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Ogoni cleanup delay: Denying people good drinking water

By Ann Godwin, Port Harcourt
23 December 2018   |   2:59 am
The Federal Government’s intention to clean up and restore Ogoni land still looks like a mirage, as there is no clarity of purpose and transparency in executing the assignment 17 years after the UNEP report. Among the 11 things recommended for the cleanup and restoration template was provision of drinking water to communities with contaminated…

Pregnant woman searching for water in Ogoniland

The Federal Government’s intention to clean up and restore Ogoni land still looks like a mirage, as there is no clarity of purpose and transparency in executing the assignment 17 years after the UNEP report.

Among the 11 things recommended for the cleanup and restoration template was provision of drinking water to communities with contaminated water supply.

However, The Guardian’s findings revealed that the embattled Ogoni people still lack potable drinking water.

The United Nations (UN), under the Secretary General and Executive Director, UNEP, Achim Steirner, in its forward to the report, noted that the history of oil exploration and production in Ogoni land is a long, complex and often painful one, which has become seemingly intractable in terms of resolution and future direction.

He regretted that in October 1956, when 22,000 barrels of crude oil was discovered and produced in Ogoni land, the Federal Government and the multinational oil companies showed serious lack of confidence, trust and commitment to fulfil obligations arising therefrom, and operate in line with global international practices.

Steirner’s fears are palpable, as over two years after Vice President Yemi Osibanjo flagged-off the cleanup exercise and restoration of Ogoni, with a promise to religiously implement the UNEP report, it is still the same old story in Goi community. The area is still covered in thick crude and the people’s condition remains pathetic.

In Bodo, where the Vice President flagged-off the cleanup exercise, there was free flow of water, as the surface crude had been removed during the first phase of the exercise.

This carried out by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), a major contributor to the spill. Aside this, every other thing remains like it was prior to the visit.

Indeed, the monument displaying the cleanup flag-off has collapsed, with the remaining surface supported with stones and sand.

Despite removal of crude from the surface, however, the water is still oily and dark, indicating that no major cleanup had been done. The people were seen fishing from the water.

Bodo Mediation Initiative (BMI) Communication Officer, Yima Nalley, said the surface removal was the first phase of the cleanup by SPDC, but it was stopped in June this year.

She explained that she didn’t know when the second phase would commence. BMI is the mediating body between SPDC and Bodo community to ensure effective cleanup on spill sites.

It was gathered that the Project Director for Shell Cleanup, Mikel Anem had been instructed to step down. A visit to the spill site showed that the contactors were no longer operating.

Saying he didn’t know when the second phase would start and why it had been delayed, Shell’s Spokesman, Bamidele Odugbesan said: “The team has completed phase one, which is the removal of the surface. 

However, there is a big challenge in Bodo. One minute, you are through with the cleaning and move on to another site, the next moment; you discover the place has been re-polluted.

We went to Bode Creeks and saw illegal refining sites, where people broke pipelines and were throwing crude into the water, re-polluting the areas that had been cleaned up. 

“It is just like someone mopping the floor, but the tap is still running. It is a major challenge. We are helpless in the face of the ugly development, as SDPC does not control security apparatus that has the duty to stamp out illegal refiners.”

The Army, however, said it was doing its best to stop artisanal refining and other criminal activities in the region.

Spokesman of the 6 Division Nigerian Army Port Harcourt, Amino Lipase, said over 100 illegal refining sites had been shut down by the Force, with over 200 trucks loaded with illegal petroleum products seized.

On their part, stakeholders and environmental rights activists have bemoaned Federal Government’s delay in carrying out the cleanup exercise to save people’s lives and restore aquatic life. A renowned environmental rights activist and Director, Ecological Think Tank, Health Mother Earth Foundation, (HOMEF), Nnimmo Bassey, said: “The delay is extremely dangerous. The people’s health is being jeopardised. It is actually an emergency, because this problem has been on for so many years. With regard to the cleanup itself, the process will naturally take some time, but it could have been faster than it is. We are hoping once it begins as promised within the next one month, it will be carried out expeditiously, so that there will be no more delay. The pollution will obviously increase the dangers as the years go by.”

