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Paulina Bako in Tse Yandev IDP camp, Makurdi, Benue State. (Samuel Ajala)

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Widowed and Homeless, Internally Displaced Nigerian Women Recount Devastating Flood Experiences


This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

From a distance, the Tse Yandev Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camp in the Benue State capital of Makurdi appears to be large mounds of sand on top of freshly tilled soil.


However, looking closely, you will notice countless huts made of worn-out insecticidal mosquito nets supported by palm fronds. Each household sticks to its own hut no matter the number of family members, and children, as usual, were clinging to their mothers. The anguished cries and wails of the children, perhaps unprovoked from different quarters, speak of the harsh weather they found themselves in. At the center of the camp is a big hollow caused by erosion.

A view of Tse Yandev IDP camp, Makurdi, Benue State. (Samuel Ajala)

In October 2022, 37-year-old Paulina Bako from Mbagwen, Guma Local Government Area (LGA) lost her three-year-old son, Jeremiah Fanen, to the devastating flood in Wadata. This came on the heels of losing her husband, James Bako, then 39 years old, a year before during the Fulani crisis in her community. Bako, married with four kids, now lives in the Tse Yandev IDP camp due to the flooding.



She narrates how she lost her son to the flood: “I went to the Ukoho Farmers Cooperative Society an hour away and left my child alone inside the house. I didn’t come back early, so when the rain started falling he got caught by the floods. He couldn’t run because he was asleep, and our neighbor didn’t catch him immediately. Although he didn’t die instantly, by the time we took him to the general hospital he was pronounced dead because we were not there early enough.”


“I used to find solace in the fact that this boy would grow to be my smile one day since I lost my husband to the attacks.”

“It pains me a lot. It’s very hard to talk about. I am no longer a happy woman, I used to find solace in the fact that this boy would grow to be my smile one day since I lost my husband to the attacks. Any time I am alone, I am either crying or sobbing. I am confused anytime I am even walking on the road. With that, I was advised here in the camp to stay around people often.”


 

Nigeria experienced severe and devastating floods in 2022: as reported by the People’s Gazette, all 36 states including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) were affected. Sadiya Umar Farouq, the Nigerian Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development (FMHDSD), estimated in January 2023 that almost five million people were affected, with the country suffering an estimated $6.68 billion.


In October 2022, the FMHDSD estimated over one and a half million internal displacements, 2,776 injuries, and 612 deaths; over 300,000 houses were partially or completely damaged. The agency claimed that the widespread flooding was prompted by extreme rainfall coupled with the release of water from the Lagdo Dam in Cameroon. Within Benue State, which borders Cameroon to the southeast, as reported by Vanguard in October 2022, no fewer than 24 persons lost their lives in the state’s 12 LGAs to the surging floods, while 74 others sustained serious injuries. Over 18,000 households were affected by the floods, of which roughly one-tenth were lost or submerged, rendering over 130,000 people homeless.



53-year-old Terngu Msurshima, from Tukura, Guma LGA, has lived in the Tse-Yandev camp for four years. In 2018, the widow left her house and belongings when her community suffered an attack by Fulani herders.


Terngu Msurshima. (Samuel Ajala)

Before leaving her community, she was successful with farming. She was good with rice farming, sustaining her family of six children, and selling to other people.


Msurshima detailed how the last four years away from home have been the worst time of her life. To start afresh and fend for her family, she collected a loan from a cooperative to continue her business.


“In 2021, I set out for something different. My daughter, Shima, who is married at Mballom, also in Guma LGA, told me that a cooperative was giving loans to farmers. That you can pay back with interest after harvest.


“That was how I went into rice farming again. I collected the loan of rice worth N70,000 ($152), fertilisers and herbicides all amounting to about N100,000 ($217).”


However, last year’s heavy flooding ruined her chance of repaying the loan and fending for her family because her rice farmland was submerged. While crying, she said, “A section of the River Benue has flooded the area. When I got there with my child to see, I was later told I fainted. It was a reopened wound. I cried my eyes out because how to raise 100,000 for creditors is another challenge.


