Nigeria’s President Buhari is launching what would be the biggest oil clean-up exercise the world’s ever seen…if he’s really serious
Could 2016 be the year that a proper clean-up of the oil-stained creeks and fields of the Niger Delta finally gets underway?
That’s certainly the promise of the Nigerian government, with President Muhammadu Buhari expected to launch the process at a ceremony in Ogoniland today, 2 June.
The president has already announced that the clean-up will follow a plan outlined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which in 2011 published the most detailed study to date of the spread and the scale of oil pollution in Ogoniland, as well as the impact it’s had on residents there.
UNEP’s researchers found that people had “lived with chronic oil pollution throughout their lives” and that pollution had contaminated the fields where they grow food, the water where they fish, and the wells from which they drink.
It is over 20 years since the writer and campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa described his homeland as suffering from an “ecological disaster”. But UNEP’s findings revealed that, if anything, things have got worse, with new spills occurring every year and the oil operator Shell failing to properly clean them up.
The task that President Buhari has set his government is thus huge. According to UNEP, the environmental restoration of Ogoniland “could prove to be the World’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken”.
It could take 25-30 years to bring contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and important ecosystems such as mangroves “to full, productive health”. Furthermore, UNEP estimated that the first-five year period of the clean-up alone would require $1 billion, though the government has made it clear that it does not just want to address the problem in Ogoniland, but in other affected parts of the delta too.
There is no doubt that President Buhari’s commitment to this issue is welcome. However, in years of campaigning, we have seen similar promises in the past, with little actually changing on the ground.
For instance, in 1995, the year that Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed, Shell launched, with much fanfare, its own version the UNEP report, known as the Niger Delta Environment Survey. The company correctly identified that one of things holding the region back was the staggering lack of information and data relating to the pollution and its health impact.
Shell promised that the findings of this “independent” survey would be made publicly available and would be used by the government to “plan developments and minimise the impact on the environment”. But the survey, which Shell said cost $2 million and took two years to complete, turned out to be little more than a PR exercise. 20 years later, Shell has still not published it, despite promising to do so.
In 2007, the Nigerian government commissioned UNEP to conduct its own research, but progress has been extremely slow on that front too, even after experts uncovered health risks that required urgent action. In Ogale, for example, UNEP researchers found that water wells close to a pipeline operated by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation were contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organisation guideline. In total, UNEP found hydrocarbon contamination in water taken from 28 wells in 10 communities adjacent to contaminated sites across Ogoniland.
In response to these findings, Shell funded the construction of a water pipeline. But this only carries treated water to the people of Ogale and does not reach all of the other areas with contaminated wells. Last year I visited one of these areas, Ebubu, which is right next to Ogale. Understandably, the people there were deeply frustrated that the pipeline does not extend to their community and are worried about that safety of the water that they still have to drink. “The most important thing for us is to have clean water that we can give to our new born babies,” said one woman.
In 2012, then-President Goodluck Jonathan set up the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) to implement the recommendations made by UNEP. But how HYPREP’s officials spent their budget is matter of speculation. The only obvious evidence of their work is in the red warning signs now posted next to contaminated creeks and spill sites. When I visited HYPREP’s ghost-like offices in Port Harcourt last year, it was clear that the organisation existed only in name. Before being turned away by a bored-looking security guard, I caught a glimpse of dozens of vehicles gathering dust in an overgrown car park.
For President Buhari’s plans to have even the remotest hope of success therefore, he needs to make sure that the people of the Niger Delta trust what he is doing. They need to trust that the clean-up funds will actually go on cleaning up the region and are not stolen or handed out to politically-connected contractors.
Shell’s ultimate responsibility
If the region is to be genuinely cleaned up, Shell also needs to act. The company claims to have improved its response to spills in the wake of criticism by UNEP’s scientists. But last year, Amnesty International and the Centre for the Environment, Human Rights and Development, which is based in Port Harcourt, discovered that the company had made false claims about its clean-up of spills in four locations in Ogoniland.
In each of these places, the company said its contractors had remediated the damage caused by oil spills, yet the signs of ongoing contamination were still clearly visible. It was also evident that Shell was failing to prevent oil leaks from these areas spreading into neighbouring forests, fields and streams.
In response to our report, Shell, and the government regulator which had signed off on the clean-ups, said that the oil we saw must have come from unreported recent spills, probably caused by thieves or saboteurs. They provided no evidence for these claims, which are disputed by members of the communities living next to the sites.
Despite recent divestments, Shell remains the largest oil operator in Nigeria, and its pipelines still criss-cross Ogoniland and many other parts of the Niger Delta. Regardless of the government’s wider clean-up plan, Shell remains responsible under Nigerian law for the clean-up and remediation of oil spills from its facilities, whatever the cause. Shell should not be allowed to hide its failure to clean up scores of spills behind the company’s publicly stated commitment to support the Buhari plan.
Abandoned to the mercies of oil companies
Finally, considering the recent wave of pipeline attacks in the Niger Delta, it might be tempting for the government to decide to focus on security issues first and then deal with the environment later. This would be a short-sighted mistake. As President Buhari himself acknowledged earlier this year, the two issues are bound together.
“The devastation caused by oil spillage has destroyed many lives and livelihoods and is clearly one of the reasons why many people in that region lost faith in government and resorted to the many criminal activities we are seeing in the region,” he stated.
He is right. The Niger Delta has been effectively abandoned to the mercies of the oil companies for decades. Countless communities have seen their only source of subsistence destroyed by oil. The government has failed to hold the companies to account, and it has often seemed that its only presence in the Delta are the troops sent in to protect oil installations.
President Buhari has the chance to break the cycle of abuse in the Niger Delta, if he follows through on this commitment to clean it up. But to do this, he has to ensure that the vested interests of the oil industry do not overshadow the real interests of the people of the Delta.
Mark Dummett is a Business and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International