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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Africa

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Oil Pollution in Niger Delta

July 6, 2010 - 11:30 AM | by: Amy Kellogg

The coverage of the Deepwater Horizon disaster has brought the plight of other areas affected by oil spills to light.  Particularly one location, far from the Gulf of Mexico, where residents say, they feel forgotten.

Some environmentalists call the Niger Delta the global capital of oil pollution, and say there has been the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez spill there every year for the past several decades.

Nigeria is the world’s 8th largest oil producer.  It’s rich in light, sweet highly coveted crude.  Nigeria exports 40% of what it pumps out to the United States.

According to the Nigerian government, there are 300 spills a year in this oil rich, ecologically sensitive, network of waterways and mangroves.  Ben Amunwa, of the oil watchdog group Platform, explains the environmental impact.  “It’s a huge problem because the Niger Delta is a rural area and it’s full of rural communities.  And when you see an oil spill happen in one of these communities, it’s not only a disaster for their environment, the streams, the waterways, the rain forests they depend on, but also it wipes out their livelihoods.”

There are no accurate estimates of the extent of the damage to fisheries and agriculture, but one local pastor, Samuel Ayeni, says, “The life for fishermen is now very, very bad.  That is why you see a lot of children now in the house, they don’t go to school because there is no money to pay their school fees.”

But it’s a complex situation.   International oil companies are in joint ventures with the Nigerian government.  The wealth emanating from that area has largely bypassed the local residents, who, by some estimates, on average, live on the equivalent of $1 a day.  Some of them have taken matters into their own hands.  Militant groups have attacked oil installations in the Delta and kidnapped foreign oil workers in the past decade or so.

Oil companies claim the instability is to blame for the situation.  Shell, which is big in Nigeria, says 98% of its spills are the result of sabotage.  Oil companies also complain that sabotage and the threat of attacks by militants have kept them from efficiently tending to leaks in their pipelines, when they happen.

Ben Amunwa calls this an excuse.  “The companies will argue sabotage, because of the risk to personnel they haven’t been able to go in and fix the oil well, yet in this time they are producing oil from the region, they are pumping oil through the spill site.  They could take easy measures that could restrict the environmental impact of certain oil spills but they don’t, and they don’t because they can get away with it.”

The Nigerian government, notoriously lax about enforcement of standards and often accused of corruption, gets a share of the blame environmental activists apportion to those responsible for correcting the situation.   But there are signs the situation is improving.  A recent amnesty for militants has increased security in the region.  And the central government has started funneling a significant percentage of revenues into the region.

“This is a really crucial moment.  People in the Niger Delta are expecting something.  They want to see some sort of mark of development on the ground, something tangible.  My fear is that things can get caught up in the politics of deciding who does what, who builds what road or what footbridge or whatever, and that’s a really dangerous thing, and that’s why leadership is so important,” said Elizabeth Donnelly, Africa Programme Manager at Chatham House in London.

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