Story Publication logo December 14, 2023

How Airports Fuel Climate Change in Nigeria


a city in Nigeria

Huge infrastructure developments have adverse effects on the environment.


Paved roads to the Victor Attah International Airport, like this, have altered the ecosysetm in the area. Image by Nkrumah Bankong-Obi. Nigeria.

A proliferation of cargo airport projects combines with other human actions to wage a deadly war on nature, thus fuelling the climate change crises in Nigeria.

To many people across Nigeria, former President Goodluck Jonathan is a living human treasure. His self-effacing disposition has won him a multitude of disciples among the middle class. His countrymen and women hold him in esteem.

At the peak of his meteoric ascendance on Nigeria’s political ladder, a generation of children was named after him. Perhaps it is his rags-to-riches trajectory that makes Jonathan able to grip the attention of Nigerians when issues concerning him hug the headlines, nearly a decade after he left office. That sentimentality manifested when photographs of him surfaced on the internet.

The former leader was seen in a wooden canoe, his breeches rolled up to the ankle while being paddled on flood waters to his inspect his house, which was inundated by murky water. This grim scenario happened at the peak of the flood that ravaged Jonathan’s native Bayelsa State and many parts of the Niger Delta in 2021. To observers, that flood was a superior omen to the one that occurred in 2012.

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Bayelsa’s tricky coastal location perfectly fits as an experimental environmentalist’s haven. The State already grapples with oil spillage, primitive crude oil refining, which has ruined large swathes of land, water bodies and perhaps the air. As these disasters continue to threaten life as we know it, the aviation business enters the fray.

In 2019, allegations surfaced that Bayelsa International Airport, BIA, floods whenever it rains. Although Seriake Dickson, who was the governor at the time, debunked the allegations, the Amassoma Bridge, which links Yenagoa the State capital to the airport, was cut off. And the airport, which is situated about 30 kilometers outside of Yenagoa, was inaccessible until the waters subsided. 

Indeed, some Bayelsa residents deride BIA as a floating airport.

“That airport that floods? See how the areas around it are overrun by water anytime it rains. Go out and see for yourself,” Amassoma, a don at Niger Delta University who provided only one name, challenged our reporter.

Data about the aviation industry’s contribution to the effects of climate change in Nigeria is absent. But changes in rainfall patterns, warm temperatures, floods and failing agricultural harvests are features of crisis, to which the aviation business contributes.

“Every inch of construction impacts the environment,” Uffot Essien, a graduate researcher in Environmental Protection Management, EPM, at the University of Calabar, tells TheNEWS, noting that “imagine the airports, see the massive land, sometimes virgin land that is suddenly turned over to some mechanized field with electro-magnetic fields from the installations let loose on the atmosphere and lithosphere. Every decibel of machine roar, earth digging during construction and installations at airports negatively affects the environment and contributes to climate change.”

If airports’ immoveable infrastructure does not generate sufficient havoc, the planes wreak even more.

“Most airlines ignore the damaging impact of their non-co2 (nitrogen oxides and water vapour) at high altitudes,” Carbon Credit Watch, a Belgium-based environmental watchdog, said in a recent report that dealt mostly with European carbon markets. The chemicals released into space are also believed to be harmful and impact conservation efforts, especially in hard-to-reach areas still protected from destabilisation by human footprints.

Bayelsa State’s airport is not alone. TheNEWS also visited The Victor Attah International Airport, VAIA, in Akwa Ibom State, the Nasarawa State Cargo Airport, the Benue State Airport site, and the Obudu International Cargo Airport, all of which are still under construction.

The ambitious VAIA is effectively functional yet generally work-in-progress. Our reporter found that the airport is built in a heart of a mangrove forest. Checks show that the land was acquired by the State government’s invocation of the public interest component of the Land Use Act to seize the land from local government areas, including Okobo, Uruan and Nsit Atai.

“You can see, it (airport) sits like a huge gulf on an endless swathe of land. That entire area was a forest, very lush vegetation and very well-endowed. But now it is gone. It has given way to civilization as our leaders define it,” an environmentalist who prefers to be unnamed told TheNEWS.

Ben Ayade, the immediate past governor of Cross River State who started the Obudu airport after his seaport and superhighway ideas failed to take off, said the “airport will offer opportunities so that Cross River will be exporting ornamental flowers to Europe. To do that, we need a temperate climate of about 11,000 ft above sea-level, which we have up the (Obudu Cattle) Ranch.” Justifying the need for a cargo airport, Ayade, who flaunts his credentials as a professor of Environmental Science, told reporters that “Obudu Ranch will not only provide tourism, it is now going to be an agro-horticultural business hub, producing flowers and taking them to the cargo airport for export to Europe.”

