Soot, environmental degradation, poverty: Oil in Niger Delta – A blessing or curse? By Olusegun Akinfenwa




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Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer and the 13th largest oil producer in the world, with a maximum crude production capacity of 2.5 million barrels per day. Around 65 percent of government revenue comes from oil.

The West African country has made billions of dollars from oil sales in about 50 years of crude oil exploration. Despite the large income, oil-producing towns suffer from poverty and a slew of other economic and humanitarian issues, such as black soot, water, and plant degradation, unemployment and underemployment, gas flaring, and pipeline oil spills. 

Residents, including children and the elderly, have to deal with the health and economic consequences of these problems, most of which have existed for decades without any permanent solution.

Black soot, for example, is said to cause severe skin, respiratory, and reproductive diseases, and it’s slowly becoming a persistent threat in the Niger Delta region. According to a 2019 report, black soot-related illnesses contribute to an estimated 25,000 deaths in the region. 

Soot is a dark, powdery substance that majorly contains amorphous carbon, which comes from the incomplete burning of organic matter. Its small size makes it easy for it to get into the lungs and bloodstream, which can have a big impact on people’s health. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, it is one of the worst forms of air pollution on the planet.

The soot-related illness can cause pneumonia in children while adults can suffer from bronchitis and lung cancer, according to health professionals. A recent report from The Cable reveals that many locals already suffer health difficulties, including depressed and seriously depressed lung function activities. 

This, however, isn’t new in Niger Delta, south-southern Nigeria. For years, it has been a recurring problem in the region. The persistent presence of black soot in Rivers State sparked a nationwide outcry in 2016. In 2018, a technical team was tasked with determining the reasons for the 2016 incident. The committee’s findings show that unlawful bunkering and gas flaring were the main causes of the issue. Additionally, 16 months after the 2016 soot incident, death and morbidity rates went up by 30% in the states.

To date, the region is still suffering from adverse health and environmental effects, and many towns are still struggling to recover. There also seems to be no precautions in place to prevent a recurrence. The situation has deteriorated in recent months, and soot images obtained from the area are disturbing.

The Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV) believes the latest development is linked to an increase in Kpo-fire, a clandestine but lucrative oil bunkering activity in the region. Kpo-fire is a native oil extraction method that involves heating crude in an oven to extract petroleum products while releasing residue into the environment. This is done with no regard for the consequences to the ecosystem.

Other contributing factors to the black soot problem include contractors setting fire to crude oil sites as a cleanup procedure and security personnel burning stolen crude.

Residents in Port Harcourt, Rivers, a state in the Niger Delta region, spoke with Immigration Advice Service (IAS), complaining about the health and environmental effects of black soot.

Speaking to an IAS correspondent, Mildred Alerechi, a health style coach, complained that “The soot has been a big issue to the environment. In my house, we don’t open our doors or windows as the place gets dirty almost immediately after we clean up; My fingernails are also dirty for no reason; the soot finds its way into my nails.”

The state and federal governments’ seeming disregard for the suffering of the masses has been long-standing. Sadly, officials have not responded to the public’s request to eliminate the menace.

 “To the best of my knowledge, no worthwhile action has been taken yet; I’m certain they [the government] are aware of the root cause and can solve the problem if they want to.” said another resident of Port Harcourt who spoke with IAS.

According to a report by Wikipedia, “The advent of oil production has also negatively affected the Niger Delta region due to unprecedented oil spillage which has been happening for the past 5 decades making the region among the most polluted in the world.” Corruption in government agencies responsible for protecting the rights of Niger Delta residents’ has also contributed to the ongoing ecocide.

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) reported in 1983 that “the slow poisoning of the waters of this country and the destruction of good water source and vegetation and agricultural land by oil spills which happens during petroleum operations. But since the advent of the oil industry in Nigeria, over  fifty years ago, there has been no concerned and effective effort by the government, let alone the oil operators, to control environmental problems associated with the oil industry.”

Decades later, oil companies are still dodging responsibility for the environmental repercussions of the region’s oil extraction. Not long ago, a Dutch Appeal Court in Hague found Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) liable for polluting farmlands and fishponds in the Niger Delta.

Despite the court decision requiring SPDC to compensate the farmers affected by the pollution, the oil company claimed the damages were a result of sabotage, and hence it should not be held responsible.

It took around a year before the oil corporation began negotiating an out-of-court settlement with the affected farmers. It remains to be seen if both parties can finally agree on the appropriate sum to be paid by the oil company.

Most oil-producing areas in the Niger Delta are poor, suffer from unemployment, and lack basic social amenities, including drinkable water, power, good roads, hospitals, and a safe learning environment for school children.

While the people suffer as a result of these issues, foreign and local oil companies, as well as politicians,  make enormous gains from the proceeds of oil sales. Pollution due to leaking pipes, illegal bunkering, gas flaring, and other unwholesome activities has left many farmers and fishers jobless; their livelihoods continue to be negatively impacted by oil exploration.

“The by-products are usually dispensed on farmlands and into the rivers. Let’s take Ogoni as a case study; the oil spill has put a stop to fishing activities in that area, and it’s bad,” Michael Ndukwu, a student of the University of Port-Harcourt student, told IAS.

Nigeria’s unemployment problem is widespread, but the situation Niger Delta is an outlier because of some persisting underlying factors such as environmental deterioration resulting from oil exploration, which has a negative impact on fishing, farming, and other economic activities.

Dr. E.D Simon, a researcher at the Department of Mass Communication, Cross River University of Technology, Calabar, noted in a report on the causes of poverty and increasing unemployment rates in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, that the “Oil and mineral extraction in Niger Delta promoted the looting tendency by various government in Nigeria and have linked with the high rate of mortality, unusually high poverty rates, and poor health care. This means in effect that sustainable development can hardly be achieved under this unfavorable and in a secured environment”.

Compared to many other regions in Nigeria, the cost of living in the Niger Delta region is relatively high. As a result, the earnings and incomes of those residents who are employed are in most cases unsustainable.

Niger Delta residents face an even greater burden because of the ongoing destruction to farms and water that prevents them from producing food on their own, despite the fact that food transportation and importation are already expensive for Nigerians generally. Consequently, they rely heavily on imported food and those brought in from other regions of the country for their sustenance. This makes them even less well-paid even if they earn the same as people from other parts of the country.

Unlike other oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE who use proceeds for development, oil discovery, and exploration in Nigeria is more of a curse for the host communities. Their lands were green, rivers were clean, and overall health was better before the discovery of oil than now. 

Oil exploration might trigger an ecological disaster, which could lead to a humanitarian calamity in Nigerian host communities if no action is taken.

•Olusegun Akinfenwa is a political correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, a UK-based law firm that offers immigration services globally, including the US Citizenship and Immigration Process. Most of his work revolves around spreading awareness about the harsh socio-political realities confronting African society, with a view to bringing lasting solutions to them.