Government is not sincere about the much-touted clean-up of Ogoni land and beyond

The recent statement by the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) Director-General, Idris Musa that an average of five oil spills is recorded daily in Nigeria confirms the tragedy that inundates the life and livelihood of citizens in the Niger Delta. It is startling that in 2018, NODSTRA, as stipulated by international law, compiled and reported 600 oil spill-impacted sites, and identified over 700 of such sites last year. These spills not only point to the havoc that had been done to the nation’s environment, but also signals looming catastrophe in terms of loss of livelihood, forced migration and inevitable conflict.

First, it is important to state some of the credentials the Niger Delta parades in terms of environmental endowment. The region’s environment is believed to have four ecological zones: coastal barrier islands, mangrove swamp forests, freshwater swamps, and lowland rainforests. According to environmentalists, it is a well-endowed ecosystem that contains one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on earth, in addition to supporting abundant flora and fauna, arable terrain that can sustain a wide variety of crops, lumber or agricultural trees, and more species of freshwater fish than any ecosystem in West Africa.

However, oil exploration has negatively impacted this region due to unprecedented oil spillage, thus making the region one of the most polluted in the world. For over 50 years, unchecked oil spills during petroleum operations slowly poisoned the nation’s good water source in the delta, destroying its vegetation and agricultural land. Neither the government nor the operators in the oil industry lifted a finger to control the environmental problems and not even the decided cleanup of Ogoni land has seen the light of day.

We recall that President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned the first phase of the $1billion Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), brokered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in 2016. The Nigerian Conservation Foundation describes the latest data on oil spills in the country as catastrophic, and an indication that the environment of the Niger Delta region where these spills are occurring in a regular basis may not recover. Only those who have visited these Niger Delta communities can feel the pain and frustration of fisher folks who return home with empty nets after searching the sea all night, parting swats of floating oil for fish in futility.

There are often disturbing sights of various fish forms and other marine life covered with crude oil, struggling to escape, particularly when the tide ebbs. These fisher folks that depend on the sea for subsistence perennially fight all odds thrown at them by these avoidable spills that make even bathing and recreational swimming in beaches impossible, as those who dare to take a dip in the water surface with oil sheen all over them.

Crude oil film forms on surfaces of water and contaminates it, killing some of the aquatic life forms while others adopt survival strategy and relocate to more aerated environment. The predominant mangrove vegetation is also adversely affected by spills, as the leaves are unable to breathe, causing the plants to dry up. A point to understand is that crude oil should never be found on the surface; that is why it is got from beneath the earth, but when it spills either due to equipment failure or sabotage, it is usually difficult to clean up.

Environmentalists believe the government is insincere about the much-touted clean-up. Besides, it would be difficult to restore the biodiversity even if years of efforts were put into it. The best thing to do is to avoid circumstances that would cause oil spills. These can be averted with deliberate policies and strategies to mitigate current spills by implementing effective clean-up exercises and by stemming future spills either from equipment malfunction or sabotage.

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