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Four years after, pall of soot still hovers over Rivers State

By Ann Godwin, Port Harcourt
05 January 2020   |   1:36 am
Nearly four years after deadly black soot seized the Port Harcourt skyline and several parts of Rivers State causing massive air pollution, there are fears of increased air-induced ailment persists, while there is the stark absence of concerted effort by governments.....

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Nearly four years after deadly black soot seized the Port Harcourt skyline and several parts of Rivers State causing massive air pollution, there are fears of increased air-induced ailment persists, while there is the stark absence of concerted effort by governments at all levels to tackle the deadly pollution.

Also, the predictions by many health professionals that residents of the state may likely experience chronic respiratory diseases, skin disease, heart problems and an increase in mortality rate is manifesting as findings from some hospitals in the state indicated that an increasing number of patients suffer from the above-mentioned ailments.

Initially, when the soot was discovered in 2016, the state government and residents swung into action, while citizens mobilised themselves, staged peaceful protests to draw the attention of relevant authorities to the menace. Social media platforms, radio stations were also used to inspire action by government and sundry relevant stakeholders.

The State Ministry of Environment at that time also set up an expert committee to investigate the composition of the soot and its sources. As preliminary investigations were ongoing, some companies were shut down, including a Chinese firm, which was one of the major sources of the black substance.

The state government also commenced the seizure and collection of used tyres, as well as closed some power plants in Ikwerre and Obio/Akpor local councils of the state for causing air pollution and breaching environmental laws. To date, the seized tyres are still heaped at the railway section of Isaac Boro Park.

Expectedly, residents and health experts had waited for the report of the committee to be made public and as well followed by profound actions but sadly, there has been no publicly available report from the committee on the soot that is destroying lives and the environment.Perturbed by the failure of the government to address this challenge, some residents teamed up, and organised a workshop at the University of Port Harcourt to x-ray the problems and develop clear action points. Some even set up WhatsApp platforms all in a bid to chart the way forward, but all these efforts appeared stagnated.

Still, as part of efforts to find a lasting solution to the problem, a civil society group, the Extra Step Initiative (ESI), in August last year, sued the Federal Government and the Joint Military Task Force (Operation Delta Safe) for the continuous pollution of environment in the state.

According to one of the ESI leaders, who also launched the “StopTheSoot” campaign, Eugene Abels, the air around Port Harcourt have been polluted for several years by particulate matter known as soot hence their decision to take up the matter.While a lot has been said about the soot over the years, it appears no one has done anything tangible to frontally tackle the malaise, even as the fate of the litigation is unknown at the moment.

Put differently, to date, there is no outstanding, sustained effort aimed at tackling black soot in the state. In fact, in the last eight months, the campaign against the billowing soot has considerably slowed down, as political issues now dominate discussions in the state. While the rains are gradually giving way, the black soot is reappearing heavily and once again beginning to catch the attention of residents of the state.

Unfortunately, the campaign on social media, which was aimed at getting diverse voices engaged in condemning the soot, is beginning to die down as a result of poor organisation and intrusion of political differences.The former Commissioner of Information and Communication, Emma Okah wrote on his Facebook timeline last year; “Let us save the air, we all breathe the same air irrespective of political party, religion, sex, and age.” Expectedly, the message drew massive reactions from many social media actors, but that was where it stopped.

The Environmental Rights Action (ERA) in its reaction to the dying campaign against the black soot blamed the government’s failure to invest resources in monitoring air pollution or to put in place regulations that would reduce the air plague. ERA, who stressed that the absolute lack of political will at different levels of government to address the air pollution was responsible for the menace remaining unabated, called for enactment or strengthening of laws that would ensure good air quality in the state.

The Executive Director of ERA, Dr. Godwin Ojo, in an recent address, noted that ensuring air quality aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal Three, which has to do with good health and wellbeing, Goal Seven that talks about affordable and clean energy, Goal 12, which has to do with sustainable consumption and Goal 13, which focuses on climate change.Ojo said: “Whilst mortality arising from air pollution, which occur in Africa and Asia remains high, there has been no concerted effort by individuals, groups, and governments to conduct studies on the problem.

“Many statistics provided by international agencies are usually extrapolations from studies conducted in developed countries,” Ojo added.He, therefore, stressed that conducting and evaluating epidemiological studies in areas worst hit by air pollution in Africa like Rivers State should be a priority to governments and international institutions.Ojo added: “Air pollution kills more than six million people every year, most of these deaths occurring in Africa and Asia. The United Nations Environment Programme says air pollution is fundamentally altering our climate with a profound impact on the health and sustainability of our planet.”He further noted that clean air is a human right, warning that when humans are denied quality air, it would amount to a denial of human right.

For the General Overseer of Abundant Life Evangel Mission International, Apostle Eugene Ogu, the persistent air pollution in the state is a result of the Federal Government’s deliberate refusal to find a solution to the challenge.Ogu argued that the government has the capacity and the resources to stop the soot in one day, but stressed that the lack of commitment to the problem was causing the country pains, difficulties, and deaths.

The clergy, who spoke at a thanksgiving service to mark the end of the 2019 Press Week, of the Correspondents’ Chapel of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), in Port Harcourt, said, “there is lack of commitment to the problem facing the masses of this country. The Federal Government can stop the soot in just one day.

“The government can stop any of its agencies that are involved in the menace of soot in Rivers State. If it is the Police that is involved, the Federal Government can stop it. If it is the Nigerian Army, the government can still stop it, just as it can still do that if the Nigerian Navy were to be involved.”

The Chairman of the Correspondents’ Chapel of the NUJ in the state, Ernest Chinwo, said the week was devoted to raising awareness and getting stakeholders abreast of environmental issues affecting Rivers State, as well as the ongoing cleanup of Ogoni Land.Also, penultimate week, young people resident in some soot affected communities came together to present a scientific study (report) of the impact of the soot on their communities.The leader of the group known as Young Friends of the Earth Nigeria, Mr. Victor Washington, said the effect of air pollution on a human was worse than the dreaded HIV/AIDS.He spoke during the launch of the soot report, which contains their findings.

According to him: “The Young Friends of the Earth Nigeria investigated the causes of soot in Rivers State and observed that everybody needs to join hands to stop this menace, even if it takes government putting in place a strong policy that will end the cancerous substance on air.”
The Guardian gathered that the young scientists who were sponsored by ERA looked at the impact of particulate matter on communities; measured the level of particulate matter in the atmosphere; went close to the swamps, the refineries, the petrochemical plants for 24 hours everyday and collected ambient air quality samples and tested what the level of pollution in the atmosphere was.

Speaking on the report, Programme Manager, ERA, Mike Karikpo, regretted that many people have said so much about the soot report, but nobody has done anything tangible about the soot. Karikpo said: “Sometimes, we misinterpret who the government is. We are government; we voted for them, and it is important that as a people, we start organising, mobilising and coordinating ourselves to ask for action to be taken. This is the first step. We now have a scientific basis for saying what we are saying. We are hoping that we can build a critical mass of young people in our communities, who will be able to use that as part of their negotiating strategies with political parties and politicians.”To further control the menace, Karikpo advised that the emission level of cars and petrochemical plants should be controlled, while the government should move to enact policies that will reduce air pollution in the state.