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Indigenous Knowledge and Climate Change Adaptation in Niger Delta Coastal Communities

Jackson Tamunosaki Jack, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Federal University Otuoke, Bayelsa State, Nigeria


Countries of the Global South are disproportionately affected by climate change. Due to poverty and limited technology, the capacity of developing countries to address climate risks is constrained. These problems have often left poor communities to rely on Indigenous knowledge systems rather than the state to adapt to climate change (Raimi, Jack and Boroh, 2016). This study demonstrates how marginalized communities mobilize local resources to respond to climate change risks in the absence of formal interventions from government. It examines the climate risks to coastal communities in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria and the Indigenous knowledge systems and practices that aid adaptive responses to climate vulnerability.


Based on the analysis of qualitative data collected through personal observations and oral interviews, the study finds that the lived experiences of climate change in coastal communities in the region manifests in increasing vulnerability to sea level rise, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion. The study demonstrates that the knowledge of mangrove forests and creeks, knowledge of community history, and Indigenous worldviews that uphold the sacredness of the environment such as totemism promote sustainable use of natural resources. These Indigenous knowledge systems and worldviews are instrumental to climate change adaptation, as communities rely on local technologies to construct flood-resilient houses and shoreline stabilization to protect farm settlements and fishing areas from flooding and coastal erosion. These approaches, however, have differential impacts on climate risk reduction as greater unpredictable climatic scenarios could reduce their effectiveness. These Indigenous practices should be integrated into conventional scientific approaches to achieve sustainable climate change mitigation in the region.



Indigenous Knowledge (IK) refers to the understandings, skills, and philosophies of Indigenous peoples, developed through long and multigenerational histories of interaction with the natural world and adapting to highly variable and changing ecological and social conditions (UNESCO, 2017). These Indigenous knowledge systems are historically linked to the divergent sociocultural practices associated with Indigenous people’s responses to different environmental conditions. This is evident in sub-Saharan Africa, where Indigenous communities rely heavily on such knowledge and practices to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather conditions on natural resource-based livelihood systems. Some of these strategies include relying on Indigenous irrigation systems, adopting more resilient varieties of staple crops (Gyampon and Asante, 2011), utilizing traditional sustainable water and land resource usage practices, sustainable traditional land tenure systems, crop rotation, organic agriculture (Ajani et al, 2013), shifts between farming and other livelihood activities (Simelane, 2004), as well as prayers and supplications to the supreme being (Theodori, 2014; Fabiyi and Oloukoi, 2013; also see Bourhrous in this collection). Likewise, smallholder farmers across the Niger Delta region have developed several adaptation strategies to reduce their vulnerability to climate risks (see Boroh in this collection). Despite the increasing recognition amongst scholars that Indigenous knowledge is an important resource for climate change adaptation (Adger, et al., 2014; Pareck and Trivedi, 2011), it is often neglected by governments and policymakers in climate change adaptation efforts (IPCC, 2014). The marginal integration of traditional wisdom embedded in Indigenous knowledge systems (Berkes et al, 2005) continues to undermine participatory approaches to mitigating climate change impacts across the world (Picollela, 2013; Petzold, et al. 2020) and limits adaptation policy and practice.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change addressed this gap in policy, research and practice in its fifth assessment report (IPCC, 2014) by advocating that scholars, policymakers, and governments utilize IK systems alongside formal scientific approaches for more effective climate change adaptation and promotion of ethical and sustainable adaptation practices (Petzold et al. 2020). Addressing the gap in policy has increased the demand for documentation of IK systems and practices that contribute to climate change adaptation, especially in countries like Nigeria where climate change impacts are disproportionately manifest. This article explores and documents the IK systems and practices that promote climate change adaptation in coastal communities of Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

