Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How bad have oil spills been in the Niger-Delta?

Anyone remember that Exxon Valdez spill in the U.S.? Were you wondering how bad that was in comparison to the destruction in the Niger-Delta? Well, in 2006...

Up to 1.5 million tons of oil, 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster, has been spilt in the ecologically precious Niger Delta over the past 50 years, it was revealed yesterday.

A panel of independent experts who travelled to the increasingly tense and lawless region said damage to the fragile mangrove forests over the past 50 years was tantamount to a catastrophic oil spill occurring every 12 months in what is one of the world's most important ecosystems.

As well as threatening rare species including primates, fish, turtles and birds, the pollution is destroying the livelihoods of many of the 20 million people living there, damaging crops and fuelling the upsurge in violence, it was claimed.

The Delta is home to 7,000sq km of the continent's remaining 9,000sq km of mangrove and scientists believe some 60 per cent of West Africa's fish stocks breed in the rivers and swamps along the coast.

All this talk about oil spills got me curious about the Niger-Delta situation and how the spills have adversely affected livelihood there. I'll be doing this continually throughout the week, but check out the result of this oil spill in one of the villages that constitute Okpella, some 400 miles out from Abuja, in 2002.

The spill took place in one of the villages that constitute Okpella, 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) from the Nigerian capital, Abuja. The refined crude oil seeped into the underground water supply and then into a stream which provides the villages with water.

Investigation revealed that more than 53 wells in the town have become polluted as specks of refined crude float in the water. The villagers have abandoned these wells as they now consider this water unfit for human consumption.

Jumeh Ibrahim is a native woman of the town, a farmer who lives 20 meters (65 feet) from the burst pipeline.

"We have lost a lot of goats from the problem," Ibrahim said. "They die when they drink the polluted water. There are now many cases of dysentary and malaria. Some people have ignored warnings and drunk out of the polluted water."

The oil spill has also affected the farmlands of the community. Crops are now visibly withered due to the presence of toxic materials in the soil, a major blow to a population that depends on farming for its survival.

The inhabitants grow plantains, yams, cassava, coconuts, groundnut, potatoes and other crops, but most are destroyed and drying up in the aftermath of the spill.


A key difference, of course, is that what's happening in the Niger-Delta is that a lot of oil spills also come from theft on the pipelines, which only serves to compound the problem. From Fox Business:

In 2009 13,900 metric tons of oil were spilled into the Niger Delta as a direct result of sabotage or theft, more than double the 2008 total and four times the 2007 figure, Shell said in its annual sustainability report.

Shell also quadrupled its estimate of the amount of oil it spilled in the region due to accidents in 2008 to 8,800 tons following the completion of investigations.

Still, according to Nigeria's law on the books, the oil companies must clean up the mess even if the spill happened following sabotage or theft. No, that doesn't happen. No, don't ask me why it doesn't. In fact, if you have to ask, you clearly don't know Nigeria.

I wouldn't go nearly as far as saying that the oil spill in the US at the moment is a good thing. Complete erosion of coastline that will take years (decades?) to reverse is not something that should be taken lightly, nor taken with any measure of schadenfreude. If this does indeed make more people aware of the situation in the Delta, fine. But I would ask why this is what it took. More to the point, if this is what it had to take. And I don't think this whole oil spill business in the US is going to make any of these oil guys blush. They're still at their shenanigans in the Delta after having to pay the Ogoni people $15.5 Million following a lawsuit in Dutch court, and they're still at it. Gas flaring has been going on forever, even though it's been officially abolished since 1984. There's no reason why this should continue. There's no reason to expect it to stop.

Here's what I'll be looking at this whole week:

Amnesty International Report in 2009 on Niger-Delta
A recent history of oil spills in the Niger-Delta

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