Nigeria’s worst flooding in decade worsens food insecurity

At least 32 of Nigeria's 36 states are expected to be impacted by flooding, a scourge that is destroying farmlands and the country’s already precarious agricultural production.

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Image : Radeno Haniel

Two years after smallholder farmer Gideon John began actively producing food after graduating from university in Nigeria’s Adamawa state, he decided it was time to expand his hectarage from the three he started with in 2020 to seven hectares.

The hope, he said, was to produce about 50 tonnes of rice annually as well as some corn, Nigeria’s most consumed commodities. Little did he know that a flood, the worst Nigeria has experienced in a decade, would wipe out his investments in one night.

On 24 September, John posted the devastating effects of flooding the night before on his Twitter account:

Submerged in water is the nearly N2m ($4,625) he had invested in this planting cycle, he tells African Business. “This is my first time experiencing flooding. The reason why I expanded was because I’ve never witnessed that since I started.”

Food supplies will be affected

John is one of over 70% of Nigerians engaged in the agriculture sector at the subsistence level, according to government data, with the sector contributing almost 30% of the country’s total GDP in 2021, according to Statista. This year, thousands of farmers across the country are staring at massive losses, according to a farmers’ body.

At least 32 of 36 states of Nigeria, including Kaduna, Borno, Delta and Bayelsa, were expected to experience a high risk of flooding, according to a warning from the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NiMet). Authorities are blaming this year’s deluge on water overflowing from local rivers, the release of excess water from Lagdo Dam in neighbouring Cameroon, and excessive rainfall.

But Nigerian flooding has long been worsened by familiar factors, including inadequate infrastructure and underfunded flood defences, and is being further exacerbated by climate change. The country’s food security is being undermined as a result, says Kabiru Ibrahim, president of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria.

“Because many farmers were at the point of harvest when the flooding happened, the food supply will be adversely affected. In fact, it will add to the difficulty we are experiencing – food prices will go up. And because our food reserves are low and productivity has already been hampered by insecurity, the current situation of the food crisis is now being exacerbated by the flood.”

Flooding in the Niger Delta region at the time of Nigeria’s last major floods in 2012. (Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

The current flooding in Nigeria is expected to put further pressure on a country that is struggling to become food sufficient amid insurgency, ongoing herder/farmer conflicts and kidnapping that have already crippled production, Ibrahim says.

The flooding which will likely persist until the end of the year, could exacerbate food inflation in the country of more than 200m, where food price inflation was running at 23.12% in August, up from 20.30% a year before, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.

Floods in Nigeria have predominantly affected the food-producing northern states, washing away thousands of acres of farmlands in Kano, one of Nigeria’s most important rice producing states.

This is the worst flooding in Nigeria since 2012, Ibrahim says, echoing an earlier statement from Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). In 2012, floods killed 363 people and displaced more 2.1m. Thirty of Nigeria’s 36 states were affected. This year, the impact could be more devastating.

“A very large percentage of our farmers have lost their plantations. The farmlands are now submerged in floods and many of our farmers have been killed by the flooding,” says Ibrahim.

According to a statement by NEMA in late September, at least 300 people had been killed, 500 injured and 100,000 displaced since the rains began in February, with 29 states affected.

In search of solutions

Large amounts of sediments are brought down the river Niger from the Sahara every year, and when there are intense rains the capacity of the river bed cannot take it, causing the river to burst its banks, said the minister of water resources, Suleiman Adamu at a forum in Abuja on 2 October.

Nigeria therefore requires an engineering solution in the form of an extensive programme of dredging, creating embankments, reclaiming certain floodplains, and straightening some of the sharp bends of its rivers, he said.

He estimated that the country would need about $14bn to undertake such work, and it would be the work of several administrations, but that it was important to have a masterplan in place . 

For his part, Ibrahim believes that it is high time Nigeria invested in switching to climate-smart agriculture.

“That is the only way out of this problem,” he comments.

The Niger rises as it flows through Mali. (Photo: Jean Claude Braun / Adobe Stock)

Logistical nightmare

As flooding events continue, they pose a “major threat to Nigeria’s domestic food economy,” says Confidence MacHarry, security analyst at Lagos-based SBM Intelligence.

“This is not necessarily because of how much farmlands or produce are swept away by the floods, but also logistically, the state of the roads before the floods makes it difficult to efficiently transport food from farm to markets. This is likely to get worse. The floods have also had a major impact on storage facilities which have been quite poor before now.”

Earlier in the year, rice growers in Delta state reported that they lost more than N30m to flooding which destroyed a warehouse where paddy rice and fertilisers were stored. The cost of the fertilisers was put at N18.9m, while the paddy rice was put at N11.5m, the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reported, citing Abraham Epochi, the secretary of the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN) in the state.

Nigeria is Africa’s leading consumer of rice, and despite being one of the continent’s largest producers of the crop, is also one the world’s largest importers.

Nigerians’ rice consumption is expected to increase to 8.25m tonnes in 2022-23, a 15% increase from the year before, driven by an estimated 3% growth in population over the same period, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The increase in consumption is expected to increase imports by 12%.

Increased conflicts driven by poverty will more than likely continue to make achieving food security difficult if flooding continues to persist, according to MacHarry.

“We have seen kidnappers demand food items as ransom when negotiating with families of victims in their custody. Bandits in the North West also control farmlands which have been affected by floods. A change in such fortune might see a diversification to other crimes or an intensification of kidnap attacks to break even,” he says.

The United Nations says the impacts of increased conflict and related displacement, economic shocks, high food prices and weather extremes are exacerbating hunger, with the number of food insecure people rising from 2.5m to 19.5m people in 21 states between June 2021 and June 2022. The UN expects that emergency food insecurity will persist until January 2023 in some states, and these areas will continue to depend on humanitarian aid.

Some effects of conflict-driven hunger are already being seen in some northern regions of the country. In late September, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said that a malnutrition crisis in Northwest Nigeria is reaching “catastrophic levels”, with a 64% increase over the previous year in the numbers of severely malnourished children it had treated.

“With increasing insecurity, climate change, and global inflation of food prices in a post-pandemic world, we can only imagine this crisis getting worse,” Simba Tirima, MSF country representative in Nigeria, said in a statement.

Food insecurity will likely worsen as climate change impacts hit, says MacHarry. “There is a strong link between climate change and the rise of armed groups in Nigeria. Livestock and farmlands have been lost because of drought and desertification and the more this happens, the more precarious the situation becomes.”

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