Reacting to the development, the Coordinator, Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, (HYPREP), Dekil Marvin, argued that it was unfair for people to perceive the cleanup project as inactive or slow. He explained that HYPREP always insists on compliance with international best practices, and adheres strictly to stipulated due processes.

He said: “When the exercise is completed, the Ogoni cleanup would provide a template for the exercise in other parts of Niger Delta region where there is oil spill. About 20,000 patients have benefitted from HYPREP medical outreach, which was executed in two phases. Generally, we have carried out intervention and sensitisation across the four local government councils in Ogoni, and funds were made available for the programme.

“The next thing is the chemical preparation, which is that at every site mapped out by UNEP, which are about 26 in all, samples are taken for analysis. We have been doing technical preparation, technical planning and strategy. The procurement process is on, so we are making progress.”

Similarly, a member of HYPREP Board of Trustees, Dr. Peter Medee, affirmed that funds were available to carry out the long-awaited cleanup, stating that the agency and government are ready for the exercise, but just waiting for HYPREP to complete the public procurement processes, and then recommend contractors for the work.

He said: “The International Oil Companies (IOCs) have released the first tranche of $200m out of the $1bn earmarked for the cleanup. There is also $170m and another $10m, which was given earlier, making it $180m and the funds are in our account.

The $20m is what we are expecting from refineries and immediately they bring it, everything will speed up.”

However, the local people and indigenes of the oil-impacted communities said they were tired of promises, paper works and quoting of figures by government and its agencies. They insisted they wanted to see practical works going on in the oil spill communities.

Damien Gbogbara, a Bodo indigene, conducted the reporter round Bodo polluted site.

He said: “This is where Vice President Osinbajo flagged off the UNEP cleanup on June 2, 2016. But regrettably, since then, there has been no significant impact in the community, both at the site and on people’s lives.

HYPREP said it is still doing technical inspection two years after. SPDC has done a little by removing crude from the surface water.

“Bodo is a typical village, so people still fish in the oily water, because they don’t have a choice. Most villagers still depend on fishing to survive.

“For years, I had rashes all over my body. I went to the hospital and the doctor said it was skin disease due to polluted water. We drink the water, which you can see is totally dark and polluted. If there is anything government can do to bring back the aesthetic nature of our environment, it should do it and forget about the radio, paper and television work. When we see action, we will do the publicity and announce it for the world to hear and see.”

Way Forward

According to the UNEP report, there was urgent need to carry out health audit on the people to further ascertain the connection between pollution and people’s health.

Presently, there is no health audit in the area, since the report’s recommendation 17 years ago. It also mentioned the need for functional health facilities with skilled manpower.

Most of the health facilities visited lacked equipment and modern day facilities. 

The state government recently built Bodo General Hospital, but it has not been furnished.

The situation at the State Hospital Management Board, Bori was worrisome, as most of the hospital beds have broken down, with mosquito nets torn, and no steady electricity or water supply, among others. This discourages people from attending the hospital. 

Nnimmo Baseey said: “There is need for more health facilities, as well as medical attention to people in the area. The health mission HYPREP carried out was a good indication of what ought to be done, but it was sporadic.

So, we need a sustained health effort, which would be preferred by health audit that will pinpoint the kind of diseases prevalent in the area. 

“This way, a systematic approach can be made towards stopping further occurrences before they get more complicated. We need more consisted provision of healthcare for the people, knowing this is not a nearest situation.”

For Dr. Sukarime, multinational oil companies should assist in building well-equipped maternity homes in affected areas, with skilled manpower to reduce miscarriages and maternal mortality in the area. 

Also, the Commissioner for Environment, an indigene of Ogoni and member of the Governing Council on the cleanup project, Roseline Konya, said she was eager to see the cleaning start, as no one was happy that the exercise was yet to fully commence.

“I have been following up this thing right from when I was young, and they have not started the cleanup till now. You can imagine the impact since all these years. There are so many preliminary things to do. All we want is that the place be cleaned up,” she said.

The Health Commissioner reasoned that the Federal Government should act without waiting, as health issues should not be politicised.

In the meantime, Esther Kpakoldii and other pregnant women like her may have a long time to wait, while hoping they do not join the statistics of women with miscarriages or other oil pollution triggered health misfortunes.