The Climate Apartheid: How Global Warming Affects the Rich and Poor

A trip to Lagos, Nigeria to investigate the social consequences of climate change

A young boy swims through the Makoko slum in Lagos Credit: Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Below is an excerpt from The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, to be published by Little, Brown on Oct 24, 2017.

As cities around the world adapt to the harsh realities of climate change, the divide between the doomed and the saved is growing starker. In New York City, the first stage of a barrier designed to prevent flooding in lower Manhattan will break ground early next year. No such barrier is being seriously proposed for, say, Red Hook, a predominately African-American neighborhood that is equally at risk. In Miami Beach, streets are being elevated and LEED-certified condo towers are rising, but in low-income neighborhoods like Miami Shores, you have to walk through shit-filled water every time a big tide arrives. And in Saudi Arabia, billions of dollars are being spent on desalinization machines that can turn ocean water into fresh drinking water, while in Bangladesh tens of thousands of farmers flee because rising salt water has ruined their wells. It’s often argued that climate change is a problem that impacts everyone on the planet; what’s less obvious is that the solutions to climate change are already deepening the divide between the doomed and the saved. In the coming years, that divide will only grow wider, creating what amounts to a climate apartheid.

The best place to see this future taking shape is in Lagos, Nigeria. Nobody knows for sure how many people live in Lagos. The United Nations’ official count is 13 million, but Lagos officials say it’s closer to 21 million. When you are in line at the city’s prehistoric airport, it feels like 30 million. Whatever the most accurate number is, everyone agrees that Lagos is one of the fastest-growing megacities in the world, with a growth rate 10 times faster than New York or L.A. It is also a city that is sharply divided between rich and poor. About 70 percent of the population lives on $1.25 a day or less, while the top two or three percent live behind walls in Beverly Hills–like estates. A good percentage of those people made their money in oil. Nigeria has by far the largest oil industry in Africa, producing, on average, about 2 million barrels of crude a day.

Lagos is a delta city, built around a lagoon, much like Venice. Like most delta cities, it is flat and low-lying, with the majority of it built on land that is less than five feet above sea level. The city’s infrastructure, such as it is, is poorly designed to deal with flooding and storm surges. Beaches are washing away, the sheet-metal seawalls in the harbor are corroding like rusty tin cans. Flash flooding in the summer of 2012 shut down the city for a week. Even a brief rain creates car-wheel-deep lakes in the streets of Victoria Island, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Flooding is also a grave public health hazard. This is a city of 13 (or 21) million people and no municipal sewage system. In the slums, kids develop rashes and pinkeye after floods, and cholera outbreaks are not uncommon.

In the midst of all this, a new city is rising along the waterfront. It’s called Eko Atlantic, and when I visited in 2017, it was still a work in progress – basically a two-square-mile platform of new land that had been built in front of Victoria Island. When it is finished (or, more accurately, if it is finished – the devaluation of Nigerian currency, as well as other economic factors, has put its future in doubt), Eko Atlantic is where, developers hope, 300,000 prosperous and technologically sophisticated people will live in sleek modern condos, fully equipped with fiber-optic Internet connections, elaborate security systems and a 25-foot-high sea wall protecting them from the attacking ocean. It’s a shiny new appendage to a megacity slum, one that sells itself as a new vision of Lagos – the Dubai of Africa.

The day I visited Eko Atlantic, it was raining, and the streets of Lagos were flooded several inches deep with foul-smelling black water. My taxi pulled up at the sales office, which was behind a gated entry with a security guard. The office was a low, unremarkable building on the edge of Victoria Island, right where the new land began. When I stepped into the lobby, I was greeted by Yuki Omenai, a sturdy-looking Nigerian in his late thirties who was dressed in brightly colored senator, the traditional attire of Nigeria. “Welcome to the future of Lagos,” he said to me in perfect British-inflected English. Omenai, who is from a wealthy and politically connected Nigerian family, explained he has worked as a town planner at Eko Atlantic since 2010, shortly after they started selling building lots on the still unbuilt land.

