“If you want to go fishing, you have to paddle for about four hours through several rivers before you can get to where you can catch fish and the spill is lesser … some of the fishes we catch, when you open the stomach, it smells of crude oil.” – A local fisherman’s description of his livelihood in the Niger Delta.
(Nigeria: Oil Pollution, Human Rights Violations Still Rampant in Niger Delta, News from Africa, Nov. 2010)
THE NIGER DELTA INTRODUCED
Around 30 million people live in The Niger Delta, one of the world’s most polluted regions. The Niger Delta is Africa’s biggest and the world’s third largest river delta containing a vast oil deposit. The local inhabitants have not benefitted of this richness, Despite the fact that Nigeria ranks 7th among the world’s oil producing nations, the local inhabitants have not benefitted at all from the nation’s oil wealth as The Niger Delta is one of the most polluted regions in the world. Since oil production began in the late 1950’s, more oil has spilled across the region each year than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
For decades, oil spillage, waste dumping and gas flaring have polluted the Niger Delta. Little has been done to clear up the area even though the region has one of the world’s ten most essential wetlands and coastal marine ecosystems. Severe pollution has caused nearly irreparable damage to the soil, water, air and wildlife. Thousands of Nigerians suffer due to this pollution, as most are dependent on agriculture and fishing as their traditional occupations.
Both the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNCP) and affiliated companies have interests in the Niger Delta. (NNCP is a public organization that takes care of governmental interests in the country’s oil industry.)
THE OIL INDUSTRY
The oil and gas sector makes 97% of Nigeria’s foreign exchange. It also makes a majority, 79.5 %, of the government’s income. (Report of the Niger Delta Technical Committee, November 2008, pg. 102)
Many locals blame the multinational corporations like Shell for contamination in the region. Although Shell is not the only actor present in the Niger Delta, the company’s contribution to the pollution is, perhaps, one of the most significant. To date, over 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell. For example, in 2010, Shell admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009. (See Nigeria’s agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it, The Guardian, May 2010) In May of 2010, ExxonMobil spilled more than a million gallons of oil in the Delta in a span of seven days after one of their pipelines ruptured. Though it is relatively easy to identify the parties responsible for the pollution, the legal system in Nigeria is slow and appeals often take years. More often than not, the communities affected by the pollution never see compensation. (See Shell oil spills in the Niger delta: ‘Nowhere and no one has escaped’, The Guardian, Aug. 2011)
Oil spills occur both on the land and offshore, causing damage to both farmland and water sources. Due to such high risks of contamination in both food and water sources, it is dangerous for locals to cultivate the land, fish, or use water supply. This has posed great hardships on the people o the Niger Delta region, as agriculture, fishing and forest products are traditional to their way of life. In fact, UNCP reports that over 60% of the Niger Delta’s inhabitants need the natural environment for their livelihood. (Id.)
Exposure to petroleum can cause everything from skin rashes to cancer and neurotoxicity. A recent United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) report from shows that the region of Ogoniland is still contaminated despite the fact that oil production ceased in the region nearly 20 years ago.
One of the major causes of oil waste is gas flaring, which results when oil is separated from the oil pumped out. In 2007, NPR reported that “[g]as flares emit about 390 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, and experts say eliminating global flaring alone would curb more CO2 emissions than all the projects currently registered under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism.” NPR also quotes Chris Elvidge, a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who says, “Nigeria has brought their gas flaring down by about 10 billion cubic meters a year from the mid-1990s, so Nigeria is actually one of the few countries of the world where gas flaring has been reduced. But there’s still a lot of it.” (See Gas Flaring Disrupts Life in Oil-Producing Niger Delta, NPR, July 2007)
Although the Nigerian government has attempted to curb gas flaring since 1984, the deadline set to end the flares (2008) has proved meaningless, as it has become heavily postponed, thus allowing the flaring to continue.
Oil spills also occur due to corroded pipelines. Pipe corrosion is not a new development. In fact, it was first identified as problematic in the Niger Delta fifteen years ago, yet little has been done since to repair old pipes. Shell, for example, has acknowledged their need to improve their pipes and has also admitted that corrosion was a possible reason for half of their oil spills. In 1995, the company started a decontamination programme, but corroded pipes continue to pose a major problem.
Today, Shell (along with other oil companies) try to pin part of the blame on sabotage. For example, on its website, Shell opines that militant groups are behind the major environmental problems. This creates, according to Shell, rancour towards the oil companies on the delta.
In an article in the New York Times, Caroline Wittgren, spokeswoman for Shell in Lagos, explains, “[w]e do not believe that we behave irresponsibly, but we do operate in a unique environment where security and lawlessness are major problems.”
She went on to say that just 2% of the spill was to human error and failure in equipment.
THE OGONILAND REPORT
While sabotage is a legitimate problem in the Niger Delta region, it simply does not account for all of the pollution as evidenced by the sad situation in Ogoniland.
Ogoniland is an area in the Niger Delta spanning around 1,000 kilometres. Oil production in the region began in 1958. However, due to massive public protests, production ceased in 1993.
Despite the fact that oil production ceased nearly 20 years ago, Ogoniland continues to be ravaged by the effects of oil pollution. Current UNEP research (spanning the course of three years) shows that the pipes, despite the long interruption, are still leaking, due to bunkering, illegal extraction of oil, or corrosion. Since Ogoniland is directly connected with the rest of the Delta, the contamination easily spreads to other regions. Additionally, because of the high rainfall in the region, oil is constantly washed into farmlands and creeks. (See UN environmental assessment of Ogoniland, UNEP, 2011) Of course, UNEP recommends that the contamination must be cleaned up as soon possible and that the mess in Oganiland must be prevented to other areas.
If UNEP’s recommendations are followed, Oganiland could potentially be restored in 25-30 years at an estimated to cost $1bn (£614m), which does not include future damages. (UNEP maintain that the cost is only presumed and preliminary.)
Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP, told The Guardian that the UNEP report “offers a blueprint for how the oil industry and public authorities might operate more responsibly in Africa and beyond at a time of increasing production and exploration across many parts of the continent.” (See Niger Delta oil spills clean-up will take 30 years, says UN, The Guardian, Aug. 2011)
Mutiu Sunmonu, managing director of the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, maintains that most of the oil spill is still stalled by sabotage. He does manage to point out that Shell is willing to take its responsibility for the pollution and pledges to collaboration with the Nigerian government.
“All oil spills are bad – bad for local communities, bad for the environment, bad for Nigeria and bad for [the company]. Although we haven’t produced oil in Ogoniland since 1993 we clean up all spills from our facilities, whatever the cause, and restore the land to its original state. (See Id.)
www.cehrd.org pg. 157.
Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, clause 44
The Petroleum Act of 1969, clause 1
Report of the Niger Delta Technical Committee, November 2008, p102
Niger Delta Human Development Report, 2006, pg. 74, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
UNDP, Niger Delta Human Development Report, 2006
Niger Delta Natural Resources Damage Assessment and Restoration Project, Phase I Scoping Report, May 2006, conducted by Nigerian Conservation Foundation, WWF UK and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy, with Federal Ministry of Environment (Abuja).
SPDC, Nigeria Brief, The Environment, 1995
Popularity: 4% [?]