Since 2009, devastating oil spills have exposed thousands of fishermen and farmers in the oil-rich kingdom to toxic substances, affecting their health and destroying their farmlands and rivers. The clean-up process, however, is too slow.
OGONILAND, Nigeria — On a recent morning, an elderly woman sat on a sidewalk in southeast Nigeria's Gokana region. She held her palms to her chest as she coughed, a disturbing sight that has become all too common ever since big oil corporations such as Royal Dutch Shell began their drilling operations in the oil-rich region.
If local councillor Kpobari Vieme had come across the coughing woman, he would blame oil companies for her health condition.
“It’s hell here," he says. “People go to polluted streams to fetch drinking water. We inhale the polluted air, farm and fish from the same polluted environment.”
The 37-year-old who doubles as a fisherman represents Bomu, a small fishing community in Ogoniland, a popular oil-rich kingdom in Niger Delta, a 35-minute drive from the bustling city of Port Harcourt in Nigeria’s Southeast region. For about 10 years now, he has noticed a sharp rise in the number of people suffering from diseases and breathing difficulties. He believes the mining and drilling operations on the region's oil and gas reserves pollutes the environment as the toxic fumes and substances have so far affected 111 villages.
It began in early October 2008, when a devastating oil spill occurred in Ogoniland, affecting several coastal communities including Bomu, Bodo and Goi. The oil pipeline belonging to Shell l cracked open, discharging crude oil for over two weeks. The villagers alerted Shell officials, but they were slow to respond. By the time the pipes were plugged, at least 14,000 tonnes of crude oil had been pumped into the soil. The oil contaminated the river where the villagers from Bomu community fished and drank water from. Even the farmlands close to the water were soaked in crude.
For about one million people in Ogoniland, the effect was immediately disastrous. Fishermen like Vieme whose families, including his aging parents, rely on revenue from fishing to feed themselves and send their children to school, were left with nothing. “The entire aquatic life was destroyed,” Vieme told TRT World.
The first few months after the spills occurred were the worst. In Bomu, there were no fish at all for fishermen to catch, even when they went deep into the open sea. The mangrove forests that wrapped the river like a cocoon disappeared, taking with them the abundant periwinkles, shellfish and oysters the villagers used to pick easily. An entire ecosystem had been killed in the space of months.
Nigeria has the largest oil-producing mines in Africa – and the bulk of its crude lay beneath farmlands and rivers in Ogoniland. Companies like Shell extract about 100 million barrels of crude every year, and generate billions of dollars in revenue. Shell alone has up to 50 facilities in the Niger Delta region.
While mining in Ogoniland has gone on for over six decades, residents say they have hardly benefited from the wealth generated from their land. Around 70 percent of the Ogoniland population lives in poverty. The very resource that is supposed to bring development has destroyed the land, many believe, pointing fingers at Shell. The company, which started pumping oil in 1958, has been accused of gross mismanagement of its 5,000 km network of pipes, many of which have become weak and corrosive, leaking oil into soil and water.
Amnesty International estimates that Shell and Eni spilled over 5 million litres of oil in 2014 alone. After the 2009 spill and another in 2012, Shell claimed to have cleaned up the areas affected. But in 2015, Amnesty International again accused Shell of using glossy marketing to disguise half-hearted clean-up attempts.
Vieme decided to run for office to put a stop to the atrocities of Big Oil companies in Ogoni. Old farmers like his parents had been bullied enough, he thought. In 2012, Vieme and other residents teamed up with London-based law firm Leigh Day to sue Shell in a UK court. He was prepared to testify against the company with several incriminating reports he wrote himself. In 2015, Shell chose to settle out of court by paying 55 million Euros to the Bodo community and affected areas, the first compensation Shell would pay since it began extracting oil in Ogoniland. Vieme and many others above 18 received N600,000 (2,200 Euros), money he describes now as “a joke.”
Many residents built houses that remain incomplete. Vieme returned to fishing, casting his nets into the river to catch tarp fish. Much to his disappointment, what he pulled out was empty nets with oil streaks on them.
Cleaning the creeks
There is a heavy feeling of desertion at the Bon-ura waterfront in Bomu. The waterside is empty and eerily quiet, except for two fishermen wading into blackened water, preparing to take their canoe deep into the Atlantic in hopes of getting some fish.
Julius Gawa, a 73-year-old fisherman, stands by the shoreline in a cream polo shirt, surveying the devastation before him. The shore, where he stands is charred and pockets of oily water have collected in the marshy land. The river itself seems to be retreating into itself, as though wary of coming too close to the bank. It is hard to imagine that before the spills, these very shores used to house thousands of acres of thick mangrove forest.
Then, fishermen like Vieme and Gawa could simply dig in with their hands to pick periwinkles. There were a lot more people too. Young people swimming in the river and washing their clothes on the bank; fishermen doing their business and women carrying buckets of water to their small bungalows.
