Inside latest push to save Port Harcourt residents from deadly soot pollution
Nearly a decade since black residues emanating from the illicit operations of makeshift artisanal refineries by oil bunkers was first reported in Port Harcourt, an end to the activities remains a pipe dream. Despite government’s promises and efforts, the oil-rich region is still struggling to free itself from the resulting hazards of indiscriminate bunkering activities in its creeks.
In 2022, Nigeria was estimated to lose between N30 trillion to N60 trillion annually to oil theft and illegal refining. Although the loss of revenue to oil theft is alarming for a country with economic frailties, it is nothing compared to the killer diseases thrown into the Port Harcourt air and water by the resultant pollution. Residents in the most populous South-South city have, over the past seven years, been living on the edge over their general well-being due to uncontrolled exposure to impure carbon particles emitted by the incomplete burning of fossil fuel and other indiscriminate oil exploration activities.
According to Dr. Bieye Renner Briggs, a Public Health Physician and an Environmental Advocate in Port Harcourt, “most people living in the affected communities know that soot is bad, but just how worse things can get is what is unknown to them. Nigerians in Port Harcourt are daily being diagnosed with and dying from soot-related illnesses like birth defects, cancerous growths, miscarriages and irritations of the eye, nose, throat and skin.”
The illicit operations of oil bunkers and other factors including the destruction of confiscated drums from operators of nonindustrial refineries by security operatives and open burning of waste sometimes cause Port Harcourt to record an Air Quality Index (AQI) above 155. This, according to global health organisations, indicates a health emergency, as any AQI reading above 150 is considered unhealthy. Indeed the World Health Organisation (WHO) cites outdoor and household air pollution as critical factors causing seven million premature deaths every year globally, with more than half of the casualties in developing nations.
As their homes are covered in a thick fog of black powdery particles, residents are exposed to deadly respiratory tract infections and cardiovascular problems including bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia. In severe cases, they are victims of skin cancer, preterm births and premature deaths.
Sandra Hart, a resident of Port Harcourt, who lost consciousness following an acute asthmatic attack exacerbated by the air pollution caused by the soot said, “I am impressed with the coordination that has gone into raising awareness of soot in Port Harcourt over the last few years. Having been in and out of the hospital constantly and surviving a coma, I want Nigerians and particularly residents of Port Harcourt to understand why we need to make sure our government puts an end to illegal refining of oil once and for all.”
Unfortunately, awareness among locals about the perils of contaminated air and water on their health is low. Although statistics are sketchy, there are records of residents who hitherto had no history of respiratory issues developing terminal ailments from soot with no respite in sight from authorities.
Irrefutably, the continued existence of the soot pandemic in Port Harcourt has not been for a lack of effort. Governor Nyesom Wike, upon assuming office, immediately committed to ridding Rivers State of pipeline vandalism and illegal refining operations. His government enacted the Rivers State Environmental Protection and Management Law in 2019 to further tackle the problem and bring culprits to book. He had also previously tasked local council chairmen in Rivers State to identify areas of illegal refining operations in their localities and fish out the operators.
Recently, Wike went on the offensive and read the riot act to perpetrators of such hazardous business, following a personal raid of illegal refining sites in forests of the Ogbodo community in Ikwerre local council and Ibaa community in Emohua local council. Yet, despite his sustained clampdown on operators of illegal refineries in local communities having a significant impact on the activities, Port Harcourt remains far from being completely soot-free. In many of the local councils, it has been discovered that over 50 illegal refineries are in operation.
The governor, in an act of desperation to see his efforts yield positive results, pointed accusing fingers at security agencies for sabotaging his efforts by aiding, abetting and protecting illegal refineries in the state. Deliberations among Port Harcourt representatives in the Senate also leave a little to be desired, although a motion to curb soot and the economic sabotage by illegal refining of crude products was moved last year. No lasting resolutions are yet in sight.
However, all these efforts failed to end spot pollution in the state. It is very typical; at the root of every institutional failure in Nigeria is a lingering feud between the state and Federal Government. From policing to maintenance of federal-owned infrastructure, the lack of unity of purpose at these two levels of government is a gnawing reality that must change. How can a wrestler possibly win with one hand in a fight? The two levels of government must unite to fight this scourge.
This is the stance of all concerned citizens. A series of protests to halt this crisis has grown into a movement. For instance, the ‘StopTheSoot’ campaign has led to a fundamental right suit being filed at the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt. A civil society group, the Extra Step Initiative (ESI) sued the Federal Government and the Joint Military Task Force (Operation Delta Safe) for the continuous pollution of the environment in the state.