Omenai led me into a showroom nearby, where the whole development was mapped out on an enormous table. Each lot was marked, each street, each tree. Omenai explained that Eko Atlantic will be a mix of commercial and residential buildings, that it will have its own natural gas power plant, its own water supply, its own schools and, of course, its own security force. On the walls were artistic renderings of what the development will look like – glitzy high-rises, traffic-free streets, wide promenades where people will enjoy the fresh sea air. The showroom reminded me of condo sales offices in Miami, where a beautiful life is imagined for you, if you will just get out your checkbook and put down a deposit.

I pointed to a random plot on the map of the development. It was 6,000 square meters. “How much is that?”
“Eighteen million euros,” he told me.

I pointed to a smaller one – the smallest on the map: 2,500 square meters. “How much is that?”

“Six million euros.”

When I looked a little shocked, he reminded me that this land would be bought by developers who would build condo towers, not single-family homes.

“How many people do you imagine will be living here when the project is completed?” I asked.

“About 300,000,” he told me.

“I didn’t know there were that many rich people in Lagos,” I said.

“Well, there are not. These condos will be bought by middle-class people, working professionals. That is our target audience.”

When I asked if investors in Eko Atlantic were concerned about sea-level rise, he said, “Oh, very much so,” then guided me over to look at a schematic for the sea wall – the Great Wall of Lagos, it is sometimes called – they are building to protect the development. When it’s complete, it will be eight miles long, a 25-foot-tall necklace of granite and concrete draped across the soft neck of Lagos.

“We are acutely aware of climate change and the dangers of the sea,” he explained. “People who live here want to be sure they are safe.”

A few minutes later, Omenai and I jumped into his SUV and went for a drive around Eko Atlantic. The rain had stopped, and we drove along a frontage road, then passed through a security checkpoint – the road rose up, and then we were on the new land. It looked like a barren prairie, with a few condo towers sprouting from the dirt. The road broadened and was paved with interlocking gray bricks. The sidewalks were wide and planted with rows of young palm trees, still held up with stakes. “Our chairman is a micromanager,” Omenai told me as we drove. “He made them change the sidewalk color three times. And he made them pull out some of the trees and plant different ones. He is involved in every detail. He wants to get it all just right.”

“Our chairman” refers to Gilbert Chagoury, the chairman of the Chagoury Group, a collection of companies based in Nigeria that are involved in everything from real estate to trucking to bottled-water production. A new subsidiary of the group, South Energyx Nigeria, was created to lead the development of Eko Atlantic.

Chagoury, who is in his late sixties, was born in Lagos but grew up in Lebanon and Great Britain. He is best known for his role as a fixer for former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. In a 2010 investigation by Frontline, Nigeria’s top anticorruption prosecutor called Chagoury “a kingpin in the corruption” that defined Abacha’s regime. During the 1990s, the report suggested, Chagoury had helped Abacha steal billions of dollars in elaborate bribery and corruption schemes, while pocketing some for himself too. He used his money to build the Chagoury Group, as well as to buy respectability, eventually becoming a high-profile philanthropist and a friend of Bill Clinton (Chagoury gave millions to the Clinton Foundation). It’s hard not to admire the gamble Chagoury took in building Eko Atlantic, investing billions to create new land to sell to developers. “Eko Atlantic is entirely financed with private money,” Omenai told me. “There is no government money involved.” But because Eko Atlantic has been designated an economic “free zone,” it also won’t directly contribute taxes or other benefits to the city of Lagos or the larger Nigerian economy. Even more than other gated communities, Eko Atlantic says to the world, No, we are not all in this together.

Omenai drove to the Great Wall, where we got out and looked around. The Gulf of Guinea, one of the most dangerous waters in the world, rife with piracy, kidnapping and hijacking, spread out to the horizon. Omenai pointed to a man rowing a small boat along the wall below us. “See how small he looks?” he said, as if to say, “See how vulnerable he looks?” Omenai proudly touted the engineering of the wall: When it’s completed, its five miles will have been constructed with 100,000 concrete blocks, each weighing five tons. An accurate scale model of the wall was built in a lab in Copenhagen and tested against the worst storms in a thousand years. “Global warming and sea-level rise were all factored into this,” he said. “We really wanted to create a safe haven.”

