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Adaptation Strategies to Climate Change Amongst Small Holder Farmers in Nigeria’s Niger Delta Region

Stanley Ebitare Boroh, PhD, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Faculty Social Sciences, Federal University Otuoke, Bayelsa State, Nigeria.

Agriculture has always been an integral part of human society. The changes that occur in the environment due to climate change impact every level of society and politics, including farmers and their farm produce, both directly and indirectly (Fatile, 2013). Agriculture generates revenue for the government at all levels, particularly those associated with the local areas and hinterlands. In addition to revenue generation, agriculture serves as a means of livelihood accommodating widespread socio-economic activities that provide employment opportunities for a large number of persons, especially smallholder farmers, marketers and processors of agricultural products. As climate change impacts the ecosystem, the effects will inevitably be felt across that vital agricultural sector.

The Niger Delta region of Nigeria was home to agricultural activities long before the discovery and eventual exploration of crude oil in the mid-1950s. Even a decade ago, agriculture in the Niger Delta contributed approximately 40% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and it also engaged over 70% of the labour force (FMARD, 2012). However, the agricultural sector provided just about 23% to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the first half of 2022 (FMARD, 2022). While there are many potential causes, many attribute this striking decline in only one decade to the adverse effects of climate change.


Agricultural production processes are hugely dependent on climate conditions. Hence, a change in the composition of the climate is bound to have effects on the agricultural sector. As defined by Lemke (2006), climate change is the complete variation of the average state of the atmosphere over time, ranging from decades to millions of years in a region or across the entire globe, at least partly driven by anthropogenic activities. Climate change has especially significant impact on the livelihood system of vulnerable communities in rural areas. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fourth Assessment Report notes that people who live in communities located in marginal lands and whose livelihoods are highly dependent on natural resources are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change (IPCC, 2007).


As Inuwa (2019) has posited, climate change adaptation measures have mostly relied upon modern approaches to taming its associated impacts. This has left out traditional and indigenous ways that local people around the world have deployed to adapt to climate change. The reason for this neglect are embedded within the age-long elevation of Eurocentric models over Afrocentric ones, which is typical of the colonization of knowledge that has characterized the global intellectual balance of power. Fagade (2018) has argued that in the same way in which the western world has colonized every sphere of knowledge, they have also colonized the knowledge of climate change and other environmental discussions especially those surrounding measures of control and in particular the sustainable development discourse. In this essay, I examine the Niger Delta Valley to show how indigenous and traditional methods of mitigation have been neglected in attempts to mitigate the impacts of climate change.


The Niger Delta

Climate induced increases in the frequency and intensity of flooding are an existential threat to farming in flood prone localities. In Nigeria, flooding has not historically been a major challenge even in the Niger Delta region, but it has now has become a severe challenge. The magnitude of flooding, resulting from high rainfall and rise in sea level and the change in temperature, have become some of the most potent adverse consequences of climate alterations in the Niger Delta region. But the region is particularly vulnerable to these effects because it has suffered devastation due to the activities of international oil companies (IOCs) for decades. Oil exploitation has caused the loss of crops and aquatic life as well as causing severe health issues across the human population. One cannot separate the dilemma of climate change in the Niger Delta region from the activities of oil companies when assessing the effects of environmental change. Flooding in the Niger Delta has become an annual issue with huge impact on smallholder farmers who seem to be the most vulnerable when compared to other players in the agricultural sector’s value chain.


Smallholder farmers have over the years developed their own methods to navigate the vagaries of the environment. But there is a huge disconnect between their efforts and the programs adopted by successive governments, which reduces the chances of institutionalizing the traditional measures of adaptation to climate change by these farmers. The lack of government support for indigenous smallholder farmers’ locally-informed climate change adaptation techniques has left those approaches under-resourced, unevenly implemented, and largely rudimentary in terms of evolving into more sophisticated techniques to combating climate change and improving agricultural production. This has meant that as flooding increases relentlessly in its intensity and potency, farmers continue to experience severe shocks with appreciable risks to agricultural activities which challenge their adaptive resilience to its impacts. Therefore, in the absence of government support which ordinarily should have served as some kind of institutional safety net especially with regard to adaptation techniques, farmers are increasingly vulnerable to climate change impacts with devastating effects on crop yield and by extension household income. The adaptive capacities or resilience developed over time have become insufficient to address the progressive and aggressive impact of climate change.


This study therefore examines the adaptive capacity to climate change amongst smallholder farmers in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. How have small holder farmers coped with the impact of climate change especially flooding on their activities? How has the flooding affected their planting and harvesting behaviour? How has it affected the nature and quantity of crops they plant? And how has the absence of governmental support for locally informed adaptation measures inhibited effective responses to these mounting problems?