The Niger Delta region, which hosts Africa’s largest oil industry, is strategically located at the southernmost part of Nigeria bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Its location makes it vulnerable to two types of risks. First, Indigenous communities in the area are threatened by increasing climate risks such as sea level rise, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion (Raimi and Jack, 2017). Second, the increasing livelihood and human security risks associated with over six decades of crude oil and gas exploitation (Jack, 2017) have caused widespread environmental pollution. These problems are coupled with unsustainable environmental consumption patterns driven by mass poverty that further exacerbates climate change vulnerability in the region (Jack, 2019). The interactions between these factors makes the Niger Delta a high-risk region for climate change impact, and the marginality of its environment represents a good case study for understanding how Indigenous communities utilize their IK systems to adapt to environmental changes. The article therefore addresses two important research questions. First, what are the IK systems and environmental perceptions of the Niger Delta people? Second, how do existing IK systems shape practices of adaptation to climate change in the region? Relying on the personal observations of the researcher and evidence generated from research participants, the paper reveals how IK and understandings of the natural environment shape adaptation to climate change impacts. The study utilizes the Kalabari ethnic group of Rivers state as a case study because their area is disproportionately susceptible to climate change impacts as it consists of a cluster of coastal island communities. To document the nature of environmental history and knowledge in the area, community stakeholders including elders, women, traditional rulers, and youths were purposively sampled for oral in-depth interviews across selected Kalabari communities such as Buguma, Ido, Elem-Kalabari, Abalama, Tombia, and Obonnoma. I rely on the lived experiences of community dwellers to provide insights into the impacts of climate change in the area and the IK systems developed to aid adaptation. I used the emic approach to cultural analysis, relying heavily on my personal experiences and observations as a member of the Kalabari ethnic group residing in the coastal city of Port Harcourt to provide an insider perspective.

In this study, I first examine the climate change scenario in the Niger Delta region and then present the traditional environmental knowledge systems and practices of Indigenous Kalabari communities as they relate to climate change adaptation. An evaluation of their strategies reveals a varying degree of effectiveness. The concluding section makes a case for the need to integrate Indigenous adaptation strategies with formal scientific approaches for an effective participatory and sustainable climate change mitigation plan in the Niger Delta region.

Climate Change and Coastal Vulnerability

The Niger Delta region is disproportionately impacted by climate change-induced extreme weather events. Diurnal tides, surf zone induced waves, and longshore current lead to perennial flooding and erosion (Abija, Abam, Teme and Eze, 2020), resulting in shoreline vulnerability (Oyegun, Lawal, and Ogoro, 2016). These extreme events are associated with sea level rise, which accounts for shoreline retreat and erosion along the coast lines of Bayelsa (81,532 m), Rivers (17,519 m), and Akwa Ibom (8,590 m) between 1991 and 2018 (Abija, Abam, Teme and Eze, 2020). Flooding also contributes to the salinization and contamination of coastal aquifers, as well as of ground and surface freshwater bodies. The region is notably a high- risk flood zone (Njoku, Effiong, and Ayara, 2020; Bariweni, Tawari and Abowei, 2012) as coastal communities along the 853-kilometer stretch of the Nigerian coast are vulnerable to ocean surges (cold flooding) as well as overflow of river banks (warm flooding) (Fabiyi and Oloukoi, 2013).

The increasing vulnerability of coastal communities in the Niger Delta to climate change impacts has concomitant effects on local communities who subsist within an already marginal environment that is devastated by oil and gas pollution (see Boroh, this collection). The primary traditional livelihood practices of these communities are predominantly fishing and farming as well as mangrove harvesting, which are all negatively impacted by flooding and coastal erosion. Settlements and basic infrastructure are also threatened by climate events that predispose human communities in the area to internal displacement problems and associated health implications, especially for vulnerable groups.


