Nigeria Has Uphill Task in Pollution Control - Nnimmo Bassey

24 April 2019

Nnimmo Bassey, a Board of Trustee member of Ogoniland Cleanup, spoke on the level of pollution in Nigeria and other environmental issues. Excerpts:

Sometime in 2009, you said Nigeria is sitting on a time bomb given the high level of pollution in the country, do you think anything has changed?

The pollution situation in Nigeria has deteriorated because since then we have had more sources of pollution. Now oil spills and gas flaring have continued in the Niger Delta. Water pollution is still continuing across the country. In Kano, the Chalawa River is still polluted; Kaduna River is still polluted; the Lagos lagoon is polluted, and we still have no comprehensive plans for solid waste management.

Solid waste management is the easiest thing because it is solid waste and easy to collect at domestic, household, industrial and city levels. But up till now I don't know how many locations we have properly planned and constructed land field locations.

Solid waste could be thrown into borrowed pits or holes along the high way and they create serious contaminants in the ground water and the soil and then of course we have genetic pollution which is a new level that we didn't have before. I am talking of genetic engineering. We have genetically modified organism either at field trial or released into the field which once they cross pollinate with natural species, they constitute pollution.

We also have military pollution from the fight against Boko Haram. Many areas like Sambisa forest are places to be decontaminated because of the use of weapons and these are a specialist kind of pollution that requires specialists to handle. SoI will say in a whole that we still have a mountain to climb when it comes to pollution.

You also recommended a national environmental audit, has it been done?

My advice has not been taken on that. We have not had environmental audit in this country and it is a complex endeavour. I actually recommend that we should be having annual state of the environment reform every year.

What is the state of our environment? How was it last year? What is it this year? Where are we going? What things have improved and what has been tolerated?

Environmental conflict has been a major concern in the Niger Delta, how can it be addressed?

When it comes to conflict arising from natural resources, that has been the case with the Niger Delta for many years. This can be based on the premise that the residents of the communities are not really integrated into the management of the resources or the revenue derived from the resources.

When people are not integrated with a particular resource utilization, that's already a recipe for conflict;when you take steps of managing the environment or managing the resources and then you create divide and rule to polarise communities, you are already creating conflict. For example, you find some people saying it's a host community to oil companies and this one is not a host oil community, and that they should not benefit from the resource of the community or area.

In terms of pollution, it does not stay in one community, when you contaminate the air it doesn't respect village boundaries or community boundaries it all spills on rivers, traverse to areas that don't even have facilities and that's another area that creates conflict because people are unhappy at different levels. They are unhappy with the Federal Government, because the government owns everything and the people own nothing and the 13 per cent you send to the state doesn't reach down to the people. So there is enough ground for people to be discontented.

In the Niger Delta, right from the 1990s, one of the responses of government was to militarize the region as a way of stopping conflict. But militarizing the region adds another level to conflict which is the problem.

The solution is to democratize ownership of resources - let our forests be owned and managed by forest communities; let our resources whether gold or silver, diamond or oil be principally owned by the communities where it is found and then we can tax or take 99 per cent tax. The sense of ownership gives people a sense of inclusion; they know that this belongs to me and therefore I have a duty to protect it.

We call it resource democracy. These resources are a gift given to us by nature, we didn't create them, we treat them as stewards, the stewardship relationship to natural resources will remove a lot of the conflict that we have and that is what is happening in our traditional societies.

People relate with nature with respect because we know that nature gives us life; we belong to where it is found. We are just one specie amongst millions and billions of species on earth.

As a board member of the Ogoni Cleanup, going by conflicting reports from government and the communities, what is the true state of the cleanup?

The process has been slow, that's given, but there are reasons for the slowness. Number one, the report by the United Nations Programme was released to the government in August 2011 and it was a year after that the first HYPREP was set up by then president Jonathan and then it wasn't until this government came in that the process took a faster pace. We saw a lot of formal ceremonial events that raised a lot of the people's expectations,but people needed to see things happening immediately.

One thing that has not happened but which ought to since 2011 is the alternative water supply already for the people. Up to now there is no alternative water supply so people still have to drink contaminated water.

When ground water is contaminated, individual efforts at drilling boreholes will not produce clean water because they can't go deep enough. People get to the first aquiver and they strike water loaded with hydrocarbon. To get the real clean water, if you are an industrial business, takes a lot of money.

Government has to provide alternative water supply to the Ogoni people. The second thing UNEP recommended, which I think is very critical, is to conduct audit on what is really wrong with the people - is it connected to the pollution or not - because life expectancy in Niger Delta region due to the pollution is 41 years.

The actual process of the cleanup is not as easy as people would imagine. The exercise has not been carried out at the scale that is required of Ogoni, not to talk of the whole Niger Delta or anywhere in the world. The level of pollution over here is incredible, it is widespread, and it's deep and its complex.

Now, even if you commission a set of HYPREP today, they have to get consultants to actually measure what needs to be cleaned up because if you don't have that, you cannot place monetary value to it, so you can't give out the contract.

To me it's not something you can rush, you need to be sure and agree on the method of the cleanup.

There are different methods, is it the chemical or bio remediation and who has the capacity to do it. So all these things take time to prepare and of course setting up the structure, the government council and getting the money. Now we have no issue with getting the money I can assure you of that because as at last year, the first tranche was released and now the polluters, which are the oil companies, are ready to release the second tranche for the second year.

So over the period of 5years the money will be coming steadily as expected. So what needs to be done is to have the right contractors and consultants to begin the work just as the contract have been given out so they should hit the ground running now if they've not done that.

It will take time like 5 to 10 years to be cleaned up and even 20years for the place to be restored back to life.

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