Literature review

The Niger Delta region is fertile and suitable for agricultural production. Some of the common crops that can be grown on the soil of the region include cassava, plantain, cocoa, maize, melon, okra, palm oil, rubber and yam. Other farmers specialize in the domestication of animals such as goats, pigs, poultry, sheep, snail, rabbit among others, while the availability a large expanse of sea makes feasible aquaculture (like fish farming) (Abisola, 2013).


According to the 2022 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), Nigeria occupies the 168th position out of a total number of 180 countries in terms of environmental sustainability. In 2009, the average CO2 emission in Nigeria was 74.14 million metric tons, which increased to 80.51 million metric tons. In 2019, the International Energy Agency (IEA) placed the value of Nigeria’s CO2 emissions at 92.02 million tons and further predicted it to rise to 130.10 million tons. Africa as a whole contributes only 3% globally to greenhouse gas emissions, but Nigeria alone contributes one third of that amount, 0.98% is concentrated in the Niger Delta region.


Nigeria has been confirmed to be one of the highest emitters of GHG in Africa (Akinro, Opeyemi, & Ologunagba, 2008). Oil development, and especially the practice of gas flaring, has played a critical role in this disproportionate impact emanating from the Niger Delta region. It has at least 123 gas flaring sites, which flare 1.8 billion cubic feet of gas every day and discharge 45.8 billion kilowatts of heat into the atmosphere (Olurin & Agbola, 2003, cited in Ikehi, Onu, Ifeanyieze, & Paradang, 2014). The World Bank CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS IN AFRICA 16 Development Report of 2008 found that Nigeria accounts for roughly one-sixth (1/6) of worldwide gas flaring. Nigeria flares about 75% of its gas, all of it in the Niger Delta region. Gas flaring in the Niger Delta region has thus contributed at a high level to the increase of GHG which alters climatic composition over time.


The existing atmospheric reality in the Niger Delta region has affected the livelihoods of Niger Deltans, especially smallholder farmers, especially through the devastating annual flooding which has in part been caused by these environmental changes. Those in coastal areas whose livelihood depends on the seawards farming are compelled into looking for other sources of livelihood as the increase in sea levels have had a negative consequence on the accessibility of sea foods, while the landward farmers are faced with flooding and/or oil spillage. (Fischer et al, 2005; Nnamchi & Ozor, 2009).


The Collective Stress Theory

This study adopts the Collective Stress Theory (Barton, 1969). In his book titled ‘Communities in Disaster’, Barton proposed what is today acknowledged as the first sociological theory in the study of human resilience to climate change and other manmade or natural disasters. He laid out an analytical structure which showed how collective stress situations such as climate change drive new actions that can promote coping mechanisms amongst people. Applying Barton’s theoretical approach to “collective stress” to the study of climate change has led to key constructs such as the “emergency social system,” “mass convergence” and “therapeutic community” (David, 2008, p. 2), now used as standard terms in the field of impact management either as a result of man-made or natural disasters.


According to Barton (1969, p. 38), the basic assumptions of the theory are that “Collective Stress” situations occur when a significant part of the social system is faced with situations that threatens their collective resilience. Situations that amount to collective stress can come from sources either outside or inside the system. External sources include earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, hurricanes, blights, war, loss of markets or sources of supply. Internal sources include economic depression, inflation, slums, strikes, riots, banditry, revolutions, civil wars, mass purges, and even the growth of tyranny. Climate change and its associated outcomes such as flooding or long periods of sunshine set in motion just such a dynamic process that creates widespread stress to smallholder farmers, who in line with Barton’s theory attempt to adapt by activating existing social and cultural practices. One of Barton’s major contributions to the theory is that socio-cultural and individual resilience techniques are critical mediums for alleviating the impact of natural or man-made disasters on affected people especially at the community level. Local communities may be resilient, but they lack the required institutional capacity to manage the outcomes of disasters on their own. As a result, collective actions oftentimes require collaborative actions by community members to create a viable lifeline.



The study is qualitative in nature. The study was carried out in the Niger Delta region, located in the Southern part of Nigeria and consisting mainly of the oil producing States, Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo and River. The population of the Niger Delta region based on the 2016 population projections by the National Population Commission (NPC) is 42,637,086 (NBS, 2018). Bayelsa State was purposively chosen out of the nine Niger Delta states given that it is the most impacted by flooding each year. For this study, ten (10) resident farmers from Otuoke community were selected as sample to take part in a key person’s interview (KPI) to generate primary data. The secondary sources of data came from journal articles, textbooks and other relevant documentary sources from the Internet. The generated data were analyzed qualitatively using the thematic approach particularly the use of verbatim quotes.