Now, there is only barren land, an unnatural quiet and the faint smell of crude. Young people have abandoned fishing because there’s hardly any fish to catch, and rowing 30 km to Bonny or Andoni is hectic.
So when in 2016, Vieme heard on the radio that the government would be implementing a huge clean-up project, he, like many others, was beyond ecstatic. The clean-up was announced and celebrated in June, at a heavily glamourised flag-off party attended by Nigeria’s Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, who promised that “the clean-up will ensure job creation for young people and agro-allied industries required for processing of agricultural produce will be put in place.”
The clean-up exercise was a culmination of community agitation spanning over 20 years. Ken Saro-Wiwa, an Ogoniland native and activist had been executed alongside other supporters in 1995 for daring to question the Nigerian government over Shell’s irresponsible mining in the area. The killing of Saro-Wiwa brought international attention to oil pollution in the delta. This clean-up, residents thought, would be a form of justice for their son.
The Hydrocarbon Pollution project (HYPREP), under the Nigerian environment ministry, is to take charge of the clean-up in collaboration with international oil companies operating in Ogoniland.
But nearly three years after the flag-off, the actual process has not started. There are no boots on the ground in Bomu, Bodo or any of the other communities affected. While Bodo has been visited for sensitization and health outreach programs, Bomu residents have not seen any HYPREP officials at all.
“It’s really on paper,” Chief Emma Pii, a community leader in Bodo, says of the clean-up. Sitting in a study in his unpainted bungalow, the 64-year-old noted that while the clean-up would require intense planning, the actual work is taking way too long to start. “We have not seen anything on [the] ground and we keep hearing they will come. But I cannot point you to a HYPREP site right now. No contract, medical care person or even contractors on site.”
Residents thought the clean-up would kickoff by 2017 based on a 2011 UNEP assessment report that recommended it start immediately. Funded by the international oil companies operating in Ogoni and the Nigerian government, the report estimates the clean-up will take 30 years, with the first five years costing $1 billion.
The clean-up date has been shifted multiple times this year, yet no one knows exactly when the exercise will commence. UNEP’s report listed emergency measures to be taken in the meantime, including the provision of an alternative source of water for Ogoni villages. Water sources in some areas are highly contaminated and contain cancer-causing substances – 900 times above the World Health Organization’s guidelines.
HYPREP has been accused of gross mishandling of funds, which has led to the delay in the clean-up. On its website, HYPREP says it is in the process of awarding contracts for the clean-up. But many Ogonis have grown sceptical of the process, which they describe as vague and poorly outlined. Nubari Saatah, a writer and Ogoni activist from Bomu believes “HYPREP is a scam.”
A source familiar with the organisation says the funds are available but bureaucracy in the government is slowing down the process and the provision of clean water sources. The source said the process will take time, and urged residents to be patient. But for Ogoni residents who have been waiting for remediation for years, patience, they say, is a luxury.
'Water not fit for use'
It was in 2010 that Vieme and other residents of Bomu first noticed the signpost warning them not to drink from the borehole in the village centre, the one borehole that serves the entire community. “PROHIBITION!” black letters screamed on a white background. The sign had been erected by the HYPREP committee after it was found that groundwater serving the borehole had been affected by the blowout of Shell’s pipelines in 2009. The oil spill resulted in a fire that had burned for 36 hours, coating the soil in bitumen, according to Amnesty International reports.
Yet, seven years after the UNEP report was released, the people of Bomu, Bodo and other affected villages still rely on the same sources of water. The effect has been a rise in unknown diseases and death, residents say.
“It’s like living in a gas chamber,” 58-year-old Pii says. “We bury not less than 10 people every weekend in this community,” he continues, pointing to posters announcing obituaries from a window in his study.
Pii does not exaggerate. Throughout Bomu and Bodo, similar posters are stuck on wooden poles and fences in their dozens. The oldest age the posters announce is 56. The posters don’t show any children – traditionally, the death of children is not announced. Even pregnant women are at risk. Pii says a large percentage of pregnant women deliver stillborn babies.
A 2017 report by the University of St Gallen researchers echoes the chief’s claims. Researchers revealed that oil spills occurring within a 10 km radius of a pregnant woman strongly raises the risk of neonatal deaths by 38 percent per 100,000 live births. It doesn’t end there though, the study says children who manage to survive the neonatal period may suffer from health consequences like low weight-to-height ratio during their first year of life.
Still, families can hardly stop eating the toxic farm produce they harvest or drinking the water available, explains Vieme. Even as he speaks, women and children pass by with buckets of water from the stream. The problem is not a lack of awareness. “We’re helpless,” he cries, “Even though we are aware of the danger, we still go there. If not, we will die of hunger and starvation.”