The Destruction of the Largest system of Wetlands in Africa

Posted: July 24, 2016

By Taylor Adam

Wetlands provide a magnitude of environmental benefits around the world. They serve as natural water purifiers, flood barriers, and are home to some of the richest biodiversity in the world. Wetlands in the United States are monitored and protected, but this isn’t the case everywhere. Because commodity-resources exist within or around wetlands in these developing countries, the extraction of resources leads to degradation of the wetlands. The Niger Delta in Nigeria is a prime example. Nigeria’s booming economy based in oil and gas resources and is simultaneously rapidly degrading the Niger Delta.

This paper includes information regarding the wetlands in the Niger Delta. It discusses topics ranging from hydrology and soil types to the rich biodiversity. Also included is an explanation of environmental degradation caused by the extraction of natural resources. The environmental degradation not only affects the environment, but the population in the Niger Delta, as well. With that being said, an explanation of the services wetlands provide to the local communities is also included. A brief explanation on the lack of enforcement and laws for the protection of the Niger Delta concludes the paper. Overall, the paper provides a holistic understanding of wetland degradation from an environmental and demographic perspective; this is essential when addressing environmental issues, especially in the developing world.

Figure 1: “Map: Oil Pipelines and Vegetation in the Niger Delta”

Figure 1: “Map: Oil Pipelines and Vegetation in the Niger Delta”
(Circle of Blue WaterNews, 2009)

The Niger Delta is an expansive wetland characterized with a maze of channels, creeks, tributaries, estuaries, oxbow lakes, levees and islands. The entirety of the delta is 28,000 square miles. An additional 150 miles protrude into the Atlantic Ocean (Kashi & Watts, 2008). To imagine the enormous appearance of the delta, one could compare it to the deltas of the Mississippi, the Ganges, or the Mekong.
“In the Delta’s most northern reaches, the River Niger splits into the Nun and Forcados Rivers, which in turn branch and empty into the ocean through a series of inlets and estuaries that punctuate roughly 20 rainforest barrier islands … At the eastern extremity, marking on boundary of the Delta, is the Benin River; 300 kilometers to the west is the other frontier, the River Imo” (Kashi & Watts, 2008).
The Niger Delta is comprised of several types of wetlands. Behind the barrier islands exists one of the richest areas of biodiversity in Africa. The lands consist of mangrove forests, which occupy a coastal zone up to 40 kilometers wide. This is the third largest mangrove forest in the world. The estuarine discharge of freshwater and the tidal movement of the saline water shape the forests.

Behind the mangrove forests is a vast freshwater forest, “one of the largest remaining swamp forest in Africa” (Kashi & Watts, 2008). This area is characterized by considerable biodiversity and ecological fragility. The swamp forests consist of two distinct environments: upper delta flood forest zone and lowland tidal freshwater zones. The upper delta flood forest zone is inundated during the flood season and the lowland tidal freshwater zone is permanently swampy due to the tides. Kashi and Watts (2008) explain, “In the non-riverine interior, lowland rainforest predominates but large-scale clearance and long-term human occupancy have produced a mosaic of cropped and fallow areas and derived savanna in which grasses and shrubs have permanently replaced the forest canopy”.

Swamp forests encompass the major ecoregion. This region is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the band of mangroves on the coast and is approximately 15,000 square kilometers (Fund, 2014). This area has been studied more extensively than the other ecoregions in the Niger Delta.

The soils in the Niger Delta are all of fluviatile origin.That is, except for the Coastal Barrier Islands , which consist of marine sand overlain with an organic surface layer. The continuous movement of creeks in the delta has resulted in a mosaic of soil types. The remnants of the old levees consist of water permeable sand and loam. The depression behind the old levees consists of waterlogged heavy lay covered by peat and higher lying sections consist of silty loam and clay (Fund, 2014).

