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Bassey: Black soot, an epidemic waiting to happen

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Bassey

An environment expert, and the director of ecological think tank, Health of Mother of Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nnimo Bassey spoke with ANN GODWIN in Port Harcourt, where he demands that urgent actions be taken to avert the impending human catastrophe. He also wants residents to sustain protest against the worsening atmospheric condition.

For over two years now, Port Harcourt has come under attack from black soot. As an environment expert, how worried are you?
I will first of all react as a citizen because the soot prevalent in Port Harcourt should be a big embarrassment to the government since government has a duty to protect the citizens from harm, whether environmental or otherwise.  This soot has gone on now for close to two years in Port Harcourt, and there is nothing that is practically being done to halt it. What I am thinking now is that government should, as a matter of urgency, stop all the sources of soot because of all the sources, none is worthy of the lives of the people because what is happening right now is going to manifest as an epidemic in the nearest future.

Everybody, whether rich or poor, politician and the ordinary citizen are all breathing the same air, so the Port Harcourt soot really underscores how dangerous and unregulated the environment is. Other communities where gas is flared do not really see the soot in the air, but the air is toxic. Since this one is visible and yet nothing is being done about it, everybody keeps on breathing the polluted air, and the children are especially being exposed to it.  I think that action by the masses, like the campaign against soot should be sustained until something is done.

But the politicisation of the issue between the state and the Federal Government seems to be part of the factors militating against finding a solution to the menace
Addressing the concerns raised by the black soot should never be subjected to any form of blame game or be politicized. In other words, everybody should sit down and take responsibility. Everybody; the citizens, I mean communities, local government councils, the state and indeed the Federal Government. You can’t say, I have done all I can do and I have nothing more to do because the only way to tackle it is by closing all the sources of the soot, and the sources you can point at include refinery, petrochemical outfits, illegal refineries in the creeks, the security forces who burn the stolen crude, gas flaring and then of course, other things like asphalt plants. These are the causes of the soot and it is a question of regulating the environment and going to the sources to stop the soot.  We must ask ourselves the question, ‘if a whole city will be covered with black soot, what is more valuable, life or the refinery that is not performing at any reasonable efficiency or level of productivity?’

Since illegal refineries constitute a major cause of black soot, could modular refineries planned by the Federal Government be of great assistance when they come on board?
I do not think the modular refineries will stop illegal refineries as illegal refineries are an offshoot of oil theft in the Niger Delta, and oil theft is being carried out at industrial level, which affects a lot of things in that sector. Oil theft is not carried out by poor villagers but by a well-organised cartel.

On the Modular refinery, you have to do a study to ascertain how many illegal refineries that are in the creeks now, as a report has it that the Nigerian Army has blown up over 1, 000 illegal refineries in Bayelsa State. The question is, why will they be so many?  Just note that these things are not difficult to set up, you blow up one and another is set up again almost immediately. So, if we are going to have modular refineries that would tackle this problem, it has to be something that is capable of stopping those who are into bush or illegal refineries, it has to be something that will not be from Korea or Japan, in other words, something that would cost so much that only a handful would be able to afford it in view of the number of people that are involved in what is going on right now.

What do you make of the call for a state of emergency in the environment sector?
When you talk about state of emergency, people think it is the other way round, but you know the environment is political also. It is lack of political action that is promoting most of the crises that we are seeing. I am one of those, who have been canvassing for the declaration of a state of emergency in the environment for decades now because the environment needs radical political will and radical investment to blossom. In fact, citizens should demand to know what agenda that respective governments have for the environment, whether at the local government or state levels. This should be a cardinal demand in order for us to know what anyone aspiring to occupy a leadership position has in mind. The demand for a better environment should be a national issue, but most importantly, in the Niger Delta region.
Is joblessness among the youths not contributing its quota to the black soot problem?
If the environment is safe and clean and we have electricity, water, and good investors, Nigerians can employ themselves.  So, people living in a clean environment will reduce the burden on families. In fact, presently, there are certain places you will go to and people will ask you, ‘are you living in Port Harcourt’ because there are some kind of diseases that we are seeing in many hospitals right now. So, creating jobs in a polluted and dirty environment is as good as not doing anything, but government has a responsibility to create jobs.  A clean environment is a human right. If people are forced to live in an environment that is covered with soot, it means, the human rights are not respected.

In what far-reaching ways is black soot affecting the economy?
If black soot persists, living in Port Harcourt would definitely become a dangerous thing to do. If I am an investor, I need to stay in an environment that is safe and so, the conclusion is that persistent black soot will affect investments in the city as doing investment in a region or city that is polluted does not sound reasonable.
In addition to that, the health of the children, as well as, and kith and kin of the investors would be seriously compromised if the soot situation persists for another year or even months. So, in a nutshell, the ongoing soot situation will certainly affect certain investments, except those who are coming to build the refineries because nobody will be willing to put up in a place that is clearly unsafe.

Are you concerned that presently in the country there are very few sophisticated medical facilities that can rise to the occasion in case of an emergency arising from the polluted atmosphere?
That is a serious issue because by the time the repercussion manifests, it could be on a wide scale. Already, it is building up because a lot of people are having breathing difficulties, crises, and different kinds of cancers. There is going to be all kinds of diseases, and we don’t have a health system that can handle such developments. The best thing now is to stop the pollution and the contamination before it gets out of hand.

What words of caution do you have for governments at different levels regarding this looming catastrophe?
What I would simply say to them is, if you cannot take care of the environment, do not destroy it.  We can shut down the refinery until we are ready to set up refineries that are clean, that can run efficiently and not pollute the environment. And of course, we should look at these refineries as posing dire challenges to the people’s good health and wellbeing. The military should stop burning the stolen the crude and polluting the atmosphere.

What would you recommend for panicking residents of Port Harcourt?
Residents of the city should know that the soot will not disappear on its own, and so something needs to be done. So, they should hold their political leaders accountable and rise above having once in a while protests, and make the protests a regular thing. If possible, they should take their grievance to the state House of Assembly, the National Assembly in Abuja and insist that something must be done about the black soot, which is imperiling human lives. The good thing about this fight is that even the governor and other top politicians are not exempted from this pollution. If they all want to keep quiet, they all will be inhaling the same polluted air.


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