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11 years after UNEP report, Rivers communities still endangered by pollution

By Ann Godwin, Port Harcourt
27 August 2022   |   4:22 am
Beatrice Barine still prepares meals with polluted fish her husband, a fisherman, gets from Nuumu-Goi River in Goi community, Gokana Local Council of Rivers State despite the report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which warned that water and crops in the area are highly polluted and harmful to the body.

Beatrice Barine still prepares meals with polluted fish her husband, a fisherman, gets from Nuumu-Goi River in Goi community, Gokana Local Council of Rivers State despite the report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which warned that water and crops in the area are highly polluted and harmful to the body. Barine is fully aware of the warning and the health implications but lacking viable alternative sources of protein, she has resolved to eat whatever she sees with her family, just to live.

Fish is considered to be a good source of protein as it is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. However, eating contaminated ones may have adverse effects on the immune system. A research led by Amro Hamdoun of the Marine Biology Research Division at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, found that “when we eat contaminated fish, it would be reducing the effectiveness of the critical defence system in our bodies.”

Women in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, especially in the rural areas, are largely fishmongers and farmers. They depend on the environment for their daily needs such as water and food. But decades of oil exploration and vandalism of oil installations by criminals have resulted in the pollution of the environment, thereby forcing them to embrace any available option to sustain their living without minding the threat to their lives.

Barine, who lives in a neighbouring community in B-dere after her family was ejected from their ancestral home in Goi as recommended by the UNEP report, due to high pollution, fell ill in June this year along with her two children, aged three and one. Unfortunately, the younger child died on their way to the only hospital in the area, Bodo General Hospital. Despite the loss, which was linked to food contamination, Barine still consumes fish from the polluted river.

“There is a difference between when you have an option to survive and when you don’t have,” she said. “When you don’t have an option, the only thing you can do is to adapt to the environment and live at the mercy of God.

“Eleven years after we were displaced from our community and our sources of livelihood destroyed, nobody cares. So, we are forced to consume whatever we see. Some of us live in neighbouring communities like Bodo, B-dere and Kpor and we are subjected to pain and poverty.”

Another resident, Dr. Patience Osarowaji, said she developed acute skin disease after exposing herself to the devastated environment and using polluted water over a period. Although she didn’t visit the hospital “because there were no basic equipment in Eleme General Hospital” where she lives, she adopted herbal treatments.

Osarowaji, who is the president of the Coalition of Ogoni Women, said: “The pollution in our area has so much disturbed Ogoni women; you know we focus more on farming. Our men are no longer doing anything because the aqualife is gone due to oil spill. So hunger, poverty is plastering us daily.”

In the course of investigations, which were supported by the Africa Data Hub Community Journalism Fellowship, The Guardian visited some communities in Eleme Local Council of Rivers State where it noticed that four samples of water brought by four women to buttress the poor environmental condition they live in had varying colours and odour. When the water samples were analysed at a laboratory near the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, the results revealed that they were polluted and didn’t meet the required standard for drinking. But members of the communities have been drinking it all these years.

The Journal of Environmental and Public Health listed infant mortality, respiratory disorders, allergy and cardiovascular disorders as some of the short-term effects of environmental pollution. Long-term effects include increased risks of mortality from many diseases, organ failure, cancer and other chronic diseases. The risks are even higher for communities without healthcare facilities.

Findings showed that there were no healthcare facilities in Goi to provide immediate health care services for the people.  Some communities like Bodo and Kpor have healthcare facilities but they lacked modern equipment. It was also discovered that the sphygmomanometre used to measure blood pressure in one of the hospitals was malfunctioning and as such delivered inaccurate results. There was also no electricity, which consequently affected the water supply system.

From the record sheet of the hospital seen by The Guardian, about 15 to 20 women visit the hospital daily. Further enquiries showed that out of the number, about 10 of the women are usually diagnosed with high blood pressure, skin diseases, diabetes, among others.

“Many women are sick of various diseases in this area. That is why we receive high number of patients daily especially, women from ages 30 and above,” a senior nurse at the hospital who identified herself as Merit said.

She added: “Unfortunately, we lack adequate facilities to meet their health needs. The BP apparatus we are using is very old and not giving us accurate result. We have applied for modern ones to replace them but have received nothing yet.

“So we are not too sure of the results and in case of emergency, you cannot use it because you cannot hear the sound.

“The biggest challenge here is that many patients are suffering from diabetes and when you encourage them on dietary management, they will complain of financial challenges. So, they cannot eat the right food they are supposed to eat. Some still eat contaminated fish and periwinkle from the polluted water.”

The Secretary to the Gio Women Union Community, Caroline Beenen, agreed with Merit, describing the condition of the women in the area as very miserable.

“Since the oil spill occurred, we no longer have anything to fall back on. We used to come here (pointing to the Nuunu-Goi River) to pick periwinkle and sell to take care of ourselves and children but since UNEP officials came, made their findings and asked us to vacate our homes because it was highly polluted, it has been very difficult for us to have a sustainable means of livelihood.

“We do not have anything else to hold on to. We no longer have any option. So whatever we see we eat. Sometimes we go to neighbouring villages for farming; they hire and pay us money,” she said.

Beenen, who snivelled as she spoke, appealed to the Federal Government and the international community to come and restore their environment and rekindle their hope.

A consultant physician at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH) and Rivers State University Teaching Hospital,  Dr. Akhindue Kariba George, who confirmed that there was a spike in the rate of diseases among women and the elderly in the state, urged the authorities to clean up the Niger Delta environment and make the area habitable for the people.

“Polluted water is not good for drinking or cooking because it has a lot of dangerous effects to the body. First, when you drink water that is polluted, it can cause some infectious diseases.