TheNEWS' checks with vendors show that Obudu never sold flowers to any part of Nigeria while he held sway as governor. Cross River already has the Margaret Ekpo International Airport situated in the capital, Calabar. The State government has Bebi Airstrip, just at the foot of the Obudu Cattle Ranch.

Concerned citizens and environmental campaigners argued that it would have been more sensible to turn the airstrip into a cargo airport, if that was better desired.

Liza Gadsby, conservationist and project Director of Pandrillus Foundation, who has spent more than three decades working in wildlife sanctuaries in the Cross River rainforest, is peeved by the new airport project: “First, there has been an airstrip there since as long as I can remember, 1988 when we came to Nigeria, at least. It fell into disrepair because of little use.  Who flies to Obudu and for what?  There’s your answer. Second, during the (Donald) Duke administration the airstrip was repaved and lengthened to accommodate larger planes to encourage people to go to the Cattle Ranch. That, too, fell into disuse for multiple reasons that should be obvious. Now, there’s a proposal for another airport.  It’s a waste of public funds and a waste of land,” she told TheNEWS.

The Benue cargo airport, which is yet to take off, presents a scenario similar to that of Obudu.

The administration of Governor Samuel Ortom hinged the need for a new airport on exportation of agricultural produce. However, there is an Airforce Base in Makurdi, which has served the State and its neighbours for decades. Located about 12 kilometres outside of the capital, Makurdi, the authorities said when completed, it will kickstart exportation of agricultural produce from the State to different parts of the world.

Terver Tsior, a civil rights campaigner, wondered why the State government did not negotiate with the Nigerian Airforce to redesign the Airbase to suit its purpose.

“The Airforce Base occupies a large expanse of land. Our politicians could just have asked the Airforce to redesign it to accommodate the terminal buildings, new runways and storage facilities for the cargo airport. It is incomprehensible to begin a new airport, which would alter the ecosystem completely. These people don’t understand what is coming at us,” he said of weather changes.

When news broke in 2016 that the State government headed by Governor Umaru Tanko Al-Makura had concluded plans to build a cargo airport in his hometown of Kwandare in Lafia, the Nasarawa State capital, the first question economists asked was what is the necessity of the facility. One of those was Aliyu Wadada, an economist and politician who was previously a member of the House of Representatives and now a senator in Nigeria’s National Assembly.

Wadada said, “Three years ago when the information started filtering that the governor was proposing to build an airport, I asked what will be the viability of an airport for Nasarawa State. The state is just 10 minutes to Abuja from the gateway to the State House gate. What are the economic activities taking place in the state that will warrant 30 men from the East and may be another 50 from the Southwest to make any organized, focused, contemporary airline to fly into Lafia and to bring what?”

He also pointed to similar infrastructural commitments undertaken by governments of neighbouring states.

“Talking about a cargo airport, there is one still under construction in Jos and you know that we cannot match the socio-economic activities that take place in Jos. More to this, Nexim is citing another cargo airport in Abuja, so tell me of what meaning and what does a Lafia cargo airport stand to achieve?” he queried in 2016.

Although the airport which is presently at an advanced stage of completion, has been handed over to the Federal government, the challenge it poses to the environment are yet unaddressed.

Some observers believe that the multiple airports situated in mangrove forests of Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom and the savanna grassland of Obudu, Benue and Nasarawa cannot be of any important benefit to the residents of those states, except the officials who conceive and execute them.

Gadsby told our reporter, “One thing that has always mystified me about Nigerians is why they think any new idea is a good idea.  Most new ideas are bad ideas – that’s why successful people and societies think things through and reject bad ideas. It’s better to do nothing than do a wrong thing,” she said, querying about a new airport that would be less than forty kilometres from where one already exists.

Some school of thought believes that the geographical proximity of the States to each other should have made mergers or a shared airport with interconnecting road networks a possibility. But that is not happening. For example, a trip from the Port Harcourt International Airport in Rivers State to Bayelsa State can be done in less than an hour. Calabar in Cross River to Uyo in Akwa Ibom is a journey of about an hour and half. Obudu to Abakaliki, which only recently commissioned a cargo airport, can be accomplished in about two hours.

But these places rather share a grim common feature: Our reporter observed that except the Makurdi-Lafia Expressway, all other interstate roads are in terrible disrepair, with some impassable.

