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Looted and leaking, South Sudan’s oil wells pose health risk

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THICK black puddles and a looted, leaking ruin are all that remain of the Thar Jath oil treatment facility, once a crucial part of South Sudan’s mainstay industry.

Lying deep in the bush and swamps of Unity State, far north of the capital Juba, Thar Jath was once a collecting and processing point for crude oil pumped out of nearby wells and on to the Red Sea coast of Sudan for export to oil-thirsty Asian economies.

Like many other oil wells and facilities across the north of the world’s youngest country, it has been ransacked since the outbreak of civil war in December 2013.

Pro-government troops, rebel fighters and ethnic militia are fighting hard for their share of power and the country’s oil wealth.

During nearly 15-months of war between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, South Sudan’s oil exports have tumbled by roughly a third to a half. The impact of the conflict has been worsened by falling global oil prices dealing a near-mortal blow to the economy of one of the world’s poorest countries. 

And with workers having fled many facilities, oil now also represents a severe environmental hazard.

“The situation is very worrying,” said Klaus Stieglitz of Sign of Hope, a German aid group which operates in both rebel and government-controlled parts of the country.

“The next rainy season can allow what is up-to-now contained oil to spill over. The oil is seeping into the water table.”

Standing at Thar Jath, Stieglitz pointed to a football field-sized pit near the plant: “It’s a large amount of oil in a hole that is not isolated from the ground. It adds, in a dramatic way, to the contamination of drinking water that was already here.”

Samples taken by Sign of Hope between 2009 and 2013 — even before the war broke out — revealed the contamination of groundwater by oil activities in the area. The aid group said it is now investigating reports of birth defects and other serious illnesses.

 



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