The climate of the Niger Delta consists of an extensive rainy season starting in late-April to early-May and ending in October. The annual rainfall averages around 4,000 millimeters, making it one of the wettest areas in Africa. Due to the extreme rainy season, the climate heavily affects the hydrology of the wetlands in the Niger Delta. The Atlantic Ocean’s tidal movements and the Niger River flood during the rainy season vary the hydrologic regimes in the region. The Niger River flood begins towards the end of the rainy season and peaks in October. Fluctuation in the flow can be influenced by the variation in rainfall. A major contributor to the flooding of the Niger River and Niger Delta is the Kainji dam on the Niger in the town of Bussa on the eastern border of Nigeria (Fund, 2014). The level of flooding is determined by the opening and closing of the dam’s sluices. The flooding can impact the hydrologic zones of the swamp forest in the Niger Delta.. The swamp forest can be subdivided into three zones based on hydrological variation. The first zone is flood forest and experiences strong seasonal variation. The second zone is eastern delta flank; it is shrinking relative to the western delta flank and experiences hydrologic changes. The third zone is the central back swamp; this is primarily influenced by tides and not the Niger River. The tides cause the area to have a relatively stable hydrology.

The Niger Delta enjoys high levels of biodiversity. New plant and animal species are constantly being discovered. Unfortunately, however, much of the wildlife is endangered. The African elephant, chimpanzee, Sclater’s guenon, white-throated guenon, and the crested genet make the list (Fund, 2014). There is also one critically endangered species, the red colobus, and one endemic subspecies, the pygmy hippopotamus (Fund, 2014). The area is also habitat to a wide variety of fauna. Due to the extraction of natural resources, however, many trees have been logged.
Nigeria’s economy is almost completely dependent on the extraction of natural resources originating from the Niger Delta. The three main industries are crude oil, natural gas, and logging. The earliest major events that lead to this resource-dependent country include the logging of the Abura (Hallea ledermannnii) and the discovery of crude oil. In 1949, the Abura tree became the second most important income earner and by 1951 export volume of the timber had increased more than five times (Fund, 2014). The discovery of crude oil took place in 1956, two years before Nigeria gained its independence. With the discovery of oil, multinational oil companies invaded the region to excavate the land for the convenience of oil extractions. The companies also built roads and canals to transport the equipment and resources. These two events drastically altered the future for the Niger Delta. With the discovery of natural resources, the Niger Delta was destined for a bleak future.

In the article Assessing Wetland Degradation and Loss of Ecosystem Services in the Niger Delta, Nigeria (2015), Ayansina Ayanlade and Ulrike Proske explain the extent of environmental degradation caused by the natural resources industries in Nigeria. The timber, oil, and natural gas industry first excavated channels throughout the Delta to make transportation of resources more convenient. The creation of channels though the Delta compromised the local hydrology and led to a destruction of fish habitats. The creation of canals and channels also lead to saltwater flow into freshwater zones, destroying freshwater ecosystems. The oil and gas industry now play a larger role in Nigeria than the timber industry. These two industries produce approximately 80% of Nigeria’s revenues and comprise 95% of Nigeria’s exports (Ayanlade & Proske, 2015). Even though these two industries contribute significantly to the economy of Nigeria, they also advance the environmental degradation that occurs in the Niger Delta. “Oil and gas extraction is associated with gas flaring, dredging of larger rivers, oil spillages, and reclamation of land calculated that the resulting environmental degradation across the Niger Delta costs US$758 million every year” (Ayanlade & Proske, 2015). Approximately 75% of this cost is borne by local communities in the form of polluted water, lost biodiversity, infertile farmland and lost harvests (Ayanlade & Proske, 2015).

Timber logging, which began before the extraction of oil and gas, was the major source of environmental degradation but now the oil industry operations are responsible for the most widespread and severe environmental pollution in the Niger Delta. There has been a significant loss of major ecosystems and disturbance of wildlife. “Between the mid-1980’s and 2003, approximately 21, 340 hectares of mangroves had been lost across the whole Niger Delta due to urbanization and oil- and gas- extraction activities” (Ayanlade & Proske, 2015). Habitat disturbance has been the main threat to the survival of the pygmy hippopotamus.

