PORT HARCOURT, 9 September 2011 (IRIN) – An August 2011 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) study has found hazardous levels of pollution in Ogoniland in southern Nigeria’s Niger Delta, lending credence to claims by locals of environmental damage, health problems and lost livelihoods as a result of 50 years of oil operations in the area.
The UNEP report found oil spills occur with “alarming regularity” and residents had been exposed to petroleum hydrocarbons in air, water and soil. Some 28 wells across 10 communities were found to be contaminated, and in one community, Nisisioken Ogale, water was being drunk from wells containing 900 times the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended level of benzene, a carcinogen.
Other findings include destruction of fish habitats – including mangroves – and soil contamination found at depths of up to five metres. It is estimated a clean-up operation will take up to 30 years to return contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and ecosystems back to full health.
A history of oil spills and pollution has created tensions in the region. Citizens have also complained that they have not benefited from the oil wealth in the area.
Though oil has not been produced in Ogoniland since 1993, infrastructure remains, including active oil pipelines that cross the area. Sabotage and bunkering has added to spills in the Niger Delta.
The UNEP report, carried out at the request of the government, said health symptoms were not recorded in sufficient detail to be conclusively attributed to pollution, but for locals in Bodo the connection is clear: The community suffered two major oil spills in 2008 from pipes operated by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), which is a joint venture with the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, Shell International, Elf and Agip.
A man who lives close to the spill, who only gave his name as Nebachi, told IRIN his whole family was sick. “Our source of drinking water is the well. By the time we fetch water from the well, we see oil on it and that is what we drink,” he said. “We breathe the polluted air. In fact as I am talking with you now, I have chest pain… Everybody in my house is sick.”
Other residents told IRIN they now suffered burning sensations in their eyes at night, respiratory problems, frequent rashes and bloody stools.
Comfort Amadi, the chief nursing officer at Bodo General Hospital, told IRIN common problems believed to be caused by pollution were diarrhoea and respiratory infections. She added: “We often have cases of pregnant women having miscarriages. Due to the oil spillage, people also suffer from malaria as a result of the stagnant water around.”
Babiana Uporo, a nursing officer at the hospital, agreed diarrhoea and respiratory infections were common. “The whole place is polluted and filled with smoke [from gas flares].”
Aster van Kregten, a researcher on Nigeria with Amnesty International, said in interviews with Bodo residents, people told her “they have problems [such as] rashes, headaches and breathing problems.”
Joanna Tempowski, a WHO scientist, said all these symptoms, aside from miscarriages, “are consistent with exposure to hydrocarbons and their combustion products”. She said further investigation would be necessary to determine if the reported miscarriages could be attributed to pollution.
Though both Shell and the Nigerian government have accepted the recommendations of the report – including establishing a US$1 billion fund for the clean-up and addressing issues caused by the pollution – very little is clear about what specific action will be taken, or when.
The report contained emergency recommendations around warning people about contamination, supplying drinking water to families with only access to contaminated sources, and monitoring the health of people in Nisisioken Ogale. Some progress has been made here: Residents have been warned about contaminated water sources and emergency drinking water has been trucked in to some of the most deeply affected communities by the state government.
But Chris Newsom from the Port Harcourt office of NGO Stakeholder Democracy Network said the response is only part of what is needed for such a dire situation. “If those levels of pollution were found in the US, Congressmen would be having hysterics and demanding a comprehensive set of immediate responses,” he said.
Newsom pointed out that UNEP had informed the Nigerian government in December 2010 of the dangerously high levels of contamination in drinking water in Nisisioken Ogale, but that no action was taken until the report was released.
Amnesty International’s van Kregten said: “You would expect authorities to do more in terms of emergency measures.” Both Van Kregten and Jeremiah Leela, a senior health worker in Bodo, told IRIN they would like to see the authorities investigate health impacts more widely.
The Nigerian government has formed a committee to look at the recommendations. However, despite pressure from Ogoni elders in early September, the committee is still considering its response and no decisions have been announced.
A spokesperson for Shell said: “SPDC will support the [Nigerian] government to implement emergency measures as soon as possible,” but was also unable to give any details of action.
“This report should be used to put pressure on the government and oil companies to clean up and compensate people harmed by these spills,” said Eric Guttschuss, a researcher on Nigeria with Human Rights Watch.
Implementing the recommendations of the report and cleaning up the spills will, however, only assist Ogoniland – a small part of the oil-rich Niger Delta – while it is suspected pollution extends much further. “The Ogoni oil spills are only the tip of the iceberg; there have been serious spills across the Niger Delta for decades,” Newsom said. Ogoniland covers just 1,000 of the Niger Delta’s 70,000 sqkm.
“Since the terrain, operator and regulators are similar in other parts of the Niger Delta, it is a reasonable assumption to make that there are similar issues in other parts of the Niger Delta,” said a UNEP spokesperson.
Weak regulatory environment
Poor industry practice and the weak regulatory environment are part of the problem.
While a spokesperson for Shell said “SPDC has always cleaned up spills from its facilities no matter what the cause,” the UNEP report found 10 of the 15 sites investigated which Shell claimed were remediated were found to contain pollution exceeding SPDC and government standards. “SPDC’s own procedures have not been applied, creating public safety issues,” the report said.
In response, Shell’s spokesperson would only say they were “looking very closely at the report”.
The government largely relies on the word of oil companies, which say they clean up spills, but it is apparent from the report that this does not always happen, Guttschuss said, pointing out that the Nigerian government is a majority partner in joint ventures with many of these oil companies, including Shell, and the regulatory environment is very weak.
According to Van Kregten, while oil companies frequently blame oil spills on deliberate sabotage, it is impossible to verify this.