We drove over to a development called Eko Pearl Towers. The first tower to be completed was a boxy building that would make Frank Gehry weep over the sorry state of the human imagination. We parked underground, making our way through a black marble corridor to the elevator. There were security cameras everywhere.

We stepped out on the 19th floor and toured a model condo with a leather sofa and chairs, an LG flat-screen TV and hip-looking modern art prints on the walls. We walked out onto a large balcony with sweeping views of the city and the Gulf of Guinea. Below, workers were putting finishing touches on an Olympic-size swimming pool.

“We want to redefine how Lagos lives,” Omenai explained. “This is the new Lagos.”

I looked back at the old Lagos and thought of the millions of people who live there in shacks and cheap concrete buildings that flood with every high tide. I wondered how safe I would feel up here on a leather couch on the 19th floor as old Lagos drowns.

When it comes to megacities that are the most at risk from sea-level rise, Lagos doesn’t crack the top 10 in potential economic losses. Guangzhou, Shanghai, Kolkata, Mumbai and other Asian cities are at the top of the list. In the U.S., it’s Miami and New York City. Lagos doesn’t rank with these cities because, in strict economic terms, the infrastructure along the coast isn’t worth much compared to a place like Shanghai.

But economic losses are only one way of thinking about the consequences of sea-level rise. The number of people who may be displaced – in other words, potential climate refugees – is another. When you factor in future population growth, Lagos is near the top of the list of places to worry about. By 2050, the city is projected to have 30 million people. How many of those will be swamped by rising seas and forced to flee? Various studies have come up with numbers ranging from 3 million to 8 million. Whatever the number, you only have to spend a few hours in Lagos to understand that sea-level rise will displace a lot of people, and those people are going to have to go somewhere.

Like other places in the world, sea-level rise is already hitting Africa hard. West Africa is particularly vulnerable, especially the 4,000-mile-long sub-Saharan coastline that stretches from Mauritania down to Cameroon. It’s mostly low-lying and sandy – in some places the sea is eating away more than 100 feet of land in a year. In a region where 30 percent of the population lives along the coastline, according to the World Bank, this is a potentially catastrophic problem. “In West Africa, infrastructure and economic activities are centered along the coastal region, so as sea levels continue to rise, it threatens our very existence and source of income,” said Kwasi Appeaning Addo, a professor in the University of Ghana’s Department of Marine and Fisheries Sciences. “We are sitting on a time bomb.”

Lagos is not the only city at risk. In Accra, the capital of Ghana, low-lying areas of the city now flood every year during the rainy season. Parts of Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, already have lost up to 80 feet of beach every year, and erosion has already damaged several hotels in Gambia and Senegal, as well as an important water-treatment facility in Cotonou, Benin’s economic hub.

I didn’t go to Nigeria to see the coast of Africa being washed away, however. I went to Nigeria because I thought I’d found a solution to sea-level rise in Lagos’ water slums. While I was reporting this book, I’d seen a picture of a floating school that Nigerian-born architect Kunlé Adeyemi had built in one of the water slums the water slums in 2013. It was an astonishingly simple, elegant structure, one that suggested we could solve the problem of living with water if we just thought about it a little differently. The school looked like a floating triangle. The base was made of 250 oil barrels lashed together; the structure itself was wooden, with a metal roof and open walls. The bottom floor was big enough for community meetings; the second floor held two classrooms. It couldn’t have been simpler. Yet because it was so elegant in its simplicity, and so hopeful in its aspirations, it attracted worldwide media attention, won numerous architectural awards and made Adeyemi into a star. The Guardian called it “a beacon of hope.” I thought so too, so I arranged a trip to Lagos to see it for myself.

