Niger Delta Heavily Polluted Through Continuous Oil Spills

Published originally on Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization

Despite the recovery initiatives suggested by the United Nations, the Nigerian government has so far failed to take action against the ongoing oil spills, which are threatening the natural habitat of more than a million Ogoni people .

Below is an article published by Yale Environment 360:

The Ogoniland region of Nigeria has long been badly polluted by decades of oil production that has fouled the delta and contaminated drinking water. A United Nations report last year recommended a massive recovery initiative, but so far the Nigerian government has shown few signs it will agree to the cleanup project.

Over the past half century, oil companies have turned the Niger delta in West Africa, one of the world’s largest mangrove swamps, into a poisoned landscape. Twice the size of the Mississippi delta, it is today a desolate world of oil-encrusted creeks, dead fish, stinking swamps and charred soil, where villagers are exposed to dangerous levels of hydrocarbons in their drinking water. Last summer, hopes were raised when Royal Dutch Shell, the biggest operator there, appeared ready to sign up to a billion-dollar cleanup of the delta’s most polluted heart, Ogoniland. But now there is a growing fear that the Nigerian government is about to pull the plug on the cleanup project.

The delta rescue plan followed a two-year study by scientists from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). They surveyed 200 oil-spill sites and 120 kilometers of pipelines, studied soil and water from 800 contaminated boreholes, and held dozens of village public meetings.

Their report, published last August [2011], was damning. In spite of corporate claims of assiduous cleanup, “at some sites, a crust of tar and ash has been in place for several decades.” All the creeks were contaminated, the scientists found, often with floating layers of ancient oil. Most fish had departed.

UNEP scientists, led by Henrik Slotte, who heads the organization’s conflict and disaster management branch, said recovery was still possible. But it required “the world’s most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up exercise [in which] contaminated drinking water, land, creeks, and important ecosystems such as mangroves are brought back to full, productive health.” Cleaning up Ogoniland would cost an initial billion dollars and take up to 30 years, the report concluded. But the project could become a model for rehabilitating the rest of the blighted delta. UNEP director Achim Steiner said he hoped “the findings can break decades of deadlock in the region… and offer a blueprint for how the oil industry might operate more responsibly in Africa and beyond.”

The Niger delta contains the largest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated 40 billion barrels. Shell began oil pumping there in the late 1950s, when Nigeria was still part of the British Empire. Today its subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, extracts some 100 million barrels a year in a joint venture with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Company.

The oil revenues provide 80 percent of the Nigerian government’s income and have helped make Shell the fifth-largest corporation in the world. But the environmental conditions have become an increasingly embarrassing anachronism for the company. Leaks have proliferated. One estimate is that 1.5 million tons of oil have been spilled into the wetlands over the decades from the delta’s 5,000 oil wells and more than 5,000 kilometers of pipelines. And with all this happening amidst some 1,500 delta villages, where ten million fishers and farmers gain little from the vast wealth being created around them, it has also been a recipe for injustice and conflict.

On a visit a few years ago, I saw pipelines, large and small, snaking through villages and across fields and bush, usually with no fences or markings. The signs of spills and oil fires were everywhere. Villagers complained angrily that The pipelines that run across Ogoniland have repeatedly sprung leaks, due to both old age and sabotage. the oil poisoned their crops and emptied the creeks of fish, and handed me humble petitions asking for outside help.

Increasingly, the villagers have responded to their plight by taking hacksaws to the pipelines to steal oil and setting up makeshift refineries, where they distill the stolen crude to make diesel. This has compounded the delta’s devastation. Villagers say some local companies have even sabotaged pipelines as a way of extracting contracts to clean up the mess.

At the heart of the delta live more than a million Ogoni people. Ogoniland, just east of the main oil town, Port Harcourt, became a symbol of the delta’s crisis in the early 1990s when the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) decided to take on Shell and the Nigerian government. In 1995, after a bitter feud within the community, a federal court convicted nine activists, including the founder of MOSOP, Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, of killing rival community leaders. The activists were all hanged. Shell denied complicity in the executions, but made an out-of-court settlement on the matter in a New York court in 2009.

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