“At the moment, they are on my neck. Although they saw the disaster, the agreement has to stand. It didn’t just happen to me, others around that area too were affected. We all are just here gnashing our teeth,” she muttered in her native Tiv language.


“When I got there with my child to see, I was later told I fainted. It was a reopened wound. I cried my eyes out because how to raise 100,000 for creditors is another challenge.”

With the displacement of women farmers like Msurshima, it would perhaps come as no surprise that based on official data from the Central Bank of Nigeria, the country’s food inflation rate rose to a staggering 24.32% on a year-on-year basis, marking a 7.19% increase compared to the rate recorded in January 2022 (17.13%), and the highest the country has seen since 2005. Nationally, almost 570,000 hectares (1.4 million acres) of farmland were partially or totally damaged. In Benue alone, 20,000-plus hectares (50,000 acres) of farmland were washed away.



 

Ogunwumi Taiwo is a flood risk specialist from Nigeria who recently graduated with a Joint Master’s of Geography of Environment and Human Risk at the United Nations University and the University of Bonn in Germany. Having consulted for the International Organization for Migration regarding water sanitation at Nigerian IDPs, he said natural and human factors contributed to the occurrence of devastating flooding in Nigeria, most notably poor existing drainage systems and substandard buildings are incapable of handling the increased rainfall brought by climate change.



Ogunwumi Taiwo.

Some other factors he listed include poor waste disposal; policies that are ineffective in preventing mangrove loss, land reclamation, and sand mining along the coast; gaps in early warning systems, lack of evacuation zones, and the low capacity of emergency institutions. “The last flood shows that the federal and state emergency institution is very weak as… the rescue and emergency evacuation of the flood victims was very poor in states like Kogi, Lagos, [and] Benin.” He further blamed the lack of coordination between Nigeria and other neighbouring countries in charge of dam development and water release planning for allowing water levels to reach disastrous levels.


Taiwo said the authorities in charge of flood risk identification and predictions did their best to provide the list of LGAs that will be affected by excessive rainfall at the beginning of the year. However, he suggested that more could have been done by providing highly detailed flood risk maps indicating the major natural and anthropogenic features that might be affected by floods and quantifying economic losses that may arise from future floods.“This solution goes beyond the generic Annual Flood Outlook report normally shared and communicated via the Nigerian Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) or Nigerian Hydrological Services Agency (NIHSA) websites,” he stressed.


Countries like the United States have flood risk maps at the block level; The Xylom previously obtained documents published in March 2021 from the British Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), which revealed that nearly 16 million Nigerians and approximately a quarter of Nigeria’s annual GDP (£105.5 billion) are currently exposed to 1-in-100-year flood threats, with around £36.7 billion of this exposure concentrated in urban areas. In response, Taiwo is leading an open data mapping effort through the Geohazards Risk Mapping Initiative to accurately map buildings in order to study the potential impact of population and infrastructure at risk.


In terms of medium- and long-term infrastructure that mitigate future occurrences of floods, Taiwo urged the government to develop a sustainable drainage system (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has published best practices for storm drain inlet protection that includes weep holes, filter fabric, and filter socks which trap sediment and allow water to flow through.) He also urged the initiation of a mangrove restoration program, particularly along the shoreline of the major cities and other riverine communities. And this is not limited to physical infrastructure — advanced training, especially capacity building on flood preparedness process and quick response supported by the European Union, is sorely needed.


And when the floods really come, Taiwo points to the importance of improved flood early warnings: Not only should authorities adopt all channels including radio television, community campaigns, schools, farmers’ groups, and women’s groups, there is a need to provide more details that quantifies the population, farmland, and market stalls that could be affected.


One thing standing in the way of the fight against climate change that Taiwo did not mention is the lack of land rights for rural Nigerian women. In her award-winning article “Empowering Women's Land Rights as a Climate Change Mitigation Strategy in Nigeria”, Cate Baskin, a recent graduate of the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, points out that Nigeria has a complex system of statutory, customary, and Sharia laws, which in practice systematically discriminate women from the rights to own the land that they labor in. Not only do some have trouble obtaining land without being married, widows and young women either had their rights to inherit land passed over if they had no children or if they had male siblings. Worse, these women themselves could be considered “chattel” to be inherited by men.


