The restoration of Ogoniland may end up being the world’s largest and longest clean up exercise, as it may take as long as 30 years, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the level of despoliation in the area, Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland, has stated.
The report, the end of a scientific assessment carried out by UNEP, was handed to President Goodluck Jonathan on Thursday in Abuja. It shows that the pollution of over 50 years of oil spillage operations may have penetrated deeper than thought. It also called for a $1 billion initial fund injection to kick-start the clean up.
Oil exploration and production activities, largely carried out by Shell, have been ongoing in Ogoniland since the 1950s. As a result, there has been significant pollution which has impacted negatively on the economic wellbeing of the area and led to serious social dislocation and conflict.
In respect to this, the federal government in 2005 established the Ogoni Reconciliation Committee headed by Mathew Kukah. Later in 2006, it created the Presidential Implementation Committee to oversee the environmental survey and clean-up of Ogoniland.
At the official presentation of the UNEP report yesterday, UNEP’s Director, Ibrahim Thiaw, said the assessment, which was carried out by both the UNEP team and the Presidential Implementation Committee over a period of 14 months, examined more than 200 locations, surveyed 122 kilometres of pipeline rights of way, reviewed more than 5,000 medical records and engaged over 23,000 people at local community meetings.
According to Mr Thiaw, it also details soil and groundwater contamination investigations conducted at 69 sites, which ranged from 1,300 square metres (Barabeedom-K.dere, Gokana local government area to 79 hectares (Ajeokpori-Akpajo, Eleme).
Altogether, more than 4,000 samples were analysed, including water taken from 142 groundwater monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study and soil extracted from 780 boreholes.
According to the report, “Some areas, which appear unaffected at the surface, are in reality severely contaminated underground and action to protect human health and reduce the risks to affected communities should occur without delay,” UNEP said. “In at least 10 Ogoni communities, where drinking water is contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons, public health is seriously threatened”.
The report also stated that at Nisisioken Ogale community, in western Ogoniland, families are drinking water from wells contaminated with benzene – a known carcinogen – at levels over 900 times above World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. The site is close to a Nigerian National Petroleum Company pipeline.
It said UNEP scientists found an 8cm layer of refined oil floating on the groundwater which serves the wells. This was reportedly linked to an oil spill which occurred more than six years ago.
While some on-the-ground results could be immediate, generally the report estimates that countering and cleaning up the pollution and catalysing a sustainable recovery of Ogoniland could take between 25 to 30 years. All sources of ongoing contamination must be brought to an end before the clean-up of the creeks, sediments and mangroves can begin.
This work will require the deployment of modern technology to clean up contaminated land and water, improved environmental monitoring and regulation and collaborative action between the government, the Ogoni people and the oil industry.
However, according to Mr Thiaw, the good news is that “with a more focused approach, it will be possible to attain major improvements in just 5years.”
The UNEP report also recommends the establishment of three new institutions in Nigeria to support a comprehensive environmental restoration exercise.
A proposed Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority would oversee implementation of the study’s recommendations; while the Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland, with an initial capital injection of $1billion contributed jointly by the oil industry and the government would be used to start the work.
The third is an Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre, which would be a major industrial enterprise in Ogoni land employing hundreds of people, with a centre for excellence for environmental restoration which will provide training and promote shared learning in environmental monitoring and restoration.
“The challenge before us all is to design enabling mechanisms to increase participation in development, and it has to maintain an effective two-way information link between the national governments, international partners and local communities to ensure that the benefits of sustainable development reach the marginalised and politically invisible masses,” Mr Thiaw said.
According to him, the UNEP stands ready to assist the Nigerian authorities and the people of the Ogoniland as they address the environmental challenges ahead, should they be requested to do so.
Working with partners
Mr Jonathan thanked the Ogoni people for cooperating with the team to allow them complete their assessment, adding that he was happy at the comprehensive nature of the work done. He said the report would not only help to solve the problems of Ogoniland, but that of any other part of the country where oil spillage has occurred.
“The studies, from the presentation, is quite comprehensive. The time used and the results mentioned state clearly that a lot of work has been done and we are happy because a case study will help us to solve not only the Ogoni problems but also to look into some other parts of this country that oil exploration exploitation and production have been going on over the period,” he said.
He used the opportunity not just to thank the UN, but also to remind it of Nigeria’s commitment to the UN.
“We have paid our dues in terms of solving world and regional problems, we have participated in peacekeeping, invested both financial resources and even lives of our citizens to bring peace to the world,” he said.
He also said he believed that in this day of ‘environmental war’, the UN should still come to the country’s aid.
“The UN has been in places where we have civil war, and I think the environmental challenges we have are as severe as civil wars are,” Mr Jonathan said. “Environmental challenges and environmental pollution are probably even more critical because pollutants can migrate to any direction that you don’t even expect. So I believe that UNEP, in addition to helping us to conduct this studies, should also see how they can assist us to solve this major problem that we have.”
He noted that it would not be easy to set up the recommended organisations and run them without the assistance of the UN and UNEP.
He, however, said the Nigerian Government would discuss with Shell and other oil companies operating in the area to see how the report is to be handled.
“Let me assure you that we are not just going to put this report in our drawer and lock it up,” Mr Jonathan said. “We are going to act on it.”
By Elizabeth Archibong, Next