Sunday 19 January 2020

The Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission's Interim Report on oil pollution in Bayelsa State, Nigeria.

Few countries on the face of the planet have suffered more from oil pollution than Nigeria. Over the last half century, as many as ten million barrels of oil have been spilled across the country, equivalent to a spill similar in size to the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, which devastated the coast of Alaska. every single year for the last fifty years. Furthermore, few parts of Nigeria have suffered worse pollution than Bayelsa State. Bayelsa is one of Nigeria’s main oil producing states, accounting for almost a quarter of its onshore crude oil production, and approximately a third of its oil wealth. It is home to one of Africa’s most diverse ecosystems, a rich but fragile tapestry of wetlands and mangrove swamps. Despite its immense oil reserves, Bayelsa’s people are poor, with the state scoring lower on the United NationsHuman Development Index than any other Nigerian state. Almost three quarters of Bayelsa’s two million people rely on fishing or farming to support themselves. Since oil was first pumped in 1956 by Shell, Bayelsa has suffered a pollution catastrophe on a barely imaginable scale. Exact numbers are hard to come by. However, analysis suggests that if Bayelsa’s share of oil spilled is the same is as its share of oil pumped, as much as a barrel of oil may have been spilled for every man, woman and child living in Bayelsa today. The impact has been devastating. The environmental damage has been tremendous and unique ecosystems have been destroyed. The health of hundreds of thousands of people has been affected by the contamination of the water they drink, the land they grow food on and the air they breathe. Estimates suggest that the pollution could be responsible for as many as 16 000 infant deaths in one year alone.

The Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission was established by Henry Seriake Dickson, Governor of Bayelsa State on 26th March 2019. Its mission is to gather and assess the evidence on the scale and impact of oil spills and associated pollution in Bayelsa state and develop recommendations to ensure existing pollution is cleaned up and future pollution is prevented. The Commission is made up of Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, His Excellency John Kufuor, former President of Ghana, Baroness Valerie Amos, former Under-Secretary General of Humanitarian Assistance at the United Nations, Dr Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, Michael Watts, Professor of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr Anna Zalik, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Dr Isaac ‘Asume’ Osuoka of Social Action International, Professor Engobo Emeseh, Head of School of Law at the University of Bradford, and Roland Hodler, Professor of Public Economics at the University of St Gallen

Since its launch, the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission has conducted a deep assessment of the evidence on oil pollution in Bayelsa. It has conducted an extensive review of the available literature and documents, has commissioned detailed studies on aspects of the impact of pollution and has conducted over 500 meetings with stakeholders, both internationally and within Nigeria. The Commission's work has been supported by an international network of environmental scientists and forensic experts, a local expert research team and a network of civil society actors with a long track record of documenting oil related environmental damage in the Niger Delta.

The Commissioners have undertaken three visits to the state, held town hall meetings with representatives from eight Local Government Areas (Brass, Ekeremor, Southern Ijaw, Obgia, Kolokuma/Opokuma, Sagbama, Yenagoa), conducted on-site visits with a local team of researchers.

In addition to meeting with communities who have experienced the direct impacts of oil pollution, the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission has also met with professionals (legal, health, oil servicing companies) civil society organisations, and officials at all levels of government (notably at the Ministry of the Environment, and representatives of regulatory institutions responsible for assessment working in and on Bayelsa (Bayelsa State Ministry of the Environment and state level staff of the Nigerian National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency). The Commission has also received a written submission from one of the three main international oil companies operating Joint Ventures in the state (Shell Nigeria). Efforts are ongoing to secure oral and written testimony from all international oil companies operating in the state.

The Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission will publish its full report in 2020. It will present the Commission’s findings on the scale and scope of oil pollution in Bayelsa and its causes and will lay out proposals for the remediation of the damage done-both environmental and social-as well as recommendations for changes to the legal, policy and regulatory framework to prevent further pollution in future. However, it published an Interim Report on 1 November 2019, laying out its concerns about oil pollution in Bayalsa State.

Members of a community affected by oil pollution in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission.

