A Ghanaian proverb advises: "A person who is sufficiently prepared for any eventuality is hardly overtaken by events."
Gradually but steadily, Ghana is elbowing its way into a comity of nations where she could be described as an oil producing country. No matter how long it may take Ghana to actually join the cartel of those powerful nations on this planet of elegance known as Oil Producing Countries (OPEC), Ghanaians must be grateful and thankful to the Creator for the natural resources bestowed upon this land of their birth.
Out of 60 years of political independence so far, ten could be characterised as a decade of oil exploration. It was in June 2007 that the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation (GNPC) led the Kosmos Energy of the USA and the E.O. Group of Companies to present the first bottle of sample crude oil to former President J.A. Kufuor at the Castle Osu, Accra.
President Kufuor was full of broad smiles when the sample oil was poured like honey into a plate for him to see. The temperature of public expectations of economic prosperity shot up to 99.9 degree centigrade. It was thought that with oil discovery in commercial quantities, all the economic woes of the nation were gone forever and ever. "Kpaaoo"!
Since then, three other Ghanaian Heads of State, namely, Prof. J.E.A. Mills, President J. D. Mahama and President Nana A.D. Akufo-Addo, have all had the privilege to switch on valves in December 2010, August 2016 and July 2017 of Floating, Production, Storage and Offloading (FPSO), for oil and gas to flow onto our blessed land. It is ten now. Are we still in that child like jubilation over oil and gas production in Ghana? Life remains miserable for the majority of Ghanaians. So, people are asking where the oil money is. "Naa sika nu wohi"?
The object of this article is not about jubilation and singing of hosanna halleluiah because Ghana has been producing oil and gas for the past ten years. Rather, to find out whether the country has any contingency plan in place to respond to oil spillage whenever disaster strikes?
As a layman in disaster management in general and oil spill response in particular, my only business here is to share some basic knowledge acquired at a training workshop organised by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for environmental stakeholders including the media recently. The workshop was held under the joint-collaboration of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the Global Initiative for Western, Central and Southern Africa (GIWACAF) and the Global Oil and Gas Industry Association for Environmental and Social Issues (IPIECA), sponsored by some seven Oil Companies.
The event took place at the magnificent Institute of Environmental Studies - Ghana, located at Amasaman near Accra. It was themed: National Exercise to test the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) from 27 - 30 June 2017.
Mercifully, it was gratifying to know that the Environmental Protection Agency, which is the statutory body established by the Environmental Protection Agency Act, 1994 (Act 490) was able to put in place a National Contingency Plan as far back as 1986 to combat pollution of the sea and the coastline by oil and other noxious and hazardous substances in the country.
Periodically, key stakeholders of the NOSCP have been embarking on some kinds of exercises with specific objectives. Records show that the last exercise on national oil spill contingency plan preparedness was conducted in March 2017 here in Accra. The EPA in collaborated with Tullow Oil, the Ghana Armed Forces, especially the Navy and the Ghana Air Force Units and other stakeholders including the media participated in that exercise.
An Information Centre was created at the EPA Headquarters that handled the flow of information to the press and the public and feedback to the Navy Command Centre. The outcome of that exercise was fruitful and insightful indeed!
The Amasaman Training Workshop
The Amasaman Training workshop, as the theme indicates, was meant to do some practical exercise, dubbed "tabletop exercise" to test the NOSCP and to build on the previous work of improving and developing the country's capacity to respond to oil spills. Two expatriate trainers from UK who served as resource persons included a veteran marine operation and emergency response expert of 40 years' experience, Mr. Joe Small, who is also an IMPO/IPIECA Consultant.
The other was Clément Chazot, GL WACAF Project Manager. The course content covered areas of Incident Management System (IMS), Incident Command Structure - involving advising, planning operations, logistics and finances, implementation response action plan, deployment of resources (people and equipment), and above all Incident Response Communications, which concerned the media.