In addition to the loss of forests, the oil industry has also contributed to the pollution of soil and water in the Niger Delta. Since the first discovery of oil, over 1,481 oil wells have sprung up in the Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta, producing oil from about 159 oil fields (Eregha & Irughe, 2009). “There are more than 7,000 kilometers of pipelines and flowlines and 275 flow stations operated by more than 13 oil companies” (Eregha & Irughe, 2009). The area once characterized by long stretches of clean water and healthy fauna has now been devastated by numerous oil spills. “Available records show that a total of 6,817 oil spills occurred between 1976 and 2001 with loss of approximately three million barrels of oil in the region. Approximately twenty-five percent spilled in swamps and sixty-nine in off-shore” (Eregha & Irughe, 2009). The impact of the oil industry on the Delta is readily apparent through these statistics.

The extraction of natural resources has lead to severe environmental degradation to the Niger Delta. One must understand that wetlands provide numerous services for society. The pollution of the Niger Delta does not only affect the wetlands, but also it affects the surrounding populations. For example, in the Bayelsa state, most of the locals use the wetland as sources of food and “approximately 70% of households derive at least some part their income directly from the wetland, in activities such as fishing and crop production” (Ayanlade & Proske, 2015). “The annual net value of collected materials from the wetlands is US$3,714 per participating household” (Ayanlade & Proske, 2015). This calculation highlights the importance of the wetland services for the local communities.
The services from the wetland benefit the local communities and the West African economy as a whole. The ecological services of the Niger Delta include provision, regulation, and supporting processes as well as cultural values. For example, Mangrove forests are “known for slowing down erosion, burying carbon, and providing food and timber” (Ayanlade & Proske, 2015). “A recent study undertaken in Bayelsa calculated ecosystem service values across all wetland in the delta and arrived at US$12,500 ha-1 year-1” (Ayanlade & Proske, 2015). With this information, one can understand the importance of the wetland system to the local communities and ecosystems. However, the Nigerian government fails to take the necessary steps towards protecting this extensive wetland system.

The government has enacted several acts and laws to maintain and conserve biodiversity, as well as punishment systems for environmental pollution. On the other hand, these initiatives lack completeness and have not been properly enforced (Ayanlade & Proske, 2015). The government rarely uses its funds to enforce the laws and regulations for environmental pollution. When they do, the barriers are hardly a deterrent for the large multinational oil and gas companies. Ayanlade and Proske (2015) explain, “The weak enforcement of environmental law is caused by corruption, disorder, mismanagement, and the lack of political will”. The government creates ineffective incentives to protect the Niger Delta because the country is almost completely dependent on the industries destroying the Niger Delta. This makes sustainable development in the region nearly impossible.

The Niger Delta is one the largest, most important wetland systems in the world. Unfortunately, however, the extraction of natural resources has lead to severe environmental degradation. Additionally, due to dependence on the deteriorating wetlands, residents struggle to earn basic living amenities. In order for the country to sustain itself, the Nigerian government must take steps to protect the Niger Delta. They need to put long-term needs of their people and the environment before the shallow, short-term promises of the natural resource extraction industries. If the Nigerian government continues to ignore the severe destruction of the Niger Delta, complete loss of the wetland ecosystem is inevitable.


Ayanlade, A., & Proske, U. (2015). Assessing wetland degradation and loss of ecosystem services in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Marine and Freshwater Research, 1-10. doi:10.1071/MF15066

Eregha, P., & Irughe, I. (2009). Oil Induced Environmental Degradation in Nigeria's Niger Delta: The Multiplier Effect. Journal of Sustainable Development in Africa, 11(4), 160-175.

Fund, W. (2014). Niger Delta swamp forests. Retrieved from

Kashi, E., & Watts, M. (2008). Curse of the black gold: 50 years of oil in the Niger Delta. Brooklyn, N.Y.: PowerHouse Books.

Map: Oil Pipelines and Vegetation in the Niger Delta - Circle of Blue WaterNews. (2009, September 28). Retrieved December 10, 2015, from