The Niger Delta is among the 10 most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems in the world. In its pristine state, it is a fascinating destination with rich biodiversity, tourism prospects, diverse culture and according to numerous accounts; amazing food. It is however, home to some of the largest oil fields in the world, the abuse and mismanagement of which has been a bane to the region. Consistent improper oil exploration and production has generated astounding environmental pollution and destitution; disrupting agricultural activities and livelihoods as well as causing extensive air, soil and water pollution.
In addition to militancy, war, political strife, oil bunkering and vandalism, other tragic woes of the Niger Delta include aesthetically impaired landscape and poor health prospects for its inhabitants. Oil reportedly seeps out of leaky pipes in some areas, obliterating aquatic species and impacting wildlife. Soot is reportedly visible in many areas, settling on furniture, clothing and peoples’ skin. Dangerous levels of life-threatening pollutants have been detected in drinking water sources in many communities, constituting significant threats to humans particularly children. Certain medical reports signify a rise in health problems associated with air pollution over the last several years and life expectancy in the Niger Delta is 40, 10 years below Nigeria’s average.
While the focus of this article is remediation of the region and not blame appropriation, it is necessary to examine a few pertinent facts to effectively determine how the restoration of the region should progress.
Oil exploration started in the Niger Delta in the 1950s, with the oil exploring multinationals (notably) Shell, expanding rapidly over the subsequent years. In the first instance, the oil multinationals and other key industry players had the moral and social responsibility to improve the oil rich communities, which did not happen and was not negotiated. Despite the fortune realized from oil exploration (more than £ 30 billion worth of oil has been extracted from Ogoniland alone), the region has experienced no substantial socio-economic or infrastructural development. At some point, Shell proposed investing 1 500 million pounds into constructing new pipelines to avoid communities where so-called sabotage was rampant. If the company spent a tenth of that money developing the communities, we could argue the theft and vandalism would be averted.
Further, in the past, infrastructural mishaps or equipment failure have been responsible for massive oil spills, which were conveniently blamed on criminality and sabotage. Shell alone has admitted to 1 693 recent oil spills, releasing 55 809 000litres of crude oil into the environment since 2007, which according to multiple private research statistics, is a gross underestimate. The Nigerian law stipulates that oil operators commence clean-up of spills within 24 hours. Two years after the well-documented 2009 spill near K. Dere, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) detected massive pollution, well above the government’s safety limits. Apparent haphazard remediation attempts by the offending oil companies is another issue. According to Amnesty International, at least four spill sites that Shell publicly claimed to have cleaned up are still acutely contaminated even now. Soil around Bonu well II is according to research, still encrusted with oil decades after it blew out. Recent highly publicized clean-up endeavors (such as the clean-up of Ogoniland) have been stalled with little or no tangible progress or even prospects of progress in sight.
Negligence and irresponsible oil production and exploration, using techniques such as open gas flaring, which are cheaper but more hazardous and have been phased out in sane countries, is a matter that I think all Nigerians should hold the government, concerned regulatory institutions and oil companies to account for. Even though contemporary, eco-friendly technologies for extraction and exploration are available, oil companies operating in the region are hesitant to invest in these. This is due in large part, to lax state regulations and weak government control.
Irrespective of who is to blame, the oil multinationals, other western influencers, corrupt government officials or the so-called bandits, the restoration has to happen and must commence in earnest. It is estimated that clean-up will cost at least 1bn dollars and will take up to 30 years and so further delay is inimical. Nigerians seem to lack the vital appreciation for the need to replenish the region and prevent further pollution, but everyone needs to be aware of how important it is to remediate the polluted Niger Delta and start agitating for this. Relevant media personnel and outfits have to harp on these issues and continue to fuel the requisite debate.
This may influence the political will of the government of the day. We have to now insist on enforcing international standards and push for policies that will ensure sustainable oil exploration that will not compromise environmental integrity and public health wellbeing. There must be a blueprint for how the oil industry should operate responsibly in the region. A joint venture between the government and the oil companies as well as collaboration across other relevant boundaries to achieve clean-up is undeniably necessary. Compensation where needful, poverty alleviation schemes, stimulation of the economy, job creation, diplomatic measures to pressurize home countries to regulate the activities of the multinational companies are some other potential options to explore. Overall, to achieve sustainable remedy to the crisis, designed strategies and policies must seek to create political and social coherence in the region.
Oluwadara is a writer as well as an academic researcher. She is currently a PhD student at the Department of Food Science, University of Campinas