By Nnimmo Bassey
The Niger Delta environment is unique both in terms of size and its location. Deposits from the Niger and the Benue River basins feed the Niger Delta landscape. One thing that stands this delta out from among others in the world is that the rivers that empty here pass through long stretches of Sahel and dry Savannah landscapes.
The changes in the Niger Delta environment over time brought about by land movements and other geological upheavals now provide the situation where the coast line has excellent sites for deep water sea ports and the overall area has huge deposits of petroleum resources.
The two major types of water found here are the fresh water systems (which are white or black) and the brackish or salt water systems. The “white water” comes largely from the Benue/Niger river systems and a lot of these discharge into the Forcados, the Nun-Ecole and the Orashi/Brass river systems. The black appearance (while remaining clear) of the river systems that originate in the Niger Delta is caused by the organic acids they carry in solution. Examples are the New Calabar, Sombreiro and Warri systems.
It is note worthy that seawater intrusion goes as far as sixty (60) kilometres inland from the sea although this stays below 20 kilometres along the coastal areas.
In terms of vegetation, the Niger Delta hosts the largest mangrove forest system in Africa, covering an area of 20,000 square kilometres. The stilt roots of the Rhizophora racemosa plants give the Niger Delta mangrove forest its unique look. The mangrove belt helps secure shorelines against coastal erosion and also provides resources such as food and building materials for the people.
The Delta is made up of a series of ecozones and sub-ecozones giving rise to a wide variety of vegetation, animal and bird species.
Permit us to shift away from these geographical issues and move into a discussion on the ecological matters thrown up by man’s interaction with and exploitation of the Niger Delta environment.
Environment as life
That the environment is our life is a common saying among our peoples. An activist in the Niger Delta has succinctly captured the essence of this popular wisdom when he said that to kill a people all you have to do is to destroy their environment.
The Niger Delta is arguably a huge laboratory of exploitation, not just of environmental resources but also of her peoples. It has the unenviable record of being acknowledged as one of the ten most polluted places on earth. During a field visit to polluted communities in Witbank, South Africa in May 2013, a local activist there “declared that the Witbank is the most polluted city in the world. A Nigerian comrade retorted that the Niger Delta was the most polluted region on earth. An argument ensued but was happily settled that one was a city and the other a region. But best of all, we ought to be arguing about which is the cleanest and safest, not which is most based by capital. Would any one of these places ever return to health?”
Livelihoods and environment vulnerability
Environmental safety is crucial for the survival of our peoples. This is primarily so because we depend directly on the services provided by our natural ecosystems. This means that our peoples are directly exposed to both the environmental goods and the environmental bads in the region. This is an inescapable reality.
It bears stressing that the environment provides us services that we cannot pay for or commodify and this is why we say that the environment is our life. We drink the waters from the creeks and rivers and fish in them where possible. Our peoples have historically been farmers, fisherfolk or traders. It is criminal to damage the environment to the extent that it no longer has the capacity to provide these services due to threats and stresses from external or internal forces.
When we look back (in anger or in shock) we see a history replete with abuse and impunity. There are cases where in the 19th Century and earlier, mercantile pre-colonial and colonial forces attacked and destroyed our towns and communities and exiled our leaders and merchants for the purpose of maintaining trade monopolies and permitting our peoples to serve merely as middle men to smoothen their exploitative acts. Variants of these sell-outs abound to this day.
The post-colonial confrontations continue to be a mix of violent and peaceful agitations with highlights including the 12 days rebellion led by Adaka Boro in 1966, the Ogoni non-violent resistance led by Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), the severely repressed peaceful Ogele of Ijaw youths in 1998 and the militant confrontations of 2005-2009.
The trend has remained in a precarious state of flux.
Editor’s note: To be concluded next week.