natural resource exploitation is carried out in such a way that local people are the main beneficiaries. This is the challenge of all inhabitants of the Niger Delta. This is environmental sustainability addressing the sustainable development agenda.

What are the major environmental and ecological concerns of the Niger Delta? The various environmental concerns derive from the status of the Niger Delta as one of the largest tropical deltas in the world with a unique ecosystem that is fast disappearing around the globe, and as an area of major industrial activity and agricultural potential.   Therefore we can divide the ecological and environmental issues of the Niger Delta into four areas;

  1. The Niger Delta as an ecosystem: The Niger Delta taken as a ecosystem which contains unique and even fragile natural environments that need to be preserved. These include the extensive coastal sand bars and islands, the fragile mangrove swamp forest, the freshwater swamp forest and the rain forest. The natural waterway system of rivers and creeks outlets. How do we address issues and concerns of environmental sustainability and sustainable development from the point of view of the Niger Delta as an ecosystem that needs to be preserved ?
  1. The Niger Delta as an agricultural centre: As an agricultural centre, the Niger Delta has an agricultural potential far beyond the carrying capacity of the approximately 15-20 million people who inhabit it. As a floodplain the soil of the river banks are renewed every year, and the following agricultural activities can be easily carried out. Root crop farming, rice and other cereal farming, livestock farming (cattle and sheep) and fish farming (traditional and artificial). How do we address the issues and concerns of environmental sustainability and sustainable development from the point of view of the Niger Delta as an agricultural centre which must generate livelihoods for its inhabitants ?
  1. The Niger Delta as a heavy industrial centre: Because of the vast deposits of natural gas, crude oil, timber and wood resources combined with the accessible waterways, the Niger Delta is one of the foremost potential industrial centres of Nigeria. In fact it contains a large number of Nigeria’s fledgling industrial concerns such as the petrochemical industries, fertiliser, timber and plywood supply, port complexes, to name a few. How do we address the issues and concerns of environmental sustainability and sustainable development from the point of view of the Niger Delta being a heavy industrial centre that is of interest not only to Nigeria, but to the West African sub-region and the international community?
  1. The Niger Delta as a home to millions of People: As home to millions of people, the Niger Delta must be developed with infrastructure such as viable transport networks, integrated road, river, sea and air transportation and electrification. Others include health care centres, viable schools and colleges and other higher institutions of which much has already been done, but still much is left to be desired. The development of towns and cities must take into consideration, the ecology of the area, address issues such as river bank erosion, seasonal flooding and flood control, road building and canalisation, restructuring of existing waterways to name a few. The question is how do we address the environmental sustainability and sustainable development of the Niger Delta from the point of view of it developing into a modern home for millions of inhabitants.

What we must do in conjunction with the various organisations that have an interest in the welfare of the Niger Delta (of which some are actually doing something about the environmental problems), is to identify objectively, the largest and smallest environmental and sustainable development concerns, and work towards making sure that these problems are tackled whole heartedly. On the surface people may claim that things are being done, but digging deeper we will find that the ecology and sustainable development of the Niger Delta is not being taken seriously by all those who are benefiting economically from the exploitation of the delta’s vast resources.

Pollution and Ecological Destabilisation:

The exploitation of the vast deposits of crude oil and natural gas comes with the price of environmental pollution and ecological destabilisation. The natural laws of interdependence and interrelationships, dictates that if the Niger Delta is the main source of the oil and gas resources, then it should be compensated for the attendant side effects of the exploitation of these natural resources. This is not the case. Also the international oil firms that are involved in partnership with the government of Nigeria, do not seek to implement environmental friendly methods of exploitation that would minimise pollution and ecological destabilisation. Thus from the beginning of the oil industry in the Niger Delta  in 1958, natural gas has been flared constantly, 24 hours a day, explosives have been used routinely to ascertain the whereabouts of crude oil deposits, river courses are dredged up, altered without regards for the livelihood of the local people. Waterways are blocked by artificial sand roads that lead to the oil wells. In the process whole areas that were not prone to large flooding, suddenly have a flood control problem. Large areas are deforested so that they can be filled with sand, that will go towards the construction of the foundation for the oil drilling platform, and the list goes on. Indeed the whole industry has not undertaken any environmental impact assessment on the long term effects of oil exploration and extraction.

The oil industry needs to take a new approach, one that is applicable on an international level, in their methods of exploration and extraction of crude oil and natural gas. If Nigeria is a cheap source of oil, it is because the oil firms have been allowed to get away with the criminal damage of the Niger Delta environment. Furthermore the industrial infrastructure is substandard and in a state of disrepair, posing further risks to the fragile ecological environment

The oil industry is not the only culprit in inflicting pollution and ecological degradation on the Niger Delta. The Ports complexes, inland waterway services, road building, all contribute their own negative effects due to a lack of a proper environmental impact assessment (EIA). The port complexes routinely dredge the delta estuaries for canalisation, so that big ocean going vessels can use the ports. Canalisation leads to the intrusion of salt water into areas that were previously freshwater. The freshwater vegetation die, while the wildlife perish, and the human inhabitants have no access to fresh water since the government did not see it fit to provide them with pipe borne water. The inland waterway services that ply from the main cities of Port-Harcourt, Warri, and some towns such as Burutu and Forcados, regularly pollute the river environment with their oily discharges. A visit to the watersides of the above mentioned towns will show you the extent of the pollution problems.

