Communities groan as erosion ravages farmlands, threatens food security in South-east Nigeria

On a sunny Thursday afternoon in October in Ifite Nanka, a town in Orumba North Local Government Area of Anambra State in South-east Nigeria, Felicia Okpara sat on a chair, taking a nap in a stall in front of her family compound with her two hands on her head.

This reporter’s greeting woke Mrs Okpara, who dropped her hands, replied to the greetings, stood up and yawned.

The massive erosion site behind her house was what drew the reporter’s attention to Mrs Okpara, who is a smallholder farmer.

“Hunger is dealing with me,” she lamented when asked how the erosion site had affected her farming business. “The erosion is so disturbing that I can’t farm. It has affected my farmlands where I plant cassava and yam.”

Gully erosion in Ifite Nanka, according to researchers, started around 1850. A 2019 study by the American Journal of Geographic Information System revealed the depth of the site to be 66 metres deep, 2,900 metres long, and 349 metres wide, occupying lands meant for farming and threatening food production.

Food production threatened

As a result of the erosion, farmers who live around the area could not farm. Mrs Okpara’s farmlands were not affected initially in the last decade but are now being gradually consumed by the erosion.

She was married into the Okpara family in the 1970s and met the erosion site, which had not started impacting the family’s farmlands then. In early 2000, the erosion site started to expand gradually to her farmlands. She thought the erosion would not affect the crops but her hope was dashed.

“We use fertilizer on the farms but whenever it rains, the rain will wash away the fertilizer, leaving me with nothing,” she lamented.

The South-east region of Nigeria has long suffered erosion, mostly as a result of heavy rainfall leading to flooding. The change in climate has been referenced as the cause. Many farms, homes and other buildings have been affected.

According to the World Bank, South-east Nigeria is a hotspot for massive erosion, an advanced form of land degradation.

The Anambra State Government last year said more than 1,000 active erosion sites spread across the state have become a major natural disaster.

A lecturer at the University of Nigeria’s department of soil science, Benedict Unagwu, said water is the main cause of erosion in Anambra State.

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“Rain washes away the topsoil. Nutrients are lost due to the process of movement of those soils. The intensity at which it falls impacts on the soil. This hits the soil and displaces topsoil,” he said.

Rapidly expanding gully complexes have resulted in extensive impacts, including farmlands, he said. Erosion has very significant effects on farmlands such as poor growth/harvest of crops and development of fragmented lands, shortage of land for other uses, loss of biodiversity, and reduction of farmers’ income.

Mr Unagwu said the implications of erosion to agriculture in the state are numerous.

“Farmlands are lost,” he said. “It raises the land and the farm loses its soil nutrients. It is a huge loss to lose nutrients in the soil because to regain those nutrients, the farmer needs to buy fertilizer. If you do not have money to replace it, the yield for that year is lost or if you do not lose it, then the gain will be very minimal. Even the capital spent on the farmlands is lost.”

He said farmers will suffer economically due to the destruction of farms caused by erosion, which will in turn affect the Gross Domestic Products (GDP) of the country.

“When the yields are poor, the profits will be poor. Once erosion occurs, the available products will be sold at a very high price in the market and the public will bear the brunt. At a larger scale, the GDP of the country drops because there is no agricultural production.

“It will always affect food security because when we are talking about food security, it means securing the foods that we produce. If you do not have the abundance, there is insecurity, then we need to import because farmers are losing their products to erosion,” he said.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said the world population will reach 9.1 billion by 2050. To feed that number of people, global food production will need to grow by 70 per cent. For Africa, which is projected to be home to about two billion people by then, FAO said farm productivity must increase at a faster rate than the global average to avoid continued mass hunger.

But erosion is exacerbating food insecurity in Nigeria and destroying farmers’ livelihood.

Loss of livelihood

Towards the end of February 2020, Mrs Okpara planted yam on her farm with the hope to harvest it in September. But her hope was dashed when she started to harvest the crops.

“The big tubers of yam did not produce well because of the erosion,” she lamented as she poured the yam tubers inside the basket on the floor for the reporter to see. The size of each tuber is less than one-third the ideal size expected from a normal harvest without erosion.

“The erosion sucked the life out of the yam,” she said. “Had it been my farms and crops were doing well, I would sell them but now I can’t.”

“I can’t even get the crops I will eat,” she lamented. “Later the government will say we do not work hard but we do. It is the little things I sell outside the house that I use to eat. Farmers are struggling.”

Mrs Okpara’s fate is similar to that of Amaobi Nwankwo. The farmlands he inherited from his father 15 years ago in Ifite Nanka, which he was supposed to be farming on to make money, has been taken over by erosion.

“I am supposed to have farmlands of my own but I lost the land to erosion. Those who have the money go outside to buy land to farm while people like me who do not have cannot buy land. It is painful that such is happening,” said Mr Nwankwo.

As a result, he has lost his desire to be a farmer and contribute to the production of food in Nigeria to address food insecurity.

Now in his 40s, Mr Nwankwo repairs electronic appliances in front of his family house. As he spoke to the reporter, he was repairing a television set a young man had brought to him for repair.

The Agulu Site

A few kilometres from Nanka is a gully erosion site in Agulu community that has destroyed large farmlands the people call Uhuana (land for cultivation). The land was used to plant cassava and cocoyam in the past until floods started to turn the farmlands into an erosion site. The erosion has created a deep hole that is difficult to access.