Before I left, I drove up to Ithaca, New York, where Adeyemi was teaching a class on the problem of affordable housing in Lagos. I sat in on his session, where students were showing off designs for simple structures, many of them variations of pole houses that could be built above water. Adeyemi sat at the front of the class, listening, peppering students with a few questions. He is a soft-spoken guy, in his forties, handsome, quiet, dressed in a white shirt and jeans, his head shaved.

After class, Adeyemi told me that the idea for the floating school came to him in 2011, when he began thinking about solutions for affordable housing. “I started looking at vernacular architecture, how do everyday people build cheap,” he recalled. Adeyemi grew up in Kaduna, a city in northern Nigeria, where his father was a successful architect, designing houses, public buildings and hospitals in the area. When he was 18, Adeyemi began studying architecture at the University of Lagos.”. In 2002, he landed a job at OMA in Rotterdam, the firm founded by Rem Koolhaas. He traveled to the United States to study at Princeton for a few years, then returned to the Netherlands, where he started his own firm in 2010. He called it NLÉ, which is Yoruba for “home.”

“My romance with water and cities began in Amsterdam,” Adeyemi said. “To live in a city where there is so much water, to see it every day, made me think differently about a lot of things.” While he lived in Lagos, he had heard about water slums – he had even seen them from a distance every time he crossed over the city on the Third Mainland Bridge – but he never spent any time in one until he began his research on affordable housing in 2010. When he visited Makoko, the largest of Lagos’ water slums, he saw a whole world on water: schools, churches, machine shops, and tens of thousands of people living in shacks on stilts. “It was shocking to see people living like that,” he told me. “It was also inspiring. They were doing so much with so little.”

While he was in Makoko, he learned that because one of the schools was built on reclaimed land, not elevated like other structures, it flooded a few times a year. “I asked them if I could help and build something new,” he recalled. Adeyemi’s initial idea was to build the school on stilts, like most of the other buildings in Makoko. But then in July 2012, just as he was about to draw up plans, a combination of high tides and big rains hit Lagos. “The entire city was completely flooded,” Adeyemi recalled. “There was water everywhere. It just occurred to me, this is happening here, water is everyday reality. Here I am, trying to solve the problem of flooding, and it occurred to me – make it float! That way, it doesn’t matter how high the water is, it can move with it. That’s when I realized I wasn’t just building a school, but beginning to address an issue that I have now become obsessed with – climate change.”

Floating structures are nothing new (they’re also known as boats). But as seas rise, architects and city planners are thinking differently about their usefulness and design. At nearly every sea-level rise conference I’ve attended, there have been architectural musings about living on the water. Some people are experimenting on their own. In Mexico, a man named Richart Sowa has made a floating island out of 250,000 used plastic bottles stuffed into recycled fruit sacks. He planted mangroves and palm trees on it, built a two-story house out of wood and fabric, and calls his plastic-bottle island an eco-paradise. Then there’s the Seasteading Institute, which imagines an entire city at sea, far from the hands of government. The institute was co-founded by Peter Thiel, the eccentric billionaire who sits on the board of Facebook and campaigned for Donald Trump during the 2016 election. For Thiel, offshore cities are a kind of libertarian dream, a new city-state where the old rules don’t apply. At the moment, the institute is mostly just a website and an idea – nothing has been built yet. But it’s the kind of thinking that appeals to Silicon Valley types who are deeply distrustful of the way the world is currently arranged and believe it’s time to start over.

For Adeyemi, the Makoko floating school was a first sketch of a new way of living: “You can scale it up, scale it down, beginning to create solutions that exist on water, across water, in water. We need to learn to live with water, not fight against it.”

Unfortunately, I never got to see the floating school. Not long before I arrived in Lagos, a big storm hit the city and the school collapsed (fortunately, no one was in it at the time). Adeyemi told me later that the building was a prototype and was never intended to last long. Still, the collapse was an embarrassment for Adeyemi, who had won an award for his floating school at the Venice Architecture Biennale just a few weeks earlier. The Guardian described the collapse as “a serious blow to the future of the remarkable floating city.”

