Ugochi Anyaka-Oluigbo understands the devasting impact of climate change better than most. She was born and raised in the commercial city of Aba, Abia state in Nigeria but regularly travels to her home town, Amucha, in Imo state where she witnessed first-hand how erosion of the local landscape swallowed up her neighbourhood’s homes and farmland, cut off communities and threatened livelihoods.
Today she’s one of Africa’s leading environmental journalists and has made it her mission to give a voice to vulnerable communities in Nigeria and across the continent that continue to grapple with erosion, flooding, desertification and other extreme weather patterns exacerbated by climate change.
African women are particularly at risk, she says. “I think women are hugely affected by climate change. I’ve seen the impact of this, where women have no place to go to: they are threatened, they know that they might sleep and never wake up and that they might be swallowed up.”
In some communities, even the youngest females in the family are severely affected. “I’ve seen wells that have been contaminated by seawater and become salty,” she says. “Women and girls have to walk further and further to go and find firewood to cook. Girls miss schools because of this, so this is such a huge impact not just on women, but even on girls as they grew up.’
Ugochi has been tracking the impact of rising sea levels on Lagos and says the rate at which the land is disappearing is astonishing. “I’ve visited the communities at least every year,” she says. “I see the real impacts. I see the home that was here last year. The next time it’s gone. That story resonates with me because I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next months – not even years, months. I see women, I see children, I see girls who have to move. They are exposed because they have to keep moving to different communities. They’re exposed to rape, they’re exposed to sexual exploitation. They have to do what they have to do to survive because they have to keep moving. Those stories really hurt me so much. They impact me so much because people don’t know where else to go.”
Witnessing such devastation up close has only reinforced her to determination to show the world what is happening on the ground in Africa. She was well recognised as a news anchor and presenter in Nigeria on TVC News, but it was her storytelling on the channel’s flagship environmental programme Green Angle which made her a household name for environmental issues. ‘‘I don’t just tell stories, I am there with them,” she says. “I’m in the water, I’m in the floods with them, I’m in their homes, I’m sitting down, I’m feeling what they’re feeling. I’m experiencing life with them. So that is what they see.”
Ugochi is hugely concerned about the dearth of journalists reporting on environmental issues in Africa. That’s why she co-founded a training programme to help journalists from the continent learn both how to identify stories, and crucially, how to secure grants and funding to help their story ideas come to fruition. To date, she’s helped train almost 30 journalists and she hopes there will be many more. “We really need more voices reporting on the environment,’ she says. ‘We don’t have a lot of people, but we see a lot of people doing sports and entertainment, not realising that if we don’t have a planet, there will be no sports and all the beautiful artists that we have, they won’t exist. That’s part of my passion to train more people to report on wildlife conservation, environmental issues, and of course, climate change.”
Her own reporting has led her to regular stints as a commentator on environmental issues for BBC News and other major news channels. Two years ago, she moved to Saint-Louis in north-eastern France close to the German and Swiss borders and co-hosts Djoliba, a multi-language African radio show on RadioX Basel.
She continues to report on Africa and Europe from Saint-Louis and her freelance work regularly brings her back to her motherland. Her most recent projects – a climate change podcast with Duke University – had her reporting on three states in Nigeria to look at how environmental factors have aggravated the deadly clashes between nomadic Fulani herders and farming communities.
The reporting particularly focused on Makurdi, in Benue State, which has earned its nickname as the country’s “food basket” owing to its rich agricultural produce.’’ The clashes between herders and farmers have received less international news coverage than the violent attacks by Boko Haram, but Ugochi hopes her reporting will bring home the severity of the crisis to an international audience.
“People in the food basket of the nation can hardly feed themselves because of climate change and because of herders and farmers’ clashes,” she says. “These are farming communities where kids are growing up in camps. There’s going to be a hunger crisis in Nigeria because the fruit baskets of the nation may no longer be able to feed the nation.”
Looking ahead to COP26, she’s determined that African nations – whether in person or virtually – must have a seat at the table, and that world leaders can no longer deny the impact of climate change on her continent. “I hope they understand that the situation for Africa is dire,” she says. “I hope they listen and tackle this issue the way they’ve tackled the Coronavirus pandemic and take it seriously, be active and then support Africa to transition to a just and fair economy. I hope that passion can drive people whose father’s home is not getting washed away, whose mother’s farmland is not getting swallowed up, those who really doesn’t have much to lose right now. That’s been the problem because it’s far away. It’s in Africa.”
A recent report by the UN-backed World Meteorological Organization gave a stark warning that climate change contributed to rising food insecurity, poverty and displacement in Africa last year and said the continent urgently needed investment. Ugochi hopes government and business at COP26 will heed the cries for help from vulnerable communities like the ones she reports on.
If developed countries can learn anything from the pandemic, she says, it’s that collaboration is the only way to fight the climate crisis: “That example is a powerful tool for Africans to show that we can really do something when we come together. I hope countries can wake up and support developing countries, not just in Africa, but across the world. I hope they show empathy and stop thinking about profits…and think about the world and our children and the future.”