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The Niger Delta: The Politics of Water [PART I]

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

The Inner Niger Delta is a unique ecosystem consisting of a network of channels, swamps,

and lakes in an area that is otherwise surrounded by arid land. The region is dependent on water from the Niger and Bani rivers; the seasonal flooding and annual variations determine the abundance of water the local population can rely on. However, with increasing data on climate change, it is abundantly clear that these drastic fluctuations of river water are greatly affecting the Delta and its inhabitants. Moreover, the second part of this report will also present how the current state of the Niger Delta can be considered a result of environmental imperialism.

The Niger Delta of Nigeria is the largest delta in Africa, and third-largest in the world covering about 70,000 km. There are a handful of local livelihood groups that, as a result of limited access to water, are now in conflict with one another, particularly during the season of dry spells. A report from June 2022 highlighting the relationship between water and conflict in the Delta states the tensions are set “against changing social and political structures, a crisis in the legitimacy of both the state and traditional leaders, as well as active armed conflict between Malian armed forces, Islamic extremist groups and local self-defense groups.”

The Impact on Livelihoods

The article highlights two issues that stem from the discussion of the access to water in the Niger Delta. The first describes the different livelihoods that depend on this ecosystem, and more specifically, the fact that climate change has had a major negative impact on them over the last several years. Traditionally, the local ethnic and cultural groups operated in their own individual fashion to maintain a living. Such practices include livestock herding, crop farming, and fishing. Within each category, the article also briefly describes the manner in which men and women respectively contribute to the community. The key point in this conversation is that these communities— the Bambara, Dogon, Fulani, and Somonos to name a few— were all nomadic tribes, meaning their lifestyle traditionally involved and depended on migration.

The biggest impact climate change has had on these groups is the new necessity to “become settled and engage in self-subsistence farming as secondary income.”

In addition to the changing climate and longer dry-spells, infrastructure projects such as building dams and large-scale irrigation projects upstream have made these communities more vulnerable and prone to conflict for land to sustain a living. One of the large-scale projects that has led to the severe environmental destruction of the Delta is the oil industry. Fidelis Allen, a professor of political science, poetically describes the oil industry as, “the enemy within, but the government is telling Nigerians to believe that it is their best friend.”

This leads to the second issue: the increased competitions for access to water and land resources. In one instance, tension has arisen between the herders, farmers, and fishermen as the previous land usage strategies no longer appear to apply or function in a compatible manner.

The article provides insight into the different relationships and the complications between each group presented, i.e. the disputes between the farmers and the fishermen, or the herders and the farmers. As an example, let us look at the conflict between the pastoralists and the farmers; the symbolic perception of the land differs between each group. An article discussing this dynamic posits, “Pastoralists and farmers have different symbolic interactions with the land. In essence, the pastoralists and farmers define physical objects like land, water, and pasture symbolically based on its utility.” Farmers view the land as an inheritance as they have a history of being settled in a region for generations, whereas pastoralists view the land as communal stemming from their nomadic roots. While pastoralists have the ability to relocate or overtake spaces, farmers are more situated and less inclined to relinquish their claim to the land. Thus, the conflicts that arise between the two groups relate more to boundaries and territory disputes.

The Role of Gender and Age

Another section within the conversation of competition focuses on the subject of gender and age. In Mali, as an illustration, the society is more patriarchal so women have limited access to land or the power of decision-making. The only place women have a major role to play is within the household where they manage natural resources (food, water, fuel). However, the most vulnerable group within any given community is the youth.

“Young people are heavily implicated in the conflicts in this region. They are the most vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups, a choice they make either for subsistence or to address their grievances.”

Oftentimes the youth are excluded from the politics within a community and feel marginalized and neglected, a sentiment that has been coined as ‘generational discrimination’.

New Laws vs. Old Traditions

From a political standpoint, it is clear that the ancestral mechanisms of allocating resources are losing authority. To put it succinctly, “the legal and administrative management of natural resources is not fully enforced due to the communities’ lack of awareness about their rights and agency, and the fact that formal authorities lack the presence and means to implement the management.” The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute concluded through a research project that in times of crisis or conflict, the state or state-affiliated institutions were the last source people would turn to for assistance or aid. Instead, their trust lies more with the traditional authorities. That is not to say that these two spheres are incapable of co-existing. Since the early 1990s there has been a shift towards community-based adaptation whereby the “adaptation of legal tools include different communities in the management of natural resources. One such example is the Commissions Foncières (land commissions), or CoFo, which bridges the gap between the traditional and judicial systems at the village level. This innovation is still relatively new, so it is still unclear how successful it will be, however, the aim is to allow space for everyone in the community including women and young people to express their concerns about land issues and come to a peaceful negotiation.

Aside from state and traditional governance mechanisms, non-state groups often dominate and become a source of contention. Extremist groups such as the Katiba Macina, or self-defense militias that are assembled to combat extremist groups, or armed bandits that profit off of general insecurity are examples of non-state groups that operate in the Inner Niger Delta. As the article suggests, “these groups contribute to the complex dynamic in the region and play an increasing role in replacing authorities and regulating all aspects of the lives and populations under their rule, including in natural resource management.”


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