By Dumebi Okeke
In 2011, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released a report that showed only what has been a reality regarding the environmental conditions as seen in the Niger Delta for literal decades. Prior to the release of the 2011 report, it was a well-known fact among the environmentally savvy or concerned, that the Niger Delta, being arguably the single most crude oil polluted region in the world, embodied every aspect of the misfortunes related with the oil industry. These ills ranged from unchecked, widespread environmental degradation to governmental negligence, political nonchalance and corrupt practices that are most often reflected in backhanded exchanges of huge sums of money and an immoral disregard for human life in its entirety.
The implications of oil and gas exploration and production in Nigeria while at its inception, offered a new ray of hope and economic prosperity for a young country starting out its long journey towards nationhood, has become indicative of a country, which has sold its soul and that of its future generations for temporary comforts- largely peanuts.
A view of some of the oil producing parts of the Niger-Delta region would reveal not only large expanses of dead or dying vegetation and struggling swamps that span miles, but also black veins of what should ordinarily have been rivers and streams; sources from which most of the local inhabitants draw their sustenance as fishermen and farmers. The smell in the surroundings where people live is repulsive and the natural groundwater beneath their soil being contaminated, tastes oily, smells metallic and is simply unsuitable for human or livestock consumption. As an environmental management consultant, the writer thinks it would be more accurate to describe Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) of the affected areas with the proper terminology, which should be an “Environmental Disaster Assessment.”
The United Nations Human Rights Resolution of 2011, states explicitly that “a safe, clean and healthy environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights.” And even if it did not, is this any way for people to live?
The first incidence of crude oil spills in the Delta was recorded as far back as 1958, two years after oil was discovered in Olobiri. Since then, however, according to Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC), between 1970 and 2005, there has been no less than 7,000 documented oil spills in the Delta alone. Simple arithmetic makes these figures duly appalling to anyone, especially when the fact is considered that Nigeria as a country has only explored oil for about 60 years.
This, quite appropriately raises a whole lot of questions regarding past government’s policies towards environmental protection concerning the interrelation between the environment and human wellbeing, especially for local inhabitants of affected areas. The cited reality can be argued from a legal standpoint that the Nigerian government’s subtle willingness to let these actions perpetuate with apparent impunity, makes them culpable for criminal negligence, especially when the health factors and the imperative loss of Nigerian lives are brought up. When duly thought about, this is indeed an agonising situation.
In 2016, however, the people of the Niger Delta were given a new ray of hope when the Buhari administration came into control of the government and pledged to clean up the ailing Ogoniland as a first step in response to the 2011 UNEP report. The news was met with a collective sigh of relief from both the people of the region and those outside of it as it may have indicated that Nigeria as a country was beginning to take the reality and imperatives of managing the Nigerian environment a bit more earnestly.
However, while discussions continue to persist about the commitment to clean up Ogoniland, no plans have been made to date, no strategy has been plotted, no projections as to what volume of soil and as well as depth and information regarding the extent of the clean up has been put in place.
The methods of soil treatment is another very important issue reasonably falling under strategy and planning, as it’s commonly misconstrued among lay people that cleaning up the top soil would be equal to cleaning up the total extent of the crude oil pollution. Providing a more vivid description of the situation, recall it being mentioned earlier that the extent of percolated crude pollution and its effects on ground water on which the region sits has been rendered unusable due to crude oil pollution. Understanding that abstracting ground water may require drilling up to 100m below soil level, if the water at these depths has already been polluted, the levels of percolation being reckoned with in these situations become more palpable. It is quite pragmatically impossible to dig up and remediate soil at more than a few metres below the surface and authoritatively speaking, when ground water becomes contaminated, the most cutting-edge technology available would require about a thousand years, literally, to make any perceptible difference. If the groundwater in the Niger Delta has already been polluted, barring hydrological surveys proving otherwise, it would be safe to assume that the water has been polluted forever. Also worth considering, is the expansive area ground water aquifers which may carry volumes of hundreds of thousands of litres of water, may occupy – usually covering areas spanning hundreds of square kilometres, sometimes surpassing the collective landmasses from which they are abstracted.
Other than just Ogoni, the entire polluted parts of the Niger Delta would hopefully be cleaned up but it has been estimated that over the course of at least the coming 50 years, even the least polluted regions of the Niger Delta may remain largely unproductive. No farming or agriculture would succeed on it, the rivers would remain devoid of economically tangible fish stock and the non-oil dependent economy of the Niger Delta would still exist in an uncertainty that would be largely debatable.
Notwithstanding however, it should be considered that in light of the information above, the actions of vandals, armed groups and self-acclaimed “freedom fighters” like the Niger Delta Avengers places the future of the Niger Delta in general, with particular respect to the implied socioeconomic imperatives, in assured turmoil. The fact here remains that no problem lasts forever, and if one administration does not see to their concerns and the improvement of their welfare, another would.
What would remain a given however, is the fact that irrespective of who decides to take care of their demands and their undeniable plight, the land of their fathers on which they incessantly seem to blow up oil installations and cause more spills and pollution, will remain so and will get even worse with their additions. Their farms will remain barren, their waters will continue being unusable and devoid of fish stock, basically, their actions now would only create more problems for them as they reasonably and hopefully would forsake their misguided actions and have some productive roles to play in the future development of the Niger Delta.
In conclusion, the reports of dishonesty and lack of planning coming from corporations like Shell that have pledged to assist in the clean-up process, raises no confidence. It raises no confidence from the general Nigerian public especially the Niger Delta people, prospective international investors, the international community in the light of Nigeria being one of Africa’s largest oil exporters and indeed the United Nations as an esteemed international humanitarian organisation in the competence and integrity of the Buhari-led APC administration.
The writer advises that progressive actions at least, if not swift should be carried out and the public duly informed lest the Ogoni clean-up be tagged as just another of the numerous promises of the present administration, even with due assistance from the private sector and concerned stakeholders, that is being tracked back on.
►Dumebi Okeke is a Coventry University (UK) trained Environmental Management Consultant and an enthusiast in the progress of the Nigerian Project.