In Nyanghasang community, in the southern Nigerian state of Cross River, lives 67-year old Maria Unwana. Her tenant lost a child to the gully in front of her house.
“It was raining that night, a very heavy rain,” Unwana, a widow, recollects with sadness the rainy night in August 2018 when the incident took place.
“God helped us, if not, all the people living here would have died. The house collapsed and took the life of my tenant’s small girl. I cried and went everywhere but no help. The government has not come here,” she recalls.
According to the residents, the gully is a result of the poorly constructed road in the area. It started forming in 2018 but has expanded rapidly.
“I have lived here since 1987 and this had never happened before 2015. When the road was constructed, plenty of rain water started coming towards this side and cutting into the soil,” said Unwana.
Unwana’s plight is similar to what is faced by residents in other communities within the state capital. Umaru Mohammed lives 35 minutes drive away from Nyanghasang in the Bacoco community. After ploughing all his savings into building a five-bedroom bungalow, Mohammed never imagined he would struggle to save his house from an expanding gully
Of the five original rooms in Mohammed’s house, only three remain. The building cost him five million Naira (around 12,500 USD). The bungalow now hangs over the edge of a gully in his backyard. The visible cracks on the walls show that the entire building could give in at any moment.
Impacts on lives and the economy
“My house is already condemned, [and] I don’t have anywhere to stay,” Mohammed, a father of eight, lamented. “If you go to rent a house now, landlords will ask you [for between 400,000 to 500,000 naira (1, 013 to 1, 267 USD)] for a three-bedroom flat,” he said.
He complained of how his family is not able to sleep at night. They have to stay outside their home whenever it rains heavily.
In Bacoco, up to nine gully erosion sites threaten to tear apart homes, market places, tarred roads and schools. But the situation in Bacoco is not an isolated event: it is just a highlight of an ongoing threat facing several communities in southern Nigeria.
The predominance of eroded land in southern Nigeria has adversely affected communities, led to loss of lives and is deepening the poverty curve in the region.
A report by the World Bank shows that erosion affects over 6000km2 of land in Nigeria. About 3400km2 are highly exposed. This land depletion causes an estimated damage of over 100 million USD annually.
Gully erosion accelerating
A World Bank report shows that the fundamental climatic factor affecting the occurrence and distribution of water in Calabar is rainfall. Calabar falls within the sub-equatorial climate belt and has a mean annual rainfall of over 2,200 mm.
“Relatively small changes in rainfall intensity can have major consequences for gully expansion… with predicted climate change, gullies may erode up to three times faster,” research published by Science Daily says.
Chukwudi Njoku, a doctoral student of the University of Calabar’s Department of Geology and Environmental Science, stressed that climate change causes erosion to escalate rapidly.
“Excessive rainfall can speed up the process of erosion,” Njoku said. “In a year with more rainfall, gullies could double the usual size.”
Unsustainable human practices like “farming along slopes, sand mining, and poor construction” carried out in the environment have made the land more vulnerable to even minimal climate changes.
Olumide Idowu is a Nigerian climate change activist. Idowu believes that the adverse effects of climate change will continue to occur if individuals do not refrain from practices like blocking the drainage system with dirt and constructing along waterways.
Cross River is among the seven southern states targeted by the Nigeria Erosion and Watershed Management Project (NEWMAP) alongside Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Edo, Enugu and Imo states where gullies pose a huge threat to lives and property.
Limited government action
The eight-year project supported by the World Bank aimed to rehabilitate degraded lands and reduce erosion and climate vulnerability in targeted areas. Since its onset in 2013, some sites in Calabar have been rehabilitated, but more still need attention.
Environmentalist Jesse-Martin Manufor advises individuals to cover the surface of the soil with vegetation to reduce the rate of surface runoff. However, he advocates for more awareness and government interventionin gully sites.
“People should try not to expose the soil, it’s either you grass it or you plant trees, in other cases you can use mulching. That way the rain drops won’t have a direct impact on the soil,” Manufor explained.
“The government has a major role to play, they have various agencies such as the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Works. They all need to fashion a way to cushion the effects of gully erosion,” he continued.
Meanwhile, Mohammed and Unwana have planted bamboo inside the gully to stop its expansion. Both nurses the desire to relocate but being unemployed, they lack the money to do so.
“If things are okay, how will somebody live in this kind of place… We don’t know when the house will collapse but it will surely collapse one day,” Mohammed said.