The people of the Niger Delta region are conscious of the changing attributes of the environment and how much this has affected their agricultural activities. The impact of climate change manifestations is significantly felt, as oil exploration, refining and other anthropogenic activities such as gas flaring and bush burning continue to take place. Hence, the people of the Niger Delta, especially Bayelsa, continue to take adequate steps towards adapting to the changing nature of their environment as a result of climate change. 

Box 1 below highlights the major and most common problems that the people face as a result of climate change.

i. Unpredictable pattern of rainfall affecting historical patterns of cultivation

ii. Rising sea level

iii. Flooding of houses, farmland and animal houses

iv. Pollution of clean water sources

v. Spread of disease to humans, plants and animals

vi. Hotter environment leading to heat stress.

Source: Field survey, 2022.

Smallholder farmers in the study area have witnessed unpredictable patterns in which rainfall is affecting the historical character of cultivation, rising sea levels which has been known to be responsible for the continuous issues of flooding that had since been associated with the region, pollution of clean water sources both for humans, animals and even plants, spread of diseases occasioned by the contaminated waters, and a hotter environment leading to heat stress with its adverse effect on agricultural production. One of the KPI participants noted:


Before now we used to be able to predict when and how rain is going to fall but presently, we cannot even tell when it is going to rain or shine, we are faced with persistent rainfall most of which is acidic or contaminated with lead. KII/participant/ male/43years/Otuoke Community/November, 2022.

Bayelsa State, unlike other parts of the country is characterized by a consistent level of heavy downpour. It is also easily flooded, as a coastal lowlying area. However, due to increased and varying extent of precipitation attributable to climate change, the occurrence of flooding has increased with rivers and oceans easily overflowing their banks. This was observed in the 2022 flooding that impacted negatively on agriculture in the region.


In Box 2 below, the study revealed the adaptive strategies that the farmers have employed.

i. Adjusting planting and cultivation timing to the recent pattern of rainfall

ii. Adoption of premature harvesting

iii. Diving to harvest during flooding situation

iv. Intensive fertilization for crop quick crop production

v. Adoption and use of early maturing plants/animals

vi. Sand filling of flooding areas to prevent flood encroachments

The information from the structured interviews as presented in Box 2 suggest that adjusting planting and cultivation timing to the recent pattern of rainfall, adoption of premature harvesting, diving to harvest during flooding situation, intensive fertilization for quick crop production, adoption and use of early maturing plants/animals and sand filling of flooding areas to prevent flood encroachments have all been adopted as strategies to cope with the climate situation. As noted by one of the KPI participants:


Flooding has become perennial in Nigeria especially here in Bayelsa, but regardless of that we still need to farm and fish if we must survive, so what we do is to cultivate during the first quarter of the year and harvest as quickly as possible, sometimes we harvest even before the crops has fully matured. KII/participant/male/43years/Otuoke Community/ November, 2022.

The condition in Bayelsa state has become so critical that a good number of life forms are threatened by the consequences of climate change. Another participant noted that:


If only the perennial flood was the problem, we had to deal with we wouldn’t be so badly affected, but the activities of the oil companies have further degraded our lands and water bodies so even when we plant, we’re not guaranteed of a bountiful harvest. Also, we practice deep sea fishing due to the environmental violence faced by the rivers as a result of oil spillage occasioned by the activities of IOCs


KII/participant/male/43years/Otuoke Community/November, 2022.


Other participants observed that this has been employed by the people to withstand the threat posed to their farming occupation and by extension, food security by climate change. They affirm that due to the flood, they have resorted to planting and harvesting before the usual planting and harvesting seasons; as some tend to plant immediately the flood subsides and harvest before the flood resumes while some resort to planting mainly crops such as pepper, cassava that can withstand the negative impacts of climate change such as flooding.

Conclusion and Recommendations

This study revealed that people of the region have been suffering from the activities of IOCs before now in terms of oil spillage and gas flaring, and had to look for means of surviving by adopting several adaptation strategies. Among these strategies are adjusting planting and cultivation timing to meet the pattern of rainfall, adoption of premature harvesting, diving to harvest during flooding situation, intensive fertilization for crop quick crop production, adoption and use of early maturing plants/animals, sand filling of flooding areas to prevent flood encroachments, deep sea fishing. However, these strategies are mostly adopted by smallholder farmers at the individual or household level, and due to the degree of impact by climate change, these strategies may only record very minimal successes and may not withstand the adverse risks that climatic change poses to farming. The implication of these findings is that the government should not dismiss the strategies that are working for the people to cushion the effect of climate change and should help to scale up and support those local initiatives at the community level. Government should enact policies that will reduce activities that increase the potency of climate change in the Niger Delta and Bayelsa. And smallholder farmers should be empowered with requisite tools to withstand the challenges of climate change by improving on existing adaptive capacities.

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