Another culprit inflicting ecological destabilisation are the timber and plywood industries, and the international exporters of wood (hardwood, logs e.t.c.). Whole areas are losing the forest resources to gangs of legal and not so legal loggers. At the moment nothing is being done to avert the environmental damage that will result out of deforestation of the Niger Delta. Lastly the idea that the mangrove forest should be used as a source material for the paper industry should be scrapped now, and not implemented ever. The mangrove forest is the protective shield of the Niger Delta, if it is systematically removed, then the ocean will erode the whole delta away. The mangrove swamp acts as a stabilisation base for the freshwater swamp forest and the rain-forest regions of the Niger Delta.

Road building, which is rare in the Niger delta, also contributes to ecological destabilisation of the fragile environment. The major road passing through the delta periphery is the east/west road linking Warri to Port Harcourt. The road is a necessity. But the road planners and builders, did not build the road according to the natural environment. Natural waterways have been blocked, impeding the free flow of flood water in the wet season, causing areas to experience prolonged flooding where otherwise the water would have run off naturally. The practice of building roads by sand and mud filling in, without creating canals where flood water can pass through should stop. Local communities are feeling the effects of these lapses in EIA.

Lastly the effects of damming upstream has an environmental impact on the Niger Delta, that leads to ecological destabilisation that have not even began to be quantified. We will look at this later.

Other potential sources of pollution of the Niger Delta, include large scale industrial activity upstream, such as the Ajaokuta Steel Complex, and the large scale use of fertilisers and chemicals in the north, which are drained by the River Niger.



Coastal and River Bank Erosion:

According to the Niger Delta Environmental Survey report; “Historically, for much of the Delta, the rate of [coastal] erosion has been balanced by sediment transport from the hinterland and by longshore drift. However, a number of factors, including natural delta subsidence and rising sea level, canalisation, coastal structures, large boat traffic, and decreased sediment input have promoted erosion at various locations along the delta and its major rivers, particularly at:

. Escravos: caused by the construction of two moles trapping the NNW movement of the longshore drift and resulting in shoreline retreat at a rate of between 18 and 24 m/y (Ibe, 1988);

. Forcados South Point: more than 400 m of coastal land has been eroded within the last 20 years, credited to long-term and, recently, heavy maritime traffic in the area (Ibe, 1988)

. Brass: the zone of erosion covers the Brass River to St Nicholas River barrier island and is estimated at 16-19 m/y (Oyegun 1990);

Molume mud beach area: just west of the Benin River, showing some of the highest natural erosion rates in the world due primarily to natural causes, but augmented by canal development (Gundlach et al., 1985)[4]

Coastal erosion is caused mainly by the reduced flow of the river during the dry season because of the extensive damming upstream. Other contributing factors are the canalisation of estuaries and the use of large ocean going vessels near the port complexes.

With regards to river bank erosion, this has been a natural phenomena since the delta came into being. It becomes a problem when towns and villages situated near the banks, are subjected to erosion. In this cause prevention measures must take into account the natural flow of the river.

Flood Control:

The Niger Delta is subjected to annual flooding. With or without the damming of the river upstream, the Delta will continue to flood, due to the tributaries of the River Niger, up and down stream.

The major issues of flood control, centre around the planning and building of villages, towns and cities, in such a way that the natural flood rhythm of the Niger Delta is taken account of. The flood waters can only be controlled by allowing it to disperse over as wide an areas as possible through the use of seasonal canals that feed lakes, mud flats and wetland basins.

The building of roads, and other large construction projects usually impede the smooth flow of water. This is one of the main causes of flooding in the Niger Delta urban centres such as Port-Harcourt, Warri, Ughelli, and smaller towns.

Free Flow of River and the effects of upstream Damming:

Because of the strong wet season, combined with the arrival of flood waters from the source of the Niger River, the Niger Delta is subjected to annual flooding, that brings with it a minimum amount of sediment, that goes into fertilising the agricultural flood plains, and stabilises the coastal erosion zones. In the dry season the situation deteriorates, due to the presence of numerous dams upstream, notably the Kainji dam, Jebba dam (on the Niger), plus others on the tributaries. The result is that they trap sediment that was to flow down, increase the concentration of pollutants, because more and more volumes of water are being removed. They also cause the coastal ridges to erode because of the drop in the river flow pressure on the sea currents.

There is a urgent need to look into other effects such as a reduction in migratory fish stocks, trapped above the dams. Only a sincere integrated approach, where the government of Nigeria understands that while it is seeking to develop one region of the country, the effects of such development should not be borne by another region.

Outlined above are some of the major issues of the environment of the Niger Delta that needs to be addressed and solved by the peoples of the Delta so that the our unique areas is preserved for prosterity.


[1] O’Riordan T (1995) Environmental Science for Environmental Management, p22. Longman Scientific Technical. Which States “According to the Brudtland Commission, sustainable development is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ This automatically subsumes some notion of fairness of access to basic resource needs for all populations, both in the present day and in the future. This means transferring the opportunity of sustainable livelihoods to the very poor, through appropriate transfer of technology, capacity building in science and management, and in correct prices for resource use…”

[2]Because of this economists have been able to define sustainability on three levels, which they named; Very weak sustainability, Weak sustainability and Strong sustainability. The first two are defined in favour of capitalism and technology, while the last defines sustainability in favour of the primacy of natural ecosystems and social stability.

[3]Many of the traditional laws regulating the over exploitation of the environment take the form of deity presiding over an aspect of nature, such as a lake, river or expanse of land.

[4] Niger Delta Evironmental Survey (NDES) Phase 1 Report volume IV