I rode into Makoko in a keke, a three-wheeled vehicle that looks like a golf cart (only about half of the slum is permanently on water – the rest is land-based). Squeezed in the backseat with me was Fred Patrick, a muscular, neatly dressed man who grew up in a nearby slum that had been recently demolished by the government in an attempt to “clean up” Lagos. Patrick now attended law school and worked as an organizer at Justice & Empowerment Initiatives, a community-based paralegal service that helps poor Nigerians understand their legal rights and fight eviction and police abuse.

Entering Makoko was a descent into what appeared to be total chaos, but the place is better understood simply as a world that obeys rules that are hidden from a Western visitor like me. The streets were crowded with vendors selling rice, grilled corn, wallets, belts, shoes, newspapers. Cars and trucks inched along in every direction, motorcycles darted in and out. Women in brightly colored dresses balanced baskets of melons on their heads. Kids hawked DVDs to passengers in taxis stuck in traffic. Diesel fumes from buses and trucks and nearby generators filled the air. About 300,000 people live in the city’s water slums, jammed into a shamble of shanties and decrepit concrete-block buildings, often with an extended family of 10 living in a room the size of a closet in an Eko Atlantic condo. But despite this – or maybe because of this – everyone seemed to get along, and I saw more evidence of tolerance and patience in Makoko than in perhaps any place I have visited.

It was a sunny day, and it hadn’t rained for a week. Still, water was everywhere, pooling on the dirt streets in wheel-deep sinkholes. We zigzagged our way through, then stopped on the banks of a man-made canal. A sour, chemical smell rose up from the water, which was littered with thousands of plastic bottles and bags. I remembered the advice of one friend who had visited Makoko: “One thing you don’t want to do,” he told me, “is fall into that water.” When I looked down into the canal, I saw a dead piglet floating by.

We rented a boat for 300 naira – less than a dollar – and paddled away. Within minutes, we were deep in an elevated city, a community on stilts. Some of the houses were shacks, with walls of burlap and driftwood, while others were slum mansions, brightly painted, with two stories and rooms added on. The canals were crowded with boat traffic – kids hot-rodding around with their friends, women paddling boats full of rice and vegetables. We passed a machine shop, where men gathered, shirtless, working on an engine; a mill, where corn was being ground into mash; a small blue hut with a sign that said HAIR SALON. We motored past a school where kids sat at desks, 30 feet above the water, and past churches that were built on elevated piles of sand. Kids yelled at us as we floated by; others stared at me (“They have never seen a white person before,” Patrick explained). We saw people napping, washing clothes, repairing fishing nets. In short, living life on the water.

After about a half hour of paddling, we pulled up at the side of one of the better-kept houses in the lagoon. The walls were made of thin strips of bamboo, and the roof of palm fronds. We climbed out of the boat onto a small front porch, where a man named Gerard Avlessi greeted us. He was in his early fifties and was dressed in dark-brown traditional Nigerian clothes. Nearby, a dozen or so people sat in a circle, talking – Avlessi nodded to them and explained that they were his family and apprentices. “He is the village tailor,” Patrick said to me.

Avlessi invited me in and I took a seat on the couch. On the far wall, in the most visible place in the house, was a series of pictures of Christ and the Virgin Mary; a manger scene made out of fabric and doll-like figures hung in the corner. A thin red carpet covered the floor. Avlessi sat on the other side of the couch and his two-year-old son crawled up into his lap, naked. Avlessi’s 15-year-old daughter joined us, wearing a beautiful green dress. Through the spaces between the bamboo walls, I could see ripples of black water.

I asked Avlessi how long he had lived here.

“Twelve years,” he said.

I complimented him on the house. The room we were in was large, maybe 12 feet by 12 feet, with a seven-foot ceiling. There were other rooms above, and a workshop off to the side. He told me that 19 people lived in this house, including his wife and kids and apprentices. “Sometimes,” he said, “50 people live here.”

That was hard to imagine: The whole place, including his workshop and the porch, was not much bigger than a fort I built in my backyard as a kid.