The most recent data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that only 15.8% of the country’s agricultural landowners are female, and they only hold 10% of the country’s agricultural land value. This is important considering that women and girls like Bako and Msurshima comprise close to 55% of those living in Nigerian IDP camps, as disclosed in the most recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) year-end report. Widows and divorced women in particular lack an important means to display leadership through smart agricultural practices that increases climate resiliency and builds wealth through the land.




During Nigeria’s preparation for its general election in February 2023, climate advocate 'Seyifunmi Adebote, who has represented Nigeria at several international engagements including the United Nations General Assembly, Climate Action Summit, and Conference of Parties, raised concern that none of the frontline presidential candidates have made climate change a top priority despite the recent environmental disasters. He said this is understandable due to the multifaceted challenges that Nigeria is faced with but noted it is inexcusable.


“All other forms of national development are hinged on the functionality of the environment in which they exist, and the thriving of the people they are formed for. For the two presidential candidates, Peter Obi and Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who made some repeated mention of “climate change” in their manifestos, like many Nigerians, I am concerned about their genuine drive towards taking the needed action.” Indeed, reviewing the manifestos of the aforementioned candidates, both Obi and Tinubu campaigns did not present any plans that tie together climate action and gender inequality.


“For the two presidential candidates, Peter Obi and Bola Ahmed Tinubu... I am concerned about their genuine drive towards taking the needed action.”

“Going by unsatisfactory comments when physically asked about plans to address climate change, there is a risk that climate change may just have been signposted in their manifesto document primarily to appeal to those concerned about the need for Nigeria’s next president to take climate action.”


But while the nation continues to hold its breath regarding the direction of the federal government for the next four years as it counts the votes cast in the 2023 federal elections, characterized by observers as having a “lack of transparency”, Nigerian women can’t wait anymore.


 

35-year-old Nyiseember Mercy, from Kyaa, Mbalagh Council Ward, Makurdi LGA, also had a similar story of how the deadly flood killed her young brother, at the time 20 years old. Mercy, who now lives in the Tse Yandev IDP camp with three children, said after her husband divorced her, the late young brother assisted him in fending for her family.


Nyiseember Mercy resorts to sewing to fend for her family in Tse Yandev IDP camp, Makurdi, Benue State. (Samuel Ajala)

“When we were driven from our home in 2020 by the Fulani herders, I came quickly to this camp, and my brother was left in the town there in welfare quarters to cater for things we were able to pack like clothing and other basic necessities. Someone had given us a house we could use as a store. And so my brother was managing them.


“So, in October, there was this day after the heavy rain. We noticed that, of everybody that ran away, my brother was not there and the flood was almost at the roof of the building already. My brother does not know how to swim and could not have saved himself. That was how people raised the alarm and I was called to the scene only to see my brother lying dead after drowning.


“It was the hardest thing for me to believe. I am with no parents, no husband, and my only brother has been taken by the flood even though we survived the killings in my village. He died after all.


“If tears and groaning can bring back the dead, I would have done that. He’s my only brother and he is my future. He was an NCE holder in Mathematics and Computer. He was aspiring to be a computer scientist and here is where my world came crashing down. No more future for me and even my little child.


“If tears and groaning can bring back the dead, I would have done that. He’s my only brother and he is my future... No more future for me and even my little child. ”

“I was thinking when he makes it, he would take care of me and my daughters. But no, he is gone painfully.”


Nyiseember Mercy shows a picture of her brother who was killed by floods. (Samuel Ajala)

 


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Samuel Ajala

Samuel Ajala is a data and development journalist covering climate change, energy transition, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in Nigeria, working as a freelance contributor to The Energiewende Blog, an outlet based at the European Union office in Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Germany. In 2022, he was selected as the only Nigerian in-person media fellow to attend the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue (BETD), and a fellow for Future News Worldwide (FNW) 2022 Digital Conference, organized by British Council to bring together the best 100 young journalists from all over the world. His bylines include Dataphyte, Adweek, AllAfrica, The Nation (Nigeria), Premium Times, TheCable, HumAngle, and The News Digest (Nigeria).

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