Thousands of communities and countless people in Bayelsa Stae have been cast into poverty with their livelihoods destroyed, due to pollution related problems. Communities have been de-stabilised and their cohesion undermined by disputes and competition for resources arising from oil extraction which have been sharpened by spills and their impacts. The cost-in terms of environmental degradation and human suffering has been vast. And it is rising every day.

Furthermore, the individuals and communities affected have found it almost impossible to win redress for their suffering. The oil companies have not done enough to put right the damage that has been caused and the cost and process involved have prevented communities from pursuing legal action.

The Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission has been set up to document this continuing catastrophe and to devise solutions that will help bring an end to pollution crisis and the suffering it has caused. It brings together leaders from the world of government, non-governmental organisations and faith communities with international experts.

One of the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission’s priorities has been to hear from the people who have been directly affected by the oil contamination. All too often their voices have been ignored. Over six months in 2019, the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission visited pollution sites across Bayelsa, held meetings in several communities and taken testimony from over 500 victims of oil pollution.

Boatman in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission.

Oil spills and the associated pollution have had untold effects on the environment of Bayelsa State. The loss of habitat and biodiversity, including mangrove swamps as a result of oil spills as well as acid rain damage from gas flaring, has been enormous. Huge swathes of fragile wetlands have been destroyed or put at risk. Water courses that local people rely on for fishing have been contaminated. Farmland has been tainted. There have even been reports of seismic tremors that communities believe are caused by oil extraction.

The members of the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission have observed many of these problems first-hand. On the Commission’s visit to the Brass Canal, members of the Commission witnessed polluted effluent being dumped directly into the waterway. During another field visit, the Commission witnessed polluted topsoil being dug up and burnt in a pit. Throughout, the Commission has heard repeated testimony on the indiscriminate dumping of waste and the impact it has had. 

A dwelling close to a polluted waterway in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission.

Oil contamination has tainted the farmland people grow their food on, the water they drink and fish in and even the very air they breathe. The health implications have been complex, and often devastating. For instance, research has found that people living near pollution sites have been progressively exposed to elevated levels of heavy metals such as chromium, lead and mercury in their blood stream, leading to increased risk of diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases to cancer, diabetes and kidney damage.

The contamination of crops and fish by oil spills has shown to increase the outbreak of diarrhoea in Bayelsa and the bioaccumulation of heavy metals in food as well as affecting food quality. The presence of oil has also resulted in a substantial increase in the prevalence of childhood malnutrition in the affected communities. More broadly, evidence from across Nigeria suggests that high levels of pollution have also contributed to significant increases in child mortality.

Research has also highlighted that communities living near oil impacted areas frequently consume drinking water with high levels of pollution. The list of health effects is long, and their impact will be felt for years, maybe decades to come. What the Commission has seen is just the tip of the iceberg. But it is clear that many people in Bayelsa have suffered life-changing health consequences as a result of oil pollution.

One participant from the Aghoro 1 Community in the Ekeremor Local Government Area noted that a spill occurred in May 2018 and that the community recorded deaths and the destruction of mangrove creeks and farmlands. Letters were written to Shell through the community interface coordinator, but Shell did not respond.

Villagers in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission.

Another member of the same community stated 'when the spill occurred, it was a thing of battle for us in the environment. We really suffered it. Our houses were nearly set ablaze. The spill spoiled the water. We could not bathe or drink the water. The spill killed the Fish in the river. This caused a lot of sicknesses in the community and it killed a lot of people. Many children died because of the spill. We cannot do otherwise than to starve. We waited for relief materials and only few people received it. No food, we have been starving up until this time.'

In Oporoma Community in Southern Ijaw participants noted that there is a high prevalence of ailments in the community, ranging from skin rashes, respiratory illnesses, pneumonia, and growths in female genitals with causes unknown. There are also no near functional health facilities which can be accessed by the community.

About three quarters of Bayelsa’s population relies on farming and fishing to survive. Not only their health, but also their livelihood are at risk when oil pollution poisons their environment. Through its hearings and evidence gathering, the Commission has come across case after case where individuals and communities have lost their livelihoods and, in some cases, reduced to destitution as the result of oil spills.