The Kalabari-speaking people can be found in Akuku-Toru, Asari Toru, and Degema Local Government Areas of Rivers state, in the eastern Niger Delta region. They occupy over 22 villages covering an area of about 1,000 square miles, including the three major towns of Abonnema, Buguma, and Bakana. The Kalabari area is situated near the capital city of Port Harcourt to the northeast, the mouth of the New Calabar River in the southeast, the mouth of the Santa Barbara River in the southwest, and the village of Orusangama in the northwest (Horton, 1965). The Kalabari people, who have lived in this area for over 500 years (Alagoa and Tamuno, 1989), are linguistically and culturally members of the great bloc of Ijospeaking people of the Niger Delta. Economically, while the area hosts major oil and gas operations, fishing and trading has remained the traditional livelihood support system of the Kalabari people for centuries.

Local Perceptions of Climate Change and the Environment

The Kalabari cosmology and environmental world view is centered around the creation of all life forms from clay by the Supreme Being called Tamuno who created and sustained not only the visible, tangible world but also a host of lesser spirits. According to Horton (1984), the Kalabari people see their world as controlled by a complex array of personal forces. First, they have to reckon with the fixed spirits called teme. It is believed that every person, animal, plant, and thing have its guiding spirit, which controls its behavior “as a steersman controls his canoe” (ibid). Then, over and above such spirits associated with particular material objects, there are three great categories of free spirits (who are lesser than and created by Tamuno) who influence whole masses of phenomena. These include the Amaoru—founding heroes of the community who are now deified, such as the Kalabari national goddess Awomina-Akaso. The second set of spirits is known as the Duein—the ancestral founders of the various lineages and houses and finally the Owuamapu—spirits of the waters who created the rivers and creeks and are responsible for their continued existence, the water conditions in them and for the fish and other fauna that inhabit them. Horton (1984) argued that there seems to be a marked difference in character and function between Amaoru and Duein on the one hand and Owuamapu on the other. Amaoru and Duein are essentially concerned with the continued existence of human groups, while Owuamapu are concerned with the non–human environment. As a way of characterizing this difference, he classified the Amaoru and Duein as “forces of society” and Owuamapu as “forces of nature.”


The worldview of the Kalabari people is largely influenced by their perceptions of their natural environment. These perceptions range from spiritual knowledge to beliefs about the physical environment and plants and animals that are believed to be abodes for spirit beings. The places where these plants and animals live, such as the mangrove forests, rivers, and creeks are also sacred to the people. The spiritual knowledge and environmental perceptions of the Kalabari people inform their environmentally sustainable practices that have provided options for climate change adaptation for decades. For example, beliefs held by the Kalabari people confer special protection over environmental resources by preventing some trees and animals from being harvested for food and by designating sites in the communities as sacred due to their status as abodes of deities or spirits. Since there is little or no human activity in such places, these beliefs act as traditional modes of natural resource conservation. Some of these sacred sites identified in the study include Ogu-Okolo in Obonnoma community, Anya-Abissea in Abissea community, and Aju-Owu Sawo Anga in Tombia community. The sacred groves provide protective mangrove cover for communities against rising flood waters and extreme ocean surge and winds.

Spiritual knowledge also informs practices that reduce climate change risks. The Kalabari people believe that aquatic resources come from Owuamapu, water spirits, hence these forces of nature are also considered responsible for the changes in the climatic conditions and extreme weather events such as sea level rise, ocean encroachment, and flooding. The perception of extreme weather events as an outcome of the activities of water spirits has necessitated corresponding spiritual responses to mitigating climate risks. These responses include Indigenous restrictive practices such as mu-gbai (restrictive period from mangrove harvesting), toru-kiki (restrictive period from sea fishing) and toru-sikiri (ritualistic sacrificial cleansing to appease the water spirits in the sea). These spiritual responses are targeted at ensuring a harmonious relationship between the community and forces of nature.

