Degrees of heat: Northern Nigeria students wilt in climate extremes
What can universities do as a hotter and longer dry season impacts students’ health and performance?
When Sayedi Umar Muhammad first enrolled at Usmanu Danfodiyo University to study Applied Chemistry, the young student dreamed of one day graduating with a first-class degree. Raised in Niger State, he had travelled 500km to Sokoto, in Nigeria’s far northwest, to start this new chapter of his life.
Nerves aside, the first few months went smoothly enough. But then things began to unravel. The temperatures in Sokoto started to rise – and kept rising. The dry heat got harder to escape. The scorching sun beat down hard and refused to relent.
Muhammad, now 26, struggled to adapt. He found it hard to focus and feared having to brave the conditions outside. “I would prefer to stay back at the campus hostel and miss lessons,” he recalls.
When he fell ill and sought medical attention, he was told that he was dehydrated and at risk of kidney damage. “[The clinician] prescribed some medications for me and advised me to change schools,” he says.
While Muhammad’s experience was more extreme than most, it is far from uncommon. In a 2017 study conducted in Maiduguri, in Nigeria’s northeast, 74.1% of students said the high temperatures affect their academic performance. There was no significant difference in answers between respondents from the north and those who had moved from the relatively cooler south of the country.
A 2021 study from Kaduna state, in Nigeria’s northwest, had similar results. It found that periods of severe weather – particularly heavy rains and high temperatures – have a significant negative impact on learners. In a survey as part of that report, the overwhelming majority of students said the academic calendar should be redesigned to avoid August (92.9%), January (87.1%), and April (85.1%). These months coincide with peak periods of rainfall, harmattan, and hot dry seasons.
“Whenever the weather is hot, students’ performance declines,” says Abubakar Kawu Monguno, Director of the Centre for Disaster Risk Management and Development Studies at the University of Maiduguri. He says that daily temperatures in the north can surpass 40°C and go as high as 45°C. This makes life harder for students in both direct and indirect ways. “The issue of malaria is common during this period, [while] mosquitoes and the presence of power outages will all add to the problem,” he explains.
Hot and hotter
Residents of northern Nigeria have always had to deal with hot weather and heavy rains. But amid climate change, temperatures have risen, the hot season has gotten longer, and rainfall has become more variable. 2021 was the country’s hottest for 40 years, and the intensity of heat waves is only predicted to increase.
These changes are expected to create new challenges and exacerbate existing ones. From more severe droughts and floods, to worsening deforestation, pollution, and food insecurity, Nigeria is considered one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change.
Though less often explored in climate reporting, these impacts affect populations not just on a grand scale but in terms of their day-to-day lives. Vincent Ojeh, a climatologist at the Taraba State University, says that many people in north have had to adapt their behaviour to cope. “At night, places that were supposed to be cool are now hot; people leave their houses and sleep outside to get moisture from the environment,” he says. “This affects everyone, either students or not.”
We spoke to several students who have missed classes or developed health problems due to the intense weather. For example, Aisha, who is studying Fisheries and Aquaculture at Federal University Dutse in Jigawa state, now has regular migraines due to the heat. “I’m taking drugs against the ailment, but I have to miss lectures and tests slated from noon onwards,” she says. Shamusu, a student in Maiduguri with sickle cell anaemia, has found himself falling way behind as his condition has worsened. “As I’m trying to endure the pain to face my studies, I’m still failing five courses,” he says.
Some said they have classmates who have left university in the north altogether. In Nigeria, where the education system is underfunded, overpopulated, and highly competitive, any extra stress could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
While climate change has largely been driven by greenhouse gases emitted by the Global North, Mungono from the University of Maiduguri says that local activity has exacerbated the situation in northern Nigeria. “[This region] is generally a hot environment, but over the years it has become a bit hotter as a result of development [such as the] clearing of forests to provide housing and the increase in the length and number of tarmac/asphalt roads,” he says.
By that same token, it is possible for human activity to mitigate some difficulties. For instance, Samuel Olajuyigbe, from the Department of Forest Production at the University of Ibadan, emphasises the need for reforestation and the restoration of degraded lands. “The Great Green Wall Project is a practical example of mitigation strategies,” he says of the ambitious but arguably faltering continental project to plant a wall of trees across the Sahel. “These strategies need to be backed by policies and regulations.”
Monguno suggests universities can also take actions to support students directly. “There should be an uninterrupted power supply during the [hot] period. Students should take more fluids to reduce dehydration. And lecture rooms should be well-equipped,” he says. “New lecture halls to be built should have large windows for ventilation, and we should shun overcrowding.”
The Maiduguri and Kaduna studies similarly identified problems that can be remedied. The former report emphasised the need for adequate fans, air conditioning, and maximum class size limits. The latter recommended changing the academic calendar to avoid the harshest months.
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When African Arguments contacted authorities and universities, however, there was little sense that helping students adapt to intense conditions is a priority.
Ben Gong, Director of Press at the Federal Ministry of Education, explained that universities are “autonomous” when it comes to operational matters and suggested the federal government has few plans on the issue. “The ministry is only thinking of tree planting across unity schools in the country and, if it is successful, they can copy from it,” he said.
Gong added that it is the National Universities Commission (NUC) that is “supervising the universities”. Its spokesperson, Haruna Lawal, reiterated that universities are responsible for their own policies in this area.
Individual universities seem to have very different levels of concern – and awareness – about student wellbeing during heat waves.
Gimba Maina, Dean of Students’ Affairs at the University of Maiduguri, said the university is not aware students are affected by weather. He nonetheless noted the presence of trees around the institution that can provide shelter and ventilation.
Aliyu Umar, Dean of Students’ Affairs at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, said the management is conscious weather conditions are affecting some students but did not reveal any efforts to address this.
Meanwhile, Abdullahi Yahya Bello, Chief Information Officer of the Federal University Dutse, said the institution is trying to provide essential services like a constant supply of water, electricity, and spacious accommodation and classes to avoid overcrowding and illness.