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Climate Change And The Future Of Food Security In Nigeria By Churchill Okonkwo

March 22, 2019

As we make progress in the agricultural sector, the question on my mind is whether these agro-farming improvements are sustainable in the face of climate change.



Expert value judgment about potential risks of drought due to climate change/variability and what should be done is not the role of scientists, but policymakers. Yet, it is the scientists that will lay out the elements of risk to help policymakers evaluate what ‘critical’ drought that could result from climate change entails. This piece, to mark the 2019 World Water Day, will focus on the future of food security in Nigeria in the face of climate change. 

The theme of the 2019 World Water Day, marked on 22nd of March is ‘Leaving no one behind’.  This theme was adapted from the central promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that as sustainable development progresses, everyone must benefit. As we make progress in the agricultural sector, the question on my mind is whether these agro-farming improvements are sustainable in the face of climate change. Will the peasant farmers that produce over 80% of Nigeria’s agricultural output be left behind in the climate change era? 

Per the estimate by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FOA) of the United Nations, Nigeria has a very low level of irrigation development (less than 2 percent of cropped land). Thus, there is a high reliance on rainfed agriculture. In the absence of irrigation, rained lands, especially those in the semiarid and Savannah agro-ecological zones of Nigeria will remain fragile, threatened and unsuitable for sustainable food production. What will be the impact of climate change on the more than “7 million” Nigerians that are currently actively employed in agriculture?

Extensive studies on rainfall variability show that regional climate change and associated climate variability is likely to affect the availability of water from the year 2032 across West Africa, especially the Sahel. This climate information on future drought is the foundation that should guide our current investment in agro-business.

During a severe and prolonged drought in a new climate era, will there be sufficient water/moisture to support the current investment in the agricultural sector on a long-term basis? Will the agricultural sector in Nigeria have the capacity to respond? 

During drought, some surface water will dry up, groundwater will be depleted, threatening food production in across the Sahel and Savannah regions, the present food basket of Nigeria. This will result in the collapse of the current agro-based economy. It is only this understanding that can precipitate informed discussion, then, informed policy directives that will empower relevant authorities to take meaningful action. 

The failure of the farming programs, such as the Operation Feed the Nation (OFN) and the “Green Revolution” initiated under Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Shagari should be a reminder that a well-intended agrarian revolution can go wrong. A holistic framework and strategy for sustainable water governance systems for an agro-based economy are thus essential. 

With only about 40% of the 84 million hectares of arable land in Nigeria cultivated, the challenge for the government is, therefore, not how to improve on this per se, but doing so in such a way to withstand prolonged severe drought.  The key to this readiness is the maximization of the use of ground and surface water for irrigation purposes where applicable. 

Chinua Achebe wrote that "A man who lives on the banks of the Niger (river) should not wash his hands in spittle." The good people of Nigeria that live on the banks of Rivers Niger, Benue, Imo, Cross River, Gongola, Hadejia, Kaduna, Katsina-Ala, Ogun, Osun, Owena, Sokoto, Yobe, and Zamfara Rivers etc. should not face food scarcity under any climate change scenario. 

The development and execution of a master plan that will involve the efficient use of perennial water resources across Nigeria is a shortcut to ensuring food security. In the face of increasing population and uncertainties from climate change, these enormous water resources potential should be fully utilized by the state and federal governments. 

All we need to do is take advantage of technological innovations to tap these untapped water resources at our backyards. Think of the capacity (cubic liters) of irrigation water we can easily harness from these untapped resources. The promotion of large-scale water management schemes to provide water resources for agriculture can thus guarantee enough water for year-round farming under present and future climate change scenarios. 

The lesson from the glitch in the production of tomatoes in Nigeria in 2016 that resulted in an astronomical increase in prizes with untold hardship is that any prolonged drought in the Savanah belt northwards will be catastrophic. Therefore, in addition to developing the agricultural sector in the northern parts of Nigeria that are more prone to severe drought, the federal and state governments should also invest heavily in the food baskets in the south.

The antiquated mindset focused on developing agriculture in a drought-prone region without adequate irrigation facilities should be modernized. The Nigerian government should push for, develop and harness the irrigation potentials of our water resources. They should provide policy guidelines aimed at strengthening all River Basin Authorities for integrated water resources management at the sub-regional and watershed scale.

In the face of climate change, managing surface and groundwater through small-scale irrigation will be essential in sustaining food production in rainfed areas. This irrigation programs should be tailored to the local and ecological peculiarities of watersheds. Water availability for agriculture during severer drought will give farmers the security they need to risk investing in other productivity-boosting technologies, such as fertilizers and improved seed.  This is how to put the nation on the road to food security.

Finally, per the Food and Agricultural Organization (FOA) of the United Nations, “Food security exists when all people, always, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food for a healthy and active life.” For Nigeria to have access to sufficient food, always, we need a new paradigm in food security. 

Such a paradigm should be aimed at guaranteeing food security by creating an agricultural sector that is equipped with irrigation facilities to withstand years of drought. It’s only after we have done this, that we can guarantee food security for all Nigerians in the climate change era. 

Churchill Okonkwo, Ph.D. African Center for Climate Change Science and Policy Research, Washington D.C. follow him on Twitter @churchillnnobi