“We are very comfortable here,” he said.

“Did you build the house yourself?” I asked.

He smiled and said, “Yes, with some help from my family.”

“How long does it take to build a house like this?”

“If the materials are available, it takes about a week.”

Using hand motions, he pantomimed using a hammer to drive the poles into the sandy bottom of the lagoon. The poles are driven about nine feet into the sand, and he said they last about 15 years before they rot and need to be replaced.

“How high is your house above water?”

“About four feet,” he said.

“Do you have any trouble with flooding?”

He shook his head. “No trouble with water,” he said.

“Storms?”

He shook his head. “No problem.”

Patrick pointed out that if a house was getting water in it, it was easy to just raise it higher. “It is very simple to do,” he explained. “We can do it in a few days. We do it all the time.”

I thought about my visit to Eko Atlantic a few days earlier. The conventional wisdom says climate change will hit the poor harder than the rich. And in many ways, that is true: The rich live in better houses, have access to better health care and have the money to leave if the going gets tough. But they are also helpless if their phone battery dies. They can’t change a tire, much less build a house on water or raise it in a few days. Technology gives us power, but it also enfeebles us. Listening to Patrick and Avlessi, I thought, “These guys know how to survive.”

But of course there are many threats that people in Lagos face beyond sea-level rise. And for these, the residents of Makoko are not so well adapted.

This became clear when I asked Avlessi, “Are you worried about climate change and sea-level rise and how it will affect your life here?”

He shrugged. “I am not afraid of water,” he said, then paused. “I am afraid of our government.”

I understood why. A few weeks before I arrived, Lagos’ governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, had issued an order that people in all waterfront slums would be evicted within seven days and their homes would be bulldozed. The government argued that they were clearing these people out because they were kidnappers and thieves and good-for-nothings. While the notion of giving people better places to live is admirable, the government of Lagos does nothing to help people in these communities start a new life after they have been evicted. “The police simply arrive and tell people they have two hours to get out,” Megan Chapman, the co-founder of Justice & Empowerment Initiatives, told me. Then the chain saws are unsheathed, and within hours, tens of thousands of people are homeless. Patrick had told me that a few months earlier he received a message when he was in school that the authorities were coming to bulldoze the slum he had grown up in. “By the time I jumped on a bus and made it back there, my family home was gone,” he said

Avlessi looked grave when I asked him how he dealt with the threat of eviction. I looked at the furniture, images of Jesus on the wall, the white lace tablecloth one of his daughters had laid out on a table before she served me a Coke. Makoko might be a black-water slum, but it is also a blueprint for how to live in the age of rapidly rising seas. In a rational world, the city of Lagos or the government of Nigeria or some wealthy oil baron would see this, would invest a few hundred thousand dollars in improving sanitation for the people in Makoko and hold them up as model citizens of the future. Instead, their houses will be chain-sawed or burned and they will be forced to live on the streets or jam themselves into tiny rooms in shabby concrete-block buildings, which, like virtually all buildings in Lagos, have been built at sea level and are therefore doomed in the coming years, creating a new generation of refugees who may or may not turn to crime or terrorism, but who will surely contribute to the political instability of our world and strengthen the hand of authoritarian thugs like Nigerian President Mohammadu Buhari or Donald Trump, who use fear of refugees and displaced people to erect higher and higher walls.

“We are all worried about our future here,” Avlessi told me. “But there is nothing we can do. In Lagos, after God, there is government.” He bounced his young son on his knee and looked off into the distance. “If it were possible to take a boat to God, and report Lagos state government to God, I would have done that.”

Three weeks after I left Nigeria, police entered a nearby slum and burned it to the ground, leaving 30,000 people – mostly families with young children – homeless. A few months later, thousands more were displaced when police stormed another community, Otodo Gbame, firing bullets and tear gas and forcing residents to flee on boats. A 20-year-old man named Daniel Aya was shot in the neck while he tried to rescue family belongings, and later died. The homes were all burned to the ground.

By the time you read this, Makoko will likely be gone too.