Last week, I wrote about Nigeria’s lack of preparedness to tackle climate change and the resultant effect, should this persist, likening it to choosing to live as refugees in the coming years. This week, I will be using a familiar situation of the most recent harmattan weather that has affected almost every part of the county to further drive home my point. It is the third week of the month of February yet we are still greeted every morning with fog, and a haze sometimes so thick and grey, it reminds me of the desert.
I remember a few months back, as the country struggled with severe rainfalls and floods, people prayed for the sun to come and, when it did, they prayed for the harmattan, a season that usually ushers in Christmas, but this time decided to completely miss the celebration and come a little later. There were memes and jokes on the Internet about harmattan being shut out of Nigeria’s borders following the border closure by the Federal Government since what causes the harmattan is a wind that blows from the northeastward and through Nigeria.
Our dry season finally made it but, as many are experiencing, this year’s weather is unlike we’ve ever seen it. The most affected areas are reportedly Lagos, Abuja, Benin, Asaba, Warri, Port Harcourt and Calabar, where harmattan presence has been strong. Most airlines have delayed flights since the last weeks of December 2019. More recently, there have been a number of cancellations of scheduled flights and delays in takeoff with Nigerian aviation companies like Air Peace and Arik stating that the actions were necessary for safety due to the bad weather. There is of course also the fact that a number of our airports, even international ones, lack the right landing gear that would help guide airplanes in times of low visibility. Foreign airlines such as British Airways and American carrier, Delta Airlines, have also had to either divert their flights to Ghana or cancel flights as the foggy weather worsened, leaving Nigerians stranded both in Nigeria and in other cities where the airlines diverted to.
Apart from the cancelled flights by these airlines, which have both economic and social consequences, another effect of the unusual harmattan is air pollution from the haze, which could trigger asthmatic attacks in people, road accidents, pollute water sources, promote the spread of respiratory illnesses, and reduce eyesight effectiveness and more health challenges.
It is very clear that climate change among other things is magnifying the threat of harmattan, which has become more severe and less predictable over the years, carrying more dust from the Sahara into the cities. As we may be aware, Harmattan is a season in West Africa that is characterized by the dry and dusty northeasterly trade wind, which blows thousands of kilometres from the Sahara Desert over West Africa into the Gulf of Guinea. It’s a killer because we don’t see it. It is dust for those of us living in the South but for those living along the fringes of the Sahara, it is desertification.
The irony of it all is that the travelling dust and season can be monitored and controlled through an early warning system. During a visit I made to China while studying about desertification, I was taken to the Gobi desert, where they had instruments that could tell the speed and intensity of the dust as well as areas that would be most affected by it so that proactive measures could be taken to counter the negative effects. This was exciting as it showed that Nigeria and countries most affected by the desert wind could be better prepared for the dry season but it was also depressing because even though we can prepare, we don’t.
It is unfortunate that we might just continue running from troubles in Nigeria and never looking for ways to solve them. In a recent article I read, the late Kofi Annan – former UN Secretary-General – was quoted to have said that the “evolving threat of the harmattan is a stark example of how we need to collaborate to protect public health from the effects of climate change. In the case of the harmattan, we need to make sure that accurate weather forecasts travel the “last mile” to reach people in the wind’s path so they can take shelter.” He further added that “the threat from the harmattan shows us a good place to start: by improving collection of climate and weather information, preparation of forecasts – including forecasts of dust and sand storms – and distribution of weather warnings to those who need them.”
Recalling the projects that we started but never finished and how the positive impact they would have had had they not been sacrificed at the altar of greed, I can’t help but be angry. Projects like the Great Green Wall, Shelterbelt Commission, The river dams and more, if completed, would have been able to curb the encroaching desert and provide buffers for the incoming wind. I had used that phrase refugees by choice to describe what I felt was the consequence for not doing enough to mitigate the effects of climate change. We would become climate refugees.
¬According to Wikipedia, climate refugees or climate migrants are a subset of environmental migrants who were forced to flee “due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.” The truth is as alarming as it sounds; climate refugees are growing by the day. Where would you go if a flood devastated the city you live in? Millions of people¬ around the world have been forced to answer this question, and extreme weather disasters and deteriorating ecological conditions will force nearly a billion more to face the same question in the next 50 years.
Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, rising sea levels, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of global warming are not examples of future troubles but are a reality today. Climate change isn’t just about the environment though, its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live. This is why to survive the rapidly changing climate Nigeria needs an aggressive plan that would transcend tribal, political and religious barriers.