Nigeria is ranked among the most fragile states in the world. The country faces significant water challenges, which vary greatly from one region to another. Weak governance exacerbates these water challenges, while conflicts over water resources make governance more difficult.
There are three main geographical flashpoints where conflict over water is likely to break out. In the north and northeast, Boko Haram has waged a violent insurgent campaign since 2010; among their demands is government provision of clean water. In Nigeria’s Middle Belt, changing rainfall patterns are limiting the grazing area of Muslim Fulani herders, who then encroach on the land of predominantly Christian farmers. Conflict over these lands killed more Nigerians than Boko Haram in 2016. Finally, in the Niger Delta, militant groups are attacking oil infrastructure, partially motivated by conflict over rights to land and waterways. Oil spills also contribute to food insecurity and malnutrition in this region.
Nigeria spans a breadth of ecosystem types, each with distinctive weather and precipitation patterns that pose unique challenges. Availability and quantity of water are insufficient in most areas. Even more than physical water scarcity, economic water scarcity is widespread, meaning that there are insufficient technical and financial resources to access existing freshwater supplies.
Because of its already small agricultural yields, political instability, and poor governance, Nigeria is ranked as the 12th-least-ready country to deal with the impacts of climate change by the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index. These effects are already being felt in many parts of the country. Average temperatures across Nigeria are rising. In the north, more extreme heat and decreasing precipitation are leading to desertification.
Models predict that weather patterns will continue to become more volatile and more severe. Torrential rains and windstorms are becoming more frequent, and sea levels along the coast are projected to rise between 1.5 and 3 feet by 2100, which would cause salinization of the potable water supply and arable land.
In the Niger River Delta, flooding pollutes freshwater aquifers and rivers with sewage, sediment, and salinity. Besides floods, the primary ecological concern in this region is man-made: oil and natural gas extraction causes hundreds of oil spills annually, degrading water supplies, agricultural lands, and fish habitats. It is estimated that up to 13 million barrels of crude oil have spilled into the environment in Nigeria.
The availability of safe drinking water is very limited in Nigeria, and supplying sufficient water grows increasingly challenging as urban populations grow. Poor sanitation and hygiene lead to high rates of diseases like diarrhea, pneumonia, trachoma, and worm-related illnesses, with diarrhea being the second-largest direct cause of child mortality. Limitations in natural resources have led to 40% of all intrastate conflicts in the past six decades.
Water allocation is also a significant problem. Water governance is fragmented, and the Nigerian government generally lacks the resources and expertise to operate effectively. Existing infrastructure is not only insufficient, but also poorly maintained. In response to the Nigerian government’s failure to provide basic services like safe water, several insurgent groups have arisen to take matters into their own hands.
In the north, where droughts and floods have already led to the abandonment of hundreds of villages, Boko Haram rose to power with much of its support stemming from widespread frustration over northern citizens being deprived of basic needs like water. Among its guerrilla tactics, the militant group is known to use water as a weapon, poisoning the freshwater sources of their opposition.
Changing rainfall patterns and a reduction of arable land in Nigeria’s Middle Belt are becoming a source of ethnic tensions, as Hausa-Fulani nomadic herders increasingly encroach on settled farms in search of places to graze cattle. When cattle damage crops, farmers often retaliate by poisoning the water or grass, or by attacking the herders. In 2014, this conflict caused 1,229 deaths. Conflicts in Africa are more common in years that are unusually wet or dry.
In the Niger River Delta, oil spills have contributed to severe reductions in household food security, and a sharp increase in childhood malnutrition. As the Nigerian government has failed to adequately address these problems, communities have turned to protesting the pollution and unequal distribution of water that jeopardizes their livelihoods. Between 1993 and 1999, around 2,000 protesters were killed as a result of suppression by the Nigerian government, and peaceful protest leader Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995. Communities have turned to UK courts to demand reparations, but have so far been unsuccessful.
Because of these governance failures, new and more established insurgent groups are responding by attacking oil company infrastructure and personnel. They are calling for better provision of basic services like clean water, as well as more equitable rights to land and waterways. These groups sabotage oil rigs and destroy underground pipelines, which provide much of the nation’s revenue. Ironically, these attacks also frequently cause severe pollution of the same water resources the insurgents seek to protect from environmental degradation.
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