According to one of the ESI leaders and Founder of The Extra Step Initiative, who also launched the “StopTheSoot” campaign, Eugene Abels, the air around Port Harcourt has been polluted for several years.
In this same vein, the Grammy award-winning Afro-fusion singer, Burna Boy, who spent some parts of his early childhood in the city, has used his voice as a celebrity to express the collective agony of Port Harcourt residents in the song ‘Whiskey’ from his ‘Love Damini’ album.
At the receiving end of these actions and inactions are, however, residents who inhale and ingest the amorphous carbon particles daily—many of whom are uninformed about the extent of danger soot exposes them to. According to current data, the PM2.5 concentration in Port Harcourt is four times the WHO annual air quality guideline value. This is frightening considering respiratory infection offshoots such as influenza and pneumonia are some of the leading causes of death in Nigeria. Indeed, the earliest succour that will come to residents will be a channel to gain proper awareness about the perils of the air pollution menace to their health status and also the provision of access to affordable care.
Founder of ESI, Eugene Abels, said:“After 60 years of Rivers State being the hub of the hydrocarbon industry and with the damaging activities of the non-state actors, the Rivers State government with external support must lead the charge to audit the damage to our flora and fauna particularly the respiratory health of the residents of Port Harcourt and other host communities from the activities of legal and illegal refining of crude oil so as to curb the rate of cancers and renal failure amongst children, indigent people and pregnant women. It is also our belief that even the United Nations Ogoni Clean Up report is obsolete and should be updated by the Federal Government to reflect the current realities which a 10-year-old report does not capture.”
Incidentally, a health campaign to help Port Harcourt residents exposed to soot determine their life expectancy is set to kick off. Named Soot City, the campaign will serve as a much-needed reality check for locals who pay little attention to the soot impact on their health.
“We need to be very clear on the true impact of the damage soot causes and how the crisis is slowly killing residents, in a way that is candid and easy to comprehend by all. That’s why Soot City is very jarring,” the Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of X3M Ideas, Steve Babaeko, added.
Through the use of data gathered from years of research across multiple countries, and bodies like the United Nations, World Health Organisation and German Environmental Agency (Umweltbundesamt) – SootCity.com developed by Steve’s company, X3M Ideas, accurately determines the life expectancy of each user and with their consent makes them public to raise awareness and jolt the government into action.
Citizens who live or have lived in the oil-rich region will have an unusual opportunity to calculate the number of years they have to live due to the damage caused by soot inhalation or ingestion, through a unique web page (sootcity.com). The significance of residents knowing their health status based on the time they have spent in the city can’t be understated. Receiving adequate information about their health status will ultimately inspire affected residents to seek urgent treatments and also demand action from relevant authorities.
Interestingly, the Soot City campaign makes provision for residents to nudge lawmakers in the region to embark on immediate actions that would mitigate or eradicate soot. The letters sent on the participants’ behalf will demand collaborations between government and stakeholders, identification and containment of pollution sites, banning of illegal and artisanal refining across the state with strict punitive measures, International Oil Companies (IOCs) compliance with best practices, youth empowerment with sustainable employment opportunities, provision of basic social amenities such as affordable healthcare and much more.
“The timely nature of this intervention cannot be overemphasised, considering the recent wave of soot-related illnesses. The state government itself through the office of the former Commissioner for Environment, Prof. Roseline Konya, in 2019, reviewed over 22,077 cases of respiratory diseases related to the presence of soot in the city.
“Every year, we record thousands of cases of soot-related illnesses. It is time for us to demand action from the government to save what’s left of the lives of residents of Port Harcourt,” Public Relations Officer of the Association of Public Health Physicians of Nigeria and Public Health Physician at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, Dr. Oge Isokariari, said.
The demand for better living conditions in Port Harcourt is long overdue. As Nigeria seeks to meet its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate impacts, health experts say attention must first be placed on the illicit and indiscriminate operations in Port Harcourt.
Government actions to fully rid the region of the soot menace may not be forthcoming or slow, but the life expectancy campaign by Soot City means residents can at least heave a huge sigh of relief about knowing what important actions to take regarding their general well-being.
It will hopefully serve as a jolt in the authority and stakeholders’ steps towards bringing a conclusive end to the illicit practices that have threatened residents’ health and lives for nearly seven years.