Indigenous Technologies for Climate Change Adaptation

The environmental worldviews of the Kalabari people and the IK systems associated with their interactions with the natural environment have enabled communities to harness local resources and Indigenous technologies to respond to changing climatic conditions in their environment for centuries. The construction of flood-resilient houses is a prime example of how the Kalabari mitigate risks associated with coastal flooding. I observed that most houses along riverbanks are built on wood or concrete platforms as a means of raising the houses above flood levels (Plate 1).

Plate 1: Houses constructed on raised platforms above flood level in the study area. Photo by author

Floating houses constructed with mangrove wood are also common, as this enables houses to stay suspended on the river surface as the flood water rises without getting inundated. Furthermore, inland areas where flood waters have submerged access roads, wooden bridges locally known as ‘monkey bridges’ are built across communities to aid movement from one end to another, while wooden canoes are the popular means of transportation within communities during high tidal flood periods.


To mitigate the impacts of coastal flooding and erosion, communities in the study area rely on Indigenous shoreline protection that uses local resources and technology. For example, they construct shoreline walls with chicoco mud, locally known as lika, and mangrove wood known as angala to serve as defense against rising waters and erosion (Plate 2). In some cases, sandbags are also used to protect the riverbanks from being inundated by flood waters.


Plate 2: Local shoreline protection with chicoco mud (lika) in the study area. Photo by author

Another useful adaptation strategy that was found in the study area was the reliance on Indigenous meteorological systems to forecast flood seasons and extreme weather events, which provide early warnings for communities to anticipate and prepare for flood disasters. Knowledge of the seasons, movements of the river tide, appearance and movements of specific kinds of aquatic animals and fish serve as local signs and flood indicators in conjunction with the spiritual knowledge of the environment. In addition to physical preparedness, communities also make sacrifices to appease the specific water spirits and deities who are believed to be in control of the natural forces in the ocean.


Evaluating Indigenous Approaches to Climate Change

IK systems, as already established in the introductory section, are useful tools in promoting climate adaptation, especially in areas such as Nigeria’s Niger Delta where formal science-based climate adaptation interventions are absent. An evaluation of the Indigenous approaches described above reveal that while some of the outlined approaches are found to be effective, others are not. For instance, the reliance on Indigenous meteorological systems provides early warning systems for communities to develop mechanisms for disaster risk preparedness and reduction. More so, the construction of flood-resilient houses and the use of chicoco mud for shoreline protection has been found to be effective, while community protected forests effectively provide cover against flooding and ocean surges. Reliance on sacrifices to the deities and water spirits, however, have not been found to be effective as there are no scientific measures to indicate its impact. Regardless, these ritual sacrifices provide opportunities for communities to build social and psychological resilience (see Bourhrous in this collection). While the efficacy of these Indigenous strategies is not in doubt, unpredictable severe climatic scenarios could reduce their effectiveness. For instance, severe ocean surges have the capacity to inundate chicoco-based shoreline protection and submerge houses built on raised platforms, while floating houses may be least affected. These observations suggest that Indigenous approaches need to be integrated with formal scientific approaches for sustainable and participatory climate change adaptation in the Niger Delta.



This paper critically examined coastal vulnerabilities to climate change in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria which is disproportionately impacted by sea level rise, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion. In the absence of modern technologies and limited adaptive capacity to mitigate these environmental challenges, which pose severe human security risks, coastal communities of the region have relied on Indigenous knowledge systems to develop adaptation strategies to the changes in their environment. Long-standing Indigenous environmental worldviews and beliefs about the physical environment, especially the marine ecosystem, have engendered practices that are useful in mitigating climate change impacts. While these practices, like totemism and the use of local flood and erosion control mechanisms, are useful in promoting adaptation, they are yet to be mainstreamed into climate change mitigation frameworks in the country. These Indigenous practices should be integrated into conventional scientific approaches to climate change mitigation in the region. This goal could be achieved through a participatory bottom-up approach of strengthening Indigenous techniques associated with natural resource use and management coupled with modern flood and erosion control infrastructure such as levees, dikes, and seawalls.

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