Oil spills have destroyed many community’s ability to make a living from the land they farm and the water courses they fish. And even where pollution has been more limited, communities have often failed to reap the benefit of oil extraction.

While oil extraction has generated substantial profits for oil companies and tax revenues for the Federal Government, host communities rarely see the benefits. There are often no alternative livelihoods or development benefits. There is widespread under-investment and lack of jobs in communities that host oil company activities and oil companies’ investment in local communities has been infrequent and sporadic.

Projects are often not completed and offers to upskill and train those in the local communities are not fulfilled, leaving many in those communities frustrated and angry at the economic exclusion by oil companies.

One witnes in the Brass Local Government Area stated 'Agip has been here for so many years. They say they have improved on employment level. I am a woman. I was born and bred here. I have lived all my life. This is my London. After graduation they do not employ us. They invite us for interviews, but no job. They employ few labourers and cleaners. There was a time they met the different Amas of Twon to bring in some females for training to be employed. These ladies went for the training. At the end, they brought females from outside. They employed only one or two, just to fulfil all righteousness. When we wanted to cause trouble, the military men were given orders to kill at sight all those who are causing trouble. They have employed people outside this island. But not of the host community'.

Farmers in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission.

Both oil company activity and the competition for resources they have created have undermined community stability and cohesion. As a result, communities that play host to oil activities have often been plagued by conflict, violence and exploitation of vulnerable groups, including children. Oil companies often chose to work with certain groups within communities which exacerbates internal divisions, pitting communities against each other for much needed funds and to be represented during the remediation process.

If the damage done by oil pollution is clear, the path to redress, remediation and compensation often is not. Victims are often unable to pursue their claims due to process, time and most importantly cost. Even where they do, the time taken by the judicial process and potential issues with independence of the judiciary often makes gaining recompense and justice almost impossible. The deck all too often feels stacked against the people who have suffered.

One lawyer representing communities in the area stated 'we are pursuing on the payment that Agip refuses to pay, they have appealed to the Supreme Court with a motion for leave at the Court Of Appeal. For a date to be given, it takes a number of days. These are indigenous communities. I have to finance these matters. Some of these communities cannot pay a surveyor, environmentalist and a valuer.'

Another lawyer observed 'You discover that all the oil companies have their offices in Port Harcourt or Lagos. Engaging a lawyer to go to Port Harcourt is difficult. If you do not have money you cannot handle these cases. Most of the communities do not have a dime to assist you. It is impossible. I have declined a number of cases. There was a directive that they should have their head offices in areas where they operate. Until recently, we never had a Federal High Court. We had to go to Port Harcourt which was a fundamental problem. We also had issues with the filing fees, 50 000 to 100 000 naira (US$140-280) before you could file. These are subsisting fishermen. The burden is transferred to the lawyer and to the agent. Even where you have the Power Of Attorney and you cannot go further, you settle for pittance.'

Fisherwoman in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission.

For over 50 years, oil company activity and its associated impacts have caused untold devastation across Bayelsa State. Hundreds of thousands of people in Bayelsa have been forced to live on contaminated land, drink and fish in contaminated water and breathe contaminated air. Mortality and morbidity rates have risen sharply, as has the incidence of chronic disease, in communities without the resources to cope. Countless lives and livelihoods are being destroyed. Thousands of communities and tens if not hundreds of thousands of people have seen their land and fishing grounds poisoned. Neo-natal death and child malnutrition has risen, and hundreds of thousands have been forced into abject poverty.

The problem has been ignored for too long. And even when the world has paid attention, little has happened. Previous reports have merely sat on the shelf, gathering dust. Action is needed and needed now. The oil companies are beginning to divest from onshore projects in favour of offshore deep-water sites where returns are higher, and risks of environmental damage and social unrest are lower. Time is running out to hold them to account for the legacy of pollution and suffering they are leaving behind. But there is an opportunity for real change.

The Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission’s final report will be published in 2020. It will tackle the causes of this catastrophe and lay out measures to remediate the damage that has already been done and to ensure further spills can be avoided.

Damage caused by oil operations in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission.

See also...
Follow Sciency Thoughts on Facebook.