Chikaodoli Obikiri sat on a chair waiting for her daughter whom she sent to buy snacks she would sell. Mrs Obikiri was one of the farmers who usually cultivated cassava and cocoyam on the farm, but after the farmlands were destroyed, she opened a small stall, where she sells groceries.

Mrs Obikiri last cultivated on the farms five years ago. According to her, as it rained, gullies were created and they kept expanding. “It has been more than five years since I planted crops on my four hectares of land because there are no roads and lands for farming as a result of the erosion,” she said.

“The erosion site has driven me away. Nobody goes there to farm anymore. Everywhere has turned to an erosion site,” she said.

“Then, whenever I harvested the crops, I would take them to the market and use the money to feed myself and my family. It affected me because there is no other land I have to farm to feed myself and my family. Sadly, I have farmlands but I can’t farm on them but rather go to the market to buy cassava,” Mrs Obikiri lamented.

A massive erosion site at Dim Ubana village in Oraukwu has taken a large chunk of the land, including the cashew farm. In the past, elderly men and women in the community usually went there to pick cashew to sell to make money to cater to their needs.

“The cashew farm used to be our oil well,” said 30-year-old Mmaduabuchi Onuora. “People used to pluck the fruit and the nuts. Our poor parents usually pluck them and sell in the markets and use the proceeds to feed themselves.”

Mr Onuora grew to see the devastation caused by the erosion but said the impacts have been huge ever since. The flood caused by heavy rains usually crawl from neighbouring Alor and Adazi communities and straight to the erosion site

Due to the impacts of the expanding erosion, the community uprooted the rest of the cashew trees.

The World Bank project

In response to the challenges caused by gully erosion and the emerging land degradation and environmental insecurity, former President Goodluck Jonathan requested the World Bank to assist Nigeria in addressing severe erosion and its impacts in South-eastern Nigeria.

Gully erosion

The World Bank through the International Development Association (IDA) gave Nigeria $500 million in 2013 with an additional $400 million in 2018 to restore gullies, along with catchment planning, soil, and water conservation in areas worst affected by desertification.

The Federal Ministry of Environment in collaboration with the World Bank designed the Nigeria Erosion and Watershed Management Project (NEWMAP) to address, on a “multi-dimensional scale,” the danger of gully erosion in the South-east, including in Anambra.

ALSO READ: World Bank to rescue Edo community destroyed by erosion

While work has not started in Oraukwu, Nanka, and Agulu erosion sites, Anambra State NEWMAP said it is currently working to remediate 13 other erosion sites in the state, in which the World Bank provided funding and technical know-how. When this reporter visited the gully erosion site at Nnewichi in Nnewi North local government area, work was ongoing as workers were seen at the site.

“At Nanka, Oraukwu, Oko, and Agulu, we have kick-started some of the processes and documentation for intervention in that area,” said Emeka Achebe, the state NEWMAP director of communications.

“We have done the engineering design and we have done the environment and social impact assessment. We have done the monitoring, evaluation and base-line studies and some other studies that will necessitate the intervention.”

He said NEWMAP tries to find out the causes of the erosion before work begins. “Normally, our works are for 100 years in return,” he said.

Mr Unagwu said to address the problem of erosion in Anambra State, farmers must be enlightened about the negative impact of erosion and the causes of erosion. He said the affected areas must be vacated by farmers.

“They should leave those areas or practice self-cultivation, which means raising some bonds that are high so that when rain falls, it will reduce the inflow of water. Secondly, farmers can practice cover cropping, which means using grasses and legumes to cover the surfaces of the soil. Erosion is the impact of rainfall. When it hits the soil, it affects farmlands.

“Once there is cover cropping, it will reduce the impact of the heavy rainfall on the soil. Farmers should practice intercropping so that there will be minimal impact of rainfall on the soil. It will minimise the inflow of water,” he said.

Mr Unagwu said the government needs to create awareness among farmers and help farmers affected by erosion to get new lands and provide farm inputs so they can return to farming.

“By January, farmers will start to burn bushes, which is not good. It is not healthy. As they are burning bushes, they are killing microorganisms that will help to secure the soil. Government can encourage essential services to farmers not to burn the bushes. Government can provide tractors to improve soil structure,” he said.

To stop more erosion sites in the state from breaking out, Mr Achebe said NEWMAP is engaging in aggressive sensitisation. “We keep on educating people, enlightening them, sensitising them on the right environmental practices. Some of the things that they do to aggravate these gullies to ensure when they see gullies erupting, they will know what they need to do.

“We also have community associations and site committees and we go into communities where we intervene to make sure they are sensitised. We call the women, youth, and men organisations, talking to them about what causes erosion,” he said.

NEWMAP has advised farmers who have lost their livelihood to the erosion but still try to cultivate crops to stop farming on the lands.

“We give them small funds to leave whatever they are doing like cultivation. We tell them to leave it and provide them with an alternative source of livelihood. We give them training and seed money to kick-start whatever business endeavours they choose. We have tailoring, hairdressing, fish farming so that they will allow the lands to rest,” Mr Achebe said.

The Permanent Secretary of the Anambra State Ministry of Environment refused to speak to this reporter on whether the state has any plans to assist farmers affected by erosion. “I will not comment,” he said. When asked why, he reiterated, “I do not want to comment, sorry,” and ended the call.

Mrs Okpara whose family relocated to Benin as a result of the erosion said only the government can address the problem, which is bigger than the community.

“I want the government to address the problem because the erosion site is now very deep,” she said. “Later the government will say farmers do not work hard but we do.”

This report was produced with support from the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ)’ through funding support from the Ford Foundation.

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