“The illegal refining of petroleum products in the state pollutes the the environment. We have seen a lot of increase in respiratory diseases and it is very alarming and a serious issue that needs to be resolved quickly because once you inhale the pollution into the system, it goes in and increases respiratory track infections.”

She urged women to drink good water and eat balance diet, saying that would help their immune system to be strong enough to fight the health challenges posed by their envinronment.

Similarly, a consultant dermatologist at UPTH and a member of the Expert Committee on Air Pollution set up by the Rivers State goverment, Dr. Dasetima Altraide, stated that  “direct contact with infections can make the skin dry.”

Altraide also called for full implementation of the UNEP report to ensure better health and a good environment for the people.

“If the Federal Government can carry out the clean-up exercise in Ogoniland and extend it to other areas in the region, it will help to reduce the increasing health challenges,” he said.

In 2011, the UNEP, after its assessment of polluted Ogoniland, released a report documenting the devastating impact of oil exploration in the area and recommended emergency measures like provision of water and health facilities to save the lives of the people. The report came after over five decades of oil and gas extraction that had caused large-scale contamination of the water and soil in Ogoniland.

Sadly, 11 years after, the Federal Government has not demonstrated the political will to clean up  the environment.

When The Guardian was taken to some farm lands in Goi and Kpor communities, it was observed that the crops looked pale and thin, signifying that the people have been recording very poor yield.

“To be very candid, the women are in a tight corner,” the traditional ruler of Goi, who is also living in another community due to oil pollution, Chief Eric Dooh, said.

“In the past, the only sources of small income for the women was picking of periwinkle and farming. But this time around, the women can no longer have the opportunity to go and pick periwinkle because everything within the coastal line has been destroyed.

“So it has prompted a lot of the women to go out to look for what will sustain them. Some women migrate from the community to the urban cities and get involved in acts they are not supposed to, such as prostitution and all of that.”

He lamenetd that despite the pathetic situation of the area, the government has not been proactive in remedying the environment.

“We expect the government to rise up and hearken to the voice of the people, chart a way forward and address key issues of environmental degradation in Ogoni land,” he said.

The president of Goi youths, Mr. Baribor Demgoi, and the secretary, Anthony Mbani, also decried the situation in the area. They expressed concern about the severe poverty and suffering the people are contending with.

“I pity my sisters living in other communities because of these challenges we are facing now. Their skins are bad; they are developing serious health challenges.

“The youths are scattered and as their president, I am so worried that they have no work. The strange land we live in is a big challenge; whenever we do anything, they ask us to go back to our community. They are pursuing us to go back to our land. We are asking the relevant authorities to come and restore our environment so that we can go back to our land,” Demgoi said.

Mbani expressed worry that people still go to the polluted river to fetch water to drink and trap contaminated fish to eat.

“You can imagine how their health will be. Government is not paying any attention. We keep hearing on the radio they will do something about it but after 11 years, nothing has happened.

“UNEP should do a regular check on our communities because we no longer believe in the Nigerian system. They have failed the citizens in different areas of life. I urge the international community and environmental experts to give this a push and do something expeditiously because the situation is terrifying,” he said.

A gender activist in the region and coordinator of the Centre for Media and Development Communications, Constance Meju, urged the government to match its words with actions by putting in place functional health facilities, providing potable water and urgently cleaning up Ogoni land.

“I feel terrible about the situation of women in this region,” Meju said.

“There is need to come up with a comprehensive gender policy for this area because it is something that is peculiar, which if the government assents to, we can have a template to be working with.

“Oil and its activities affect the reproductive system of women. There is need for special education and skills for women. The international community should not get tired of this advocacy,” she said.

A research by E. C. Onwuka on ‘Oil extraction, Environmental Degradation and Poverty in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria: A Viewpoint’ published by Researchgate.net noted: “In Nigeria, environmental problems are severe, particularly in the Niger Delta area of the country. In that region, crude petroleum activities damage the fertility of the soil and destroy wildlife and the breeding ground for marine fishes because of the toxicity of oil and gas. Consequently, the indigenous people are impoverished, with attendant increase in environmental abuse occasioned by their struggle for survival.”

Another report by Researchgate.net, which showed the poverty statistics for the Niger Delta, puts the incidence of poverty in Akwa Ibom State at 35 per cent, Bayelsa 20 per cent, Cross River 42 per cent, Delta 45 per cent, Edo 33 per cent and Rivers 29 per cent. It puts the core poor in Akwa Ibom at 27 per cent, Bayelsa 22 per cent, Cross River 33 per cent, Delta 23 per cent, Edo 16 per cent and Rivers 19 per cent. On the self-assessed poverty level, Akwa Ibom had 66 per cent, Bayelsa 95 per cent, Cross River 77 per cent, Delta 81 per cent, Edo 79 per cent while Rivers had 67 per cent. On the very poor (self-assessed), the report placed Akwa Ibom at 17 per cent, Bayelsa 62 per cent, Cross River 22 per cent, Delta 25 per cent, Edo 35 per cent and Rivers 15 per cent.

NBS poverty index


The report buttresses the people’s claim that their living conditions are in contrast with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, housing, medical care and other necessary social services.

Meanwhile, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) has claimed that in compliance with the UNEP recommendations, it has commenced restoration of mangroves in Ogoni land covering an area of about 1,416 hectares.

Project Coordinator of HYPREP, Dr. Ferdinand Giadom, stated this while addressing stakeholders on remediation strategies and framework development recently. He said the agency was focused primarily on three key areas of site assessment, shoreline clean-up, assessment techniques and remediation.

This is not the first time the government would raise the hope of residents on the remediation of their environment. Whether it would be true to its words this time remains to be seen.