As a young child growing up in Lagos, Nigeria in the 1970s, the country was in the throes of putting up an impressive show titled the Festival of Arts and Culture, or FESTAC as it came to be known. Part of the grandiosity of the event was the construction of a brand new town on the outskirts of Lagos, supposedly to provide accommodation for the thousands of participants at this festival. Along with this FESTAC town was to be constructed a 4-Lane motor way between Lagos and Badagry close to the country's border with the Republic of Benin. The road would continue into Benin, to Cotonou, that country's largest city. We lived in Surulere, which itself was then still a newly developed area of Lagos, having been built up for the first time in the 1960s. The Badagry Expressway led from somewhere behind where we lived, on towards the FESTAC town and then further on still for tens of kilometres to Badagry. FESTAC town and the Badagry Expressway were projects that would cause the breaking into of virgin land.
We were children, and this newly constructed highway which was yet to opened because several bridges along its length had not been completed, presented itself to us as a huge adventure playground. And of course, my brother and I took full advantage of this, going for long walks along the newly laid tarmac. What is vivid in my memory is the dense rain forest on both sides of the road, thick foliage, even wild monkeys in the trees. And this was just a few minutes walk from the bustling cosmopolitan city that was Lagos of the 1970s. We would walk down that empty road for what seemed like miles, but which in reality was no more than half a kilometre, and come to the first bridge on that motorway, a bridge across a river which flowed from the Yoruba Highlands to the north of Lagos into the Lagos Lagoon. My memories of that river and its bank, are of a pristine environment almost exactly as nature had intended it to be, crystal clear water with countless shoals of fish visible in the water, swimming against the force of the current. Although I now know better, at that time it seemed like fun when the few fishermen we did see at this place would sprinkle a few drops of IZAL disinfectant into the water, and the fish reacting to the effect of the IZAL in the water, would leap out in their hundreds unto the riverbank. This was such a cool way to catch fish, my brother and I thought, and we would help the fishermen pick up the fish and put them in baskets that they had placed on the riverbank for this purpose.
My family moved away from Surulere a few years later and it was not until many years afterwards that I went on a deliberate mission to find out what had become of that magical place of childhood memory. It took hours of wandering back and forth along the now very busy Badagry Expressway, before I finally realised that what I was looking at was in fact that river of 20 years ago. First of all, it was no longer a river. Secondly, there was no sign of forest anywhere within sight. What was once dense green vegetation was now what seemed like hundreds of rusting corrugated iron shacks of the kind to be found in any auto mechanic's workshop in Nigeria. That river had been turned into a refuse disposal area, where the mechanics dumped waste engine oil, old tyres, broken engine parts. The water, if you could all it that, was black. In fact it contained more oil than water. Having seen what this place once was, seeing it as it is now just 20 years later came as a complete shock, and the experience has forced me in a more acute way to confront the reality of the damage that we humans are doing to our environment.
In Africa in particular, the basic needs for survival are paramount in peoples' minds. Thoughts about the environment and conservation are far removed from the issues that people have to deal with on a day to day basis. But ironically, apart from the direct environmental change of the kind I have described above and further down in this post for which we Africans are responsible, most of the environmental changes that we will have to confront in the near future are not of our own making. According to the United Nations Environment Agency, while Africa accounts for only 4% of the world's CO2 emissions, it is said that it’s inhabitants will suffer the most from the effects of climate change. The huge environmental impacts of climate change and local non-sustainable practices are matters that African governments must from now start to pay more serious attention to.
In Nigeria and several other African countries, unplanned urban sprawl, rapid population growth and consequent agricultural expansion has meant that much of the forest has been lost. Deforestation is a word I've heard being mentioned in Nigeria for decades, but I have no confidence that the seriousness of the problem that it represents has been appreciated at the right levels of government. The remaining woodlands are being degraded by over exploitation for fuel wood and non-wood forest products. To compound the area's problems the land is being farmed nearly continuously, with a shortened or no fallow period for the land to recover fertility. And as the population continues to grow the problem is going to continue to get worse. As Marthinus Van Schalkwyk, South Africa’s minister of environmental affairs and tourism states…“Africa is one of the regions least responsible for climate change, and is also least able to afford the costs of adaptation.”
Climate change knows no territorial borders and recognises no man-made boundaries or lines drawn in the ground. The changes to the world's climate will affect the entire population of the Earth. The poor people of the world are the most vulnerable to natural disasters, the most reliant on harvests coming at the right time, and the least able to adapt or move away from dangerous places. That is why climate change hits poor people hardest. Changing weather patterns are increasingly bringing devastating floods, drought, failed harvests, malnutrition, increased disease and death. Climate-change induced mass migration of entire populations from devastated areas, has the potential of becoming one of the more serious issues that the world will be forced to tackle in the 21st Century. In the meanwhile, African leaders are mindlessly still busy enriching themselves, regardless that their tenure on this earth is temporary and paying little regard to the state of the world that they will be bequeathing to their children's children.