Thirteen years ago today, the world watched in horror as a brutal military dictatorship executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists.
Ken and the others were fighting against Shell for a greater share of the oil waealth that was being drilled from their land, but more importantly they were fighting for clean air, water and a sustainable future.
One of the areas that Ken worried about was climate change. Three years before his murder, a delegation from the Delta travelled to the Rio Summit.
They argued that in the coming decades: “about a 40km wide strip of the Niger Delta and its peoples would be submerged and rendered extinct” due to rising sea level rise and subsidence from oil and gas operations. In 1995, the year of Ken’s death, a further scientific report estimated that 80 per cent of the Delta’s population would have to move due to sea-level rise, at a cost of $9 billion.
The low lying Niger Delta is just one of a number of regions in the world that is hugely susceptible to climate change. For example a one-meter sea level rise would displace millions of people but also threaten some 75 per cent of Nigeria’s agricultural land.
Another is the Maldives, the beautiful islands in the Indian Ocean, famous for its white beaches and coral atolls, whose thousands of islands lie just 1.5 metres above sea-level and are one of the most vulnerable to rising seas. Now the Maldives are planning for a future – but it is a future where they have lost their home.
The country will begin to divert a portion of their billion-dollar annual tourist revenue into buying a new homeland for the 300,000 islanders. Mohamed Nasheed, who takes power officially tomorrow in the island’s capital, Male, has told the Guardian newspaper that even a “small rise” in seal-level would drastically affect the islands.
“We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own and so we have to buy land elsewhere. It’s an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome. After all, the Israelis [began by buying] land in Palestine,” said Nasheed, also known as Anni.
Likely places to go include Sri Lanka, India or even Australia. Nasheed said he intended to create a “sovereign wealth fund” from the dollars generated by “importing tourists”, in the way that Arab states have done by “exporting oil”.
Thirteen years after Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death, this serves as a real wake up call for action on climate. How many homes are going to be destroyed, how many lives are going to be ruined, how many refugees will there be, before decisive action is made on climate change?
The hopes for a deal on climate are substantially better with Barack Obama heading for the White House. But his victory should not mean that a complacency kicks in with those who are working to address climate change. Obama’s solutions also include clean coal, about which leading climate change scientist, Jim Hansen, says “There is no such thing as clean coal”.
The people of the Maldives need urgent action now to save their home-land. For them the “change” that Obama has spoken about will be judged by whether he can save their home..