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nigeria refugee camps flood
Veronica Igbalumo, a single mother living in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp with her 3 children. Photo: Agbaje Ayomide.

Climate change drowns refugee camps in Nigeria

In 2020, 65-year-old Esther Iornongu, a widow, arrived at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Makurdi, located in Benue, North Central Nigeria. Whenever rain falls at the overcrowded Tse-yandev camp, everyone rushes to get their belongings before the flooding starts, she says. 

Iornongu had to leave her life as a farmer, as a result of the Fulani crisis — a communal conflict between herders and farmers going on since 1999. Her life has never been the same again ever since, she says. At the camp she was brought to, frequent flash floods are a constant threat of loss and destruction of the only things she has left.

“Most times, before I start packing my household items, clothes and foodstuffs, they already get wet or the flood takes them away. I am not with my family here and this situation makes me dependent,” added the refugee, as she recounts her experience while speaking with Climate Tracker.

She is one of Nigeria’s almost 3 million internally displaced people (IDPs), who fled their homes to over 80 refugee camps created by the Nigerian government. Refugees fleeing conflict and other emergencies are now facing another threat at the camps: climate change.

The threat of flooding is increasing in the camps due to global warming, studies show. A map analysis by GeoHazard Risk Mapping Initiative, published in May 2021, identified over 20 camps for IDPs that are vulnerable to serious flooding in Makurdi, Benue State—a town already affected by the climate crisis. 

The study used Geospatial Information System (GIS) technology to map out the vulnerable areas and create early warning signals. Researchers then shared their data with Disaster and Emergency Management institutions to create better protocols against flooding.

However, government efforts to face the flooding in the camps have been limited and haven’t included the use of satellite data, researchers say.

Out of the 3 million displaced, about 20,000 people in Nigeria end up in refugee camps such as Esther’s, in search of assistance and safety. Over the years, coupled with insecurity, intense floods are becoming one of the main concerns in the camps.

nigeria refugee camps climate change
A portrait of Esther Iornongu, a camped internally-displaced person in Makurdi, Benue, Nigeria. Photo: Agbaje Ayomide.

At a global level, climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events, including floods, says a 2020 UN briefing report. Because of this, flood risk will expand beyond the high-risk areas known today, the report also says.

This is creating threats to vulnerable people in IDP camps from all over the world. In Syria, around 67,000 refugees were affected by heavy floods in January 2021. More than 7,000 tents in IDP camps were damaged during that extreme weather event.

Flooding threats

Benue is one of the states in Nigeria hosting the largest internally-displaced population and with a present total of 241,627 in the state capital. Most of them live outside the camp due to insufficient space, as Climate Tracker was able to confirm at the site.

Most of the IDPs in Benue live in makeshift camps that look like unkempt tents, small in size, leaking and made with worn-out mosquito nets. These tents are easily damped by rain and moved by floods. 

According to the UN Refugee Agency, the standard average camp area per person is 45 square meters. However, Esther’s camp — Tse-yandev camp — is far from this standard, as each tent could barely contain a household for shelter.  The total number of IDPs in Tse-Yandev camp is 10,407, consisting of 3457 males and 6645 females including children.

Nigeria refugee camps climate change
View of an area affected by flood with rainwater at the IDP camp in Markurdi, Benue. Photo: Agbaje Ayomide

While some of the refugees leave the camps to work on farms, sell items and fend food for themselves and families, some others have to wait behind and depend on supplies from humanitarian aid organisations and individual donations to survive.

Benue, where the camp is located, is also one of the 27 states in Nigeria with a highly probable flood risk, according to the 2021 Annual Flood Outlook published by the Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency (NIHSA). 

Floods put around 20,000 refugees in the Benue camp at the risk of losing what little they own. An August 2021 assessment report by Relief Web, a humanitarian information platform, shows refugees are also at risk of forced displacement out of the camps due to floods.

Crisis fueled by climate

Most refugees at risk are women and children, with no hope of getting resettlement aid from the government, they say. When the camps flood, refugees like Veronica Igbalumo, a middle-aged mother of three malnourished and out-of-school children, also lose their belongings, sometimes staying hungry for days. 

She often thinks of leaving the camp, but faces one major threat: insecurity—which made her end up in the camp in the first place, she says. The Fulani crisis has put thousands of refugees like Igbalumo at risk of attacks. Climate change has aggravated the situation.

The conflict started when farmers and herdsmen clashed mainly in the states of Plateau and Benue over resource access, land use and growing inequalities, among other reasons. As a result, violence has escalated in many regions of Nigeria.