Incident Response Communications
For the purpose of this article, I should like to dwell on the communications component of the training course for the benefit of media practitioners. We were told that during crisis, especially when oil spillage occurs at sea, information movement must take two dimensions, vertical - that is internally and horizontal - externally. But the flow of information to the media and the public must be carefully crafted in order not to create fear and panic.
Communications strategy ought to be planned in such a way that the incident response team should receive feedback or reactions from the media and the public while the rescue operations were on going at sea. The best way to achieve this is to establish a Command Centre where various professionals including information and communication will be directing affairs. That is what is referred to in this context as Command Structure.
Information management during crisis situation demands that only one spokesperson must serve as a liaison between the emergency response team and the media and the public. Such a person must be knowledgeable and give accurate and concise information without doubling in technicalities to confuse media practitioners.
Experience has proved that most often, during emergency situations, people tend to engage in speculations, misinformation, distortions, manipulations and exaggerations. Everybody will report the incident from their own perceptions and understanding, especially on social media. This is why the communications professional at the command centre must be on top of issues and have facts and figures at his or her finger tips, but at the same time must give out only the appropriate information for public consumption.
Again, during oil spill incident, the communication plan must address priority issues. For example, when disaster occurs, the first thing to consider is human lives. While the rescue operations team must think of saving lives at sea, the communication response team too, must be sensitive to people's emotions, and know their target audience. In Ghana, the way naked dead bodies are bundled and dangled around during disasters is not the best. Body bags should be used for that purpose.
Table Top Exercise
Workshop participants broke into three groups with Group 1 made up of Command/Communications Centre under the leadership of the Ghana Navy; Group 2 Rescue Operations/Planning/Action Plan; and Group3 Administration/Finance /Logistic sections. A case study was presented where imaginary Marine Vessels MV Onward Prince & MV Gulf Trader collided in Ghanaian waters off Tema. One of the vessels was badly damaged with casualties and thousands of tons of oil spills spreading very fast towards a fishing community at Ada on Ghana's eastern coastline. That was the problem of the day.
Quickly, various environmental stakeholders were called for emergency response. A rescue operation was activated. On the part of the Incident Communications Response team a scenario was created where local canoe fishermen's Association wrote to the Command Centre for information: "We hear reports of an oil spill off Tema. Can you advise us, urgently, of any dangers and the potential impacts on our livelihoods? We need reassurances that fishing can continue and that the revenue for our families is unaffected."
This writer stood in for EPA's Head of Public Relations who was responsible for information management between the media and the public. First a press release was issued giving relevant background information of the incident to both print and electronic media. Then it was advised that some EPA officials were quickly dispatched to the fishing community at Ada to have interpersonal communication with the chief fisherman and his people.
They were assured that indeed, the incident had occurred but rescue operations were activated to contain the situation. They were assured that their fishing activities would not be affected in any way. Information Cinema Vans were also mobilised for street announcement and to educate the people about the incident in their own languages. But they were cautioned not to go near to the disaster zone for fishing.
While dealing with the local media and affected communities, Togolese authorities through the Gl WACAF Focal Point in that country also sent a dispatch to Ghana government: "Understand you are dealing with an oil spill in your waters. Can you advise, urgently, the threat to Togolese waters and, if so, the timescales?"
In response, the Communications Response team drafted a Note Verbale for Ghana's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration for the Togolese Ambassador in Accra via Gl WACAF Focal Point to assure the country's neighbours that everything was under control and that the oil spilled had been contained with booms; therefore, there was no cause for alarm.
Finally, Ghana's Minister for Environment, Science and Technology and Innovation was invited to brief Parliament about the oil spill disaster and what was being done to address the situation. Here too, the Communications Response team was tasked to draft a statement for the Environmental Minister to report to Parliamentarians.
Indeed, the Amasaman training workshop was an eye opener. The rescue operations encountered some logistical challenges and lack of effective coordination among various stakeholders here and there. But some lessons were learnt. And that was the essence of the Table Top Exercise to test the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan of Ghana.