Our reporter travelled through the East-West Road, which links all States of the Niger Delta. Parts of it have been abandoned by motorists. Locals say tanker mishaps are rampant and many lives have been lost on the road to infernos caused by vehicles conveying petroleum products from one part of the country to the other. The Calabar-Itu-Uyo Expressway is no different. Parts of it have morphed to swamps, providing ridges for weeds to grow luxuriantly. Also, there is no ongoing or existing railway project in the entire region. 

Perhaps, that gives impetus to the fear that the new airports as conceived are status symbols or at best feathers of political showmanship. “Nowadays every governor wants to build an airport,” a senior officer at a regulatory agency, who spoke off the record, told TheNEWS, adding, “They won’t fix the roads, nobody is talking about railway. But everybody wants to have an airport in their backyard. It’s a shame that these governments can’t fix the basic infrastructure but want to flaunt airports. It’s a shame really,” the bureaucrat lamented.

As the number of airports rise, the quality of regulation is impacted. And this is where building resilience against adverse effects of the climate, suffers.

Although TheNEWS understands that the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, has signed onto the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, enforcement of environmental regulation is still being hampered by manpower and equipment.

“The NCAA cannot stop investments in airport infrastructure across the country. Indeed, new airports come with new challenges for the NCAA. New airports place additional demand on the NCAA to send more aerodrome inspectors and other technical personnel to the airports. Sometimes we have to hire more staff. This places more demand on the NCAA in terms of human resources and finances,” Mike Achumugu, the Deputy General Manager in-charge of Public Relations, who responded to TheNEWS' enquiries on behalf of the Agency, said.

Achumugu absolves his organisation of any blame if the environment is affected negatively by the airports.

“As part of the requirements for the building of all airports in Nigeria, an environmental impact assessment must be done and must be approved by the Federal Ministry of Environment. The NCAA will also see the copy of the EIA report that is approved by the appropriate regulatory agency before giving the final nod for the airport construction to happen. The EIA also takes into cognizance impacts of climate change,” he said when asked about the criteria for authorisation of the construction of airports in the country.

Experts say aviation and its infrastructure alone aren’t responsible for the climate crises. But they are a huge contributory factor.

In addition to other factors, like uncontrolled mining, grazing and sustained poor farming practices (as it is the case in Nasarawa and Benue) or the oil spillage and untamed decimation of forest reserves (practices common in the Niger Delta), the airports are contributing a quota to the emerging weather changes. And it is not hard to find the impact of climate change in the communities around these airports. In Nasarawa State, for example, the change in rainfall pattern and the consequent floods have been blamed on warming temperatures.

“It is a problem in the sense that we are in the Middle Belt and the impact of climate change – rains do not come when they’re supposed to come. They only come within a short time with very high intensity within the duration,” Kwa’kaha Ortoho Jonathan, who had accomplished some World Bank-sponsored drainage channelling, said about the consequences of erratic rainfall in the State.

Rabiu Abdul, director of Extension Services in the Nasarawa State Agricultural Development Project, said that unpredictable amount of rainfall impedes farming activities in the State.

“Most of them,” he says of farmers, “have this problem of the shortfall in the rainfall. Due to shortage of rainfall, the transfer of nursery — of rice and other species — is slow and they will think about it, to get their nursery. And when it passes the transplanting period, it affects the yield performance of the crops,”

Small holder-croppers have testified to the effects of climate change on their enterprise. Some said they had no idea about the causes of weather changes. But through their observation, they believe that things have taken a turn for the worse.

“Yes, there are changes,” Adams Makka Nangba says of the uncertain duration of rainfall in the Nasarawa-Eggon and Akwanga area of the State. “Now that rain is still falling in November, if you go the far North, you won’t know when the rain fell last. But here, it fell two or three days ago (in mid-November). This will affect some crops that don’t like rain during this time of the year. Definitely, the performance of crops like guinea corn and beans will be low,” Nangba, a cereal cropper and traditional ruler in Nasarawa-Eggon, said.

The destabilisation of the ecosystem is also having ripple effects on the farming and other enterprises in the Niger Delta area. The most worrisome trend is the poor harvest, which has driven people to depend on processed foods.

“I don’t really know what to blame for it. But I know that the changes we have seen in the atmosphere, the heat, are products of the damage we have done to our environment,” Leo Bassey, a youth activist based in Uyo, said. “People are now eating processed food; the crops are not yielding as they used to. Obviously, the soil is weary. Not long ago, you heard of the sooth that almost turned Port Harcourt (into) an unliveable city. All these are happening because of the abuse of our environment from actions of oil exploration to unplanned and thoughtless infrastructural projects such as the airports you are referring to,” the 31-year-old campaigner decried.

