This Day (Lagos)

26 February 2013

Nigeria: Beyond Environmental Restoration in Ogoniland

Chineme Okafor writes that beyond environmental restoration, through cleanup, Ogoni people are clamouring for socio-economic restoration

The United Nations Environmental Programme's (UNEP's) report on oil pollution in Ogoniland in 2011, had noted that Ogoniland has a tragic history of pollution from oil spills and oil well fires. The UNEP raised concerns over the devastating effects of oil spillage in the environment, caused majorly by sabotage and equipment failures in the area and recommended inter alia that the polluted environment be restored to its safe status, prior to the commencement of crude oil production in the area by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) Limited.

Specifically, the UNEP report noted that Ogoni would need the world's largest ever oil cleanup, which could take up to 30 years to be completed.

Covering around 1,000 km in Rivers State, Ogoni has been the site of oil industry operations since the late 1950s.

For decades, the Ogoni people have raised the alarm over the degradation of their environment and the resultant effects on their livelihood. At the instance of the Federal Government, the UNEP conducted an independent assessment of the environment and public health impacts of oil contamination in Ogoni and thereafter proffered options for remediation, which include the creation of an Ogoniland environmental restoration authority, an environmental restoration fund for Ogoniland and a centre of excellence for environmental restoration. UNEP also called for campaign against environmental degradation in Ogoniland.

UNEP which has acquired an international reputation for assembling expert teams, coordinating demanding assessments and bringing scientific and empirical evidence to policymakers, initially consulted with a wide range of stakeholders to consider the scope and feasibility of the assessment.

Justifying its decision to undertake the assessment, UNEP stated in the report that: "The history of oil exploration and production in Ogoniland is a long, complex and often painful one that to date has become seemingly intractable in terms of its resolution and future direction.

It is also noted that the issue has put people and politics and the oil industry at loggerheads rendering a landscape characterised by a lack of trust and blame game.

"The reality is that decades of negotiations, initiatives and protests have ultimately failed to deliver a solution that meets the expectations and responsibilities of all sides", the report added.

The assessment, according to the UNEP, was an attempt by the Federal Government to navigate from stalemate to action in the resolution of the lingering problem.

Key Findings

The UNEP had noted that its findings represented the best available understanding of what had happened to the environment of Ogoniland and the corresponding implications for affected populations. The report covered contaminated land, groundwater, surface water, sediment, vegetation, air pollution, public health, industry practices and institutional issues.

The UNEP in its initial investigations identified 69 sites for detailed soil and groundwater investigations, in addition to samples of community drinking water, sediments from creeks, surface water, rainwater, fish and air which were collected throughout Ogoniland and in several neighbouring areas.

It stated that altogether, more than 4,000 samples were analysed, including water drawn from 142 groundwater monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study, and soil extracted from 780 boreholes.

The UNEP project team also examined more than 5,000 medical records and staged 264 formal community meetings in Ogoniland which was attended by over 23,000 people. It concluded from its field observations and scientific investigations that oil contamination in Ogoniland was widespread and severely impacting many components of the environment. The report added that even though the oil industry is no longer active in Ogoniland, oil spills had continued to occur with alarming regularity and that the Ogoni people live with this pollution every day of their lives.

UNEP also raised concerns over contaminated ground water, effects of the pollution to aquatic lives, vegetation and public health in Ogoniland. It specifically said in parts: "Oil pollution in many intertidal creeks has left mangroves denuded of leaves and stems, leaving roots coated in bitumen-like substance sometimes one centimetre or more thick. Mangroves are spawning areas for fish and nurseries for juvenile fish and the extensive pollution of these areas is impacting the fish life-cycle."

Any crops in areas directly impacted by oil spills will be damaged, and root crops, such as cassava, will become unusable. When farming recommences, plants generally show signs of stress and yields are reportedly lower than in non-impacted areas", the report added.

The UNEP also observed that when an oil spill occurs on land, fires often break out, killing vegetation and creating a crust over the land, making remediation or re-vegetation difficult. For instance, it said in Bodo West, in Bonny LGA, an increase in artisanal refining between 2007 and 2011 had been accompanied by a 10 percent loss of healthy mangrove cover, pointing out that if left unchecked, this may lead to irreversible loss of mangrove habitat in that area.

The UNEP thereafter recommended inter alia, eight emergency measures that included alienation of all hydrocarbon detected drinking wells, provision of adequate sources of water for affected areas as well as other far-reaching emergency measures considered as a duty of care and the creation of an Ogoniland environmental restoration authority to oversee implementation of the recommendations.

With a fixed initial lifespan of 10 years, the report advised that the agency should have a separate budget, which will accrue from an Ogoniland environmental restoration fund and its staff will largely be seconded from relevant national and state institutions.

It further added that the overall cost of the cleanup should not be an obstacle to its implementation considering an initial capital injection of $1 billion contributed by the oil industry and government.

FG's Hybrid Measure

Sequel to these recommendations, the federal government, through the Minister of Petroleum Resources had announced the approval and setting up of a hybrid measure known as the Hydrocarbon Pollution, Restoration Project (HYPRP) to assume the responsibility of implementing recommendations in the report.

Alison-Madueke stated that the project shall firstly implement the recommendation of the UNEP assessment report on Ogoniland and at the same time investigate, evaluate and establish other hydrocarbon impacted sites and make appropriate recommendations.

The minister was hopeful that with the establishment of HYPRP, all stakeholders especially the impacted communities would cooperate fully with government and grant unfettered access to all impacted sites to ensure complete success assessment.

In line with its mandate, HYPRP recently made its first technical visit to impacted sites in Ogoniland where it also monitored the status of its ongoing emergency measures in the communities.

The National Coordinator of HYPRP, Mrs. Joy Nunieh-Okunu, stated that the environmental restoration through cleanup would not commence immediately because the schedule of responsibilities were expected to be meticulously undertaken in sequence.

Socioeconomic Restoration

In seeming uniformed voices, stakeholders in Ogoniland wanted Nunieh-Okunu to quickly and appropriately restore the social economy of Ogoniland, which they said had been greatly impacted by environmental degradation. They noted that as a result of the degradation, which had affected indigenous economic activities such as farming and fishing, local young people in Ogoniland are currently left unemployed, a situation that was equally decried by Governor of Rivers State, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, when he played host to the HYPRP team that comprised experts from the John Hopkins University.

While some locals who spoke to THISDAY affirmed their desire to reasonably earn their livings, Amaechi asked the Federal Government to sincerely execute recommendations in the report, adding that sustainable implementation of recommendations in the UNEP report by HYPRP would be guaranteed by an infusion of appropriate socio-economic contents into the remediation schedule.

He said the people of Ogoni would mostly appreciate efforts of the government in implementing contents of the report when means of creating wealth to improve their socioeconomic status were justly included in the process.

Similarly, the Gbenemene Ken-Khana Kingdom, King M.S.H Eguru in a consultative forum with the HYPRP team re-echoed pleas for the restoration of viable socio-economic life in Ogoniland when he reiterated that Ogoniland needs real development and safe environment.

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