But as years went by, climate change became a major contributor to this conflict, as rising temperatures have had a negative effect on food and livestock production. Constant droughts and desertification increased the conflict for resources.

Veronica doesn’t know when she expects to leave the camp, as the armed herdsmen have not only continued attacking more people but also occupied her community—frequently killing victims and rendering some homeless like her.

In addition to those threats, flooding in the camps has become a new bargain. This situation makes it more difficult to access basic needs like shelter, food, drinking water and medicine, the refugee says. 

“My kids and I are always afraid and sad whenever it’s about to rain till it stops. This is because our little remaining belongings get soaked or we lose them when it leads to flooding. We also don’t sleep when it rains during the night,” she added, expressing fear for her worsening situation. 

Mr. Gabriel Yev, the camp chairman, said it’s not easy when it rains, “but we try to relocate the aged and nursing mothers to uncompleted buildings located within the communities.”

“Those that cannot have a place to take shelter cluster around the two halls we have within the camp. They all stand till it stops raining. If it rains all through the night we will all remain standing until it stops raining. That is the kind of torture we experience here,” he added in a recent interview.

Improved response

Many refugee camps are known to be located in high risk areas. The 2021 study by GeoHazard Risk Mapping Initiative found at least 20 IDP camps vulnerable to flooding just in Benue state

But this trend also happens in other parts of Nigeria. A separate mapping effort by the University of Maiduguri also identified camps at risk of flooding in the northeastern part of the country, in Borno state, which has 41,805 IDPs.

Flooded river banks and intense rainfalls are the main reasons for the vulnerability of Makurdi, Benue State, as indicated by a research published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies. Out of the 804 km² of Makurdi, 55% of the territory is exposed to high risk of flooding, a 2020 flood risk assessment study also shows.

Nigeria flood risk
A mapping of Benue state’s most vulnerable areas to extreme floods. Credit: GeoHazard Risk Mapping Initiative.

The study categorized the territory into three risk areas. 447.02 km² of the landmass is exposed to high risk of flood disasters, 185.72 km² at moderate risk and 171.25 km² at low risk. 

This data also indicates that about 5 IDP camps are vulnerable during flash floods, despite being in moderate-risk areas. Excessive rainfalls in the area due to climate change resulted in the floods, according to the analysis.

Identifying the areas at risk is an important part of preventing further disasters, said Emmanuel Jolaiya, a GIS analyst and the founder of Spatialnode, a geospatial technology services firm.

“I think our environmental authorities do not actually use GIS data enough. And it needs to be put to a better use for humanitarian interventions,” said the climate expert.

Lack of government efforts

Despite various warnings, government authorities lack measures to avert or minimize flooding risks in Benue and come to the aid of the IDPs, said Jairus Awo, a conflict reporter based in Makurdi, Benue, Nigeria. 

“There are also no efforts to develop resettlement plans for the displaced persons, or even prepare them for possible circumstances whenever flooding occurs,” he added.

Benue State Emergency Management Agency (BENSEMA) is the sub-national government agency for managing and responding to disasters such as flooding in the state, where refugee camps have been affected by floods. Climate Tracker made efforts to contact the institution for comment since September, but no response was given up to October 19.

In 2017, the government agency said over 110,000 people in 24 communities including Makurdi, the state capital, were displaced by floods in recent months.

Now in 2021, the Executive Secretary of BENSEMA, Emmanuel Shior, said that —with over 1.5 million displaced people in eight camps and host communities across the state— the situation is “quite monumental”, given the limited resources.

Shior said the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), in collaboration with the state agency, are working to provide agricultural intervention and relief for the flood victims at the camps, while also targeting victims of the Fulani herdsmen crisis. 

There was also an attempt by the government to solve the crisis in Benue State with the enactment of the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law, 2017, but it led to more clashes and the displacement of even more local farmers.

However, none of the current government efforts related to the Fulani crisis aim to mitigate flooding risk in the IDP camps, despite a budget allocation of ₦25.5 million ($61,815 USD) for the rehabilitation and camp management of IDPs in the state during the 2020 fiscal year.

Refugees like Iornongu keep hopes alive for what lies ahead for them in the future —despite their present life situation being abandoned in the camp.

She still hopes aids will come her way from the government. “I hope to continue coping here (the IDP camp) till the rainy season is over, staying safe and also return to my village someday to continue farming when safety gets better there,” she said.