Key is the health of the wildlife component of the environment. Already, conservationists say a huge percentage of forest covers have disappeared and unquantifiable wildlife species have been frittered. Indeed, wildlife trade is rife and cross-border trade in species from the conserved zones is common. Regularly, seizures by the Nigerian Custom Service make it to the headlines. These illegally harvested commodities are also moved through the airplanes, from the airports.

This is why groups working in the conservation sub-sector oppose airports close to conserved areas. This feeling is most commonly expressed in Cross River, especially among activists working in the conservation hotspots.

“You know what happened when the government wanted to build a superhighway. Large parts of the community forests and even parts of the Cross River National Park (were) encroached on. Today, the road was not built but the machines have created extensive arteries for loggers. Go and see what they have done in that rainforest. It is a shame because that rainforest is finished. Greedy people have cut down every tree in sight,” Ojonde Agbor, a community leader in Bashua, told TheNEWS.

There is fear that wildlife export, albeit illegally, may be a new focus for those who broached, designed and started the cargo airport.

“You heard the former governor (referring to Ben Ayade) talking about exporting flowers. Do you believe that in the end, it is only flowers they will send out? If wood could be taken out in lorries as they do now, and they want to legitimately take flowers, what makes you think that they will spare the finest species of animals or even the timber still found in the forest here? I don’t trust these people because their motives never really serve common good,” an officer in the Cross River State Forestry Commission, who wasn't authorized to speak on the matter, told our reporter.

“Recently, Nigeria emerged as a major international illegal wildlife trade source, destination and transit for illegal wildlife trade globally, after it was established that the country’s population of more than 200 million is a major player in the value chains of rosewood, elephant ivory and pangolin scales, among other illegal wildlife commodities being trafficked globally,” a report authored by Abdulkareem Mojeed and published in the online newspaper Premium Times said.

The alteration of the wild ecosystem system may have contributed to the migration of the wild beasts across international boundaries. The flight paths from the Airstrip and other flight routes across the forest are believed to have increased the human activities in the area. Aside the prized sclater guenon, the Cross River Gorilla or Gorilla Diehli, Niger Delta Red Colobus, Redneck Fowl, forest elephants, etc., there are reported cases of species that have crossed over to the Cameroon and The Congo through the Korup and Takamanda National Parks in Cameroon.  Crop species such as the cocoa yam, which used to be common in the locality, are extinct.

When hard concrete take over nature’s space, and shiny buildings and installations spring up in previously lush vegetation, it is unknown how many plant and animal species may have been wasted or driven abroad from their habitat. And when the escalation in airport infrastructure projects in the country continues, the earth continues to be endangered.

Nigeria signed-on to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2016. In his acceptance speech shortly after being announced as President-elect of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari had declared full support of environment-cantered diplomacy.

“I assure all foreign governments that Nigeria will become a more forceful and constructive player in the global fight against terrorism and in other smatters of collective concern such as the fight against drugs, climate change, financial fraud, communicable diseases and other issues requiring global response.”

Although he led the nation into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP21 in Paris, his government achieved little beyond the rhetoric about cutting Green House Gasses, GHG by 20 per cent by 2030. His supporters say he established eleven new National Parks and worked towards ending gas flaring in the Niger Delta. But the fact that the country still depends on fossil fuels helps cast a shadow on his achievement in climate change mitigation efforts.

The former Nigerian leader attended all climate-related events across the globe and spoke matter-of-factly about addressing the existential threats posed by climate change. But under his administration, the NCAA awarded more licenses to construct airports than any other regime, in spite of a small manpower base and equipment of relevant regulatory agencies.

Also, three National Parks in Northern Nigeria were taken over by bandits, making conservation activities in those places difficult. Various policy documents have been produced to follow through on the overarching issues discussed annually at global gatherings but implementation has been the elephant in the room.

The increasing scale of drought and food shortages, rising flooding incidents and rise in temperatures point to the grand threat to man’s continuous existence on this planet. Nigeria already sees devastating spikes in coastal erosion and the desertification of areas even in the Middle Belt. This also comes with the desiccation of the Lake Chad and many streams and tributaries across the country.

Efforts should be directed at preserving nature. But so far, the big expenditure on building new airports rather than alternative sources of transportation that are eco-friendly continue to harm the earth. And for this, even the governing elite might not escape the angst of nature when it roars as the Bayelsa floods did a few years ago. The airports themselves, if they ever manage to generate traffic to deserve the resources expended on them, will be confronted by weather eventually. As most of them lack resilience measures to cope with climate change events. So, when precipitation, sudden wind direction, sandy-windy, coastal floods, migrating birds, among other, become consistent, the airports and the aeroplanes might be in great danger.