For years, the despoliation of the Niger Delta region, has remained one of the most topical issues, not just in the circles of environmentalists, it also remains a major unresolved issue for the international community and most importantly, residents of the affected areas. Emmanuel Addeh writes
The Delta, reputed to be the largest wetland in Africa, for decades has witnessed some of the most massive oil spills engendered mostly by oil companies operating in the area.
Spurred on by Nigeria’s weak regulatory institutions, many of the multinationals have ridden roughshod on the communities they operate, sometimes, it is believed, even with the connivance of local elites, who get tipped for their active silence.
Aside the activities of the oil giants, the monumental damage done to nature’s priceless gift to the region by illegal oil bunkering syndicates mainly induced, to a large extent, by poverty, unemployment, dwindling opportunities, greed and ignorance have continued to unsettle mother earth’s delicate balance in the region.
The effects of the activities of these spills on the environment which have been the subject of various researches by academics are common knowledge.
From health issues ranging from cancer, breathing problems, including asthma and bronchitis, skin lesions and diarrhoea, to even more existential challenges like the loss of sources of livelihood like fishing and farming, the effects have been devastating.
Reports by the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), estimated that 1.89 million barrels of petroleum were spilled into the Niger Delta between 1976 and 1996 out of a total of 2.4 million barrels spilled in 4,835 incidents.
In the same vein, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report states that there were a total of 6,817 oil spills between 1976 and 2001, which accounted for a loss of three million barrels of oil.
The report held that more than 70 per cent of the spills were not recovered, adding that 69 per cent of them occurred offshore, a quarter in swamps and six per cent spilt on land.
Put side by side with what currently obtains, the figures would show that what is obtainable now is mere child’s play compared to the damage done by the combined activities of oil companies and oil thieves in the past.
Indeed the figure of 4,835 incidents of oil leakages in 20 years and 6,817 in another 25 years, according to the DPR and the UNDP above, would shockingly dwarf the ones released by the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) recently.
A report published by the agency in 2015, noted that over 9, 343 spills were recorded in just less than 10 years, covering 2006 to 2015, a huge increase which NOSDRA said was the worst in the world.
But the destruction of the Niger Delta environment and its flora and fauna by oil companies and crude oil thieves apart, a new phenomenal danger has crawled in in the last couple of years.
It is the open destruction and burning of illegal refineries, crude oil vessels and containers used by suspected criminals by security forces fighting vandalism and militancy in the Niger Delta.
This exercise has become standard practice in all operations carried out by the military-led Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta, and it is further adding to the pollution of the already despoiled environment, respondents say.
The routine is simple. It is usually observed during tens of operations in the Niger Delta witnessed by THISDAY that either fire is set directly to the illegal refineries, drums and cans, a bullet is shot into the combustible substances, they are simply bombed aerially by military warplanes or holes are dug on the vessels, allowing the oil to distill to the earth.
This practice has resulted in the spill of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of barrels of crude oil into the earth and the rivers which millions of children, generations unborn, would depend on for survival.
If “continuous improvement “ remains the bedrock of all military organisations, close observers of the goings-on in the region believe that there should be a new way of doing things, rather than the crude way crude oil is emptied into the Niger Delta environment by the security forces.
It might be ‘understandable’ when oil companies advertently or inadvertently degrade the environment for the profit motive or when youths vandalise pipelines because they want to make a living or when militants burst a pipeline to drive home a point.
But what many reason as incomprehensible is why security operatives in what appears to be a case of cutting the nose to spite the face, would continuously degrade the area in the exercise of their legitimate duty of stopping economic sabotage in the Niger Delta region.
The federal government-sanctioned destruction of the Niger Delta environment has far-reaching implications, both immediate and remote for the present and future generations.
For one, petroleum hydrocarbons, reputed to be one of the world’s worst contaminants, when allowed to spill into the earth’s surface could be very ‘stubborn’ and would usually take multiple decades to remedy, especially if done in large quantities.
The effects of the damage done to the environment in the Niger Delta have been the subject of hundreds of researches.
Indeed, Kadafa Ayuba, a researcher at the University of Malaysia, in a research work published in the journal of global frontier research, environment and earth sciences describes the Delta region as an ‘ecological wasteland’.
Quoting Ukoli M.K and Briggs K.T, Ayuba says “Birds and mammals are especially vulnerable to oil spills when their habitats are contaminated. And this may reduce reproductive rates, survival and (increase in) physiological impairments.”
The report adds that “In water, oil film floating on the water surface prevents natural aeration and leads to death of fresh water or marine life and on land, leads to the retardation of vegetation growth and cause soil infertility for a very long time.”
So what is the way forward? Can the Nigerian military devise new methods of getting rid of illegally refined oil in the Niger Delta without necessarily causing an even more long-lasting effect of damaging the environment in the region?
Mr. Morrison Alagoa is of the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth International, ERA/FoeN, dedicated to the defence of ecosystems, and promotion of environmentally responsible governments, businesses and individuals.
The environmentalist tells THISDAY that despite several public presentations, pleas and pressure mounted by the organisation on the Nigerian authorities, nothing seems to have changed.
“About three years ago, we did a report on this issue. What we recommended was that instead of setting the bush refineries on fire and polluting the environment, the vessels can be guarded to a special location where the oil can be recovered and the materials used in preparing them can be destroyed.
“We believe that things should be done in a more organised way. On a field trip recently we saw a thick smoke in our front from a distance.
“When we got close, we saw that it was fire burning across the river. They said the military set the river on fire and some soldiers we met there said that was the last order,” Alagoa said.
He added that the soldiers told him that if the oil and facilities were not immediately destroyed and spilt immediately, they (officers) would be seen as complicit in the oil bunkering business by their superiors.
Alagoa further argued, “Why not take them to a special depot, offload them in an official site where the oil can be taken by the government.”
Part of the damage done by the open destruction, Alagoa, himself from the riverine area, maintained, has been the complete extinction of a staple in the coastal areas of Bayelsa, called ‘Cocoa Massi’.
“It is one of our special foods called Cocoa Massi. It has disappeared completely because of the massive carbon coming down as acid rain. Today, we hardly see this plant.“
According to him, the spill caused by the military has the same effect as the one done by militants who sabotage oil facilities and vandals who burst oil pipelines.
Another top environmental activist in the Niger Delta and National Coordinator, Centre for Peace and Environmental Justice (CEPEJ), Mr. Sheriff Mulade, spoke in the same vein, expressing frustration that all the efforts of his organisation have been fruitless.
“That is an issue we have raised several times. I am from those communities, so I talk about it with a lot of pains. We have told them several times that they are destroying the ecosystem.
“We know that these products (crude oil) are already government products. All they need to do is to take the products to the refinery and make sure they destroy the facilities, including Cotonou boats.
“They are destroying the environment and people are losing their sources of livelihood. The military is causing more havoc instead of protecting the environment,” he opined.
THISDAY made several efforts to reach the Joint Task Force (JTF), Operation Delta Safe (OPDS), waiting many days for their response.
The Acting Spokesman, Joint Media Campaign Centre, in the Niger Delta, Lt. Commodore, Thomas Otuji, said since the substantive Director of Information, JMCC had just arrived from a course, he (Otuji) was no longer qualified to speak on the matter.
When contacted, Lt. Col, Olaolu Daudu, the substantive coordinator of the centre was not forthcoming.
Also, calls and a text message put through to the Director, Defence Information, Abuja, Gen. Abubakar Rabe, were not replied.
But as what appears to be an official policy of government continues to endanger the lives of millions of residents of coastline communities in the Niger Delta, not a few believe that the future of locals in those areas remains uncertain and largely unassured.