When the sun rises on this hot and humid marshland, the acrid smell of petroleum is thick in the air. Farmers plod though the thick swamps contaminated with hydrocarbons as part of their daily ritual of tending to their fields. This is not rural Louisiana but a half a world away in the Oruma, Goi, and Ikot Ada Udo communities of the Niger River Delta.
As similar as these events may seem to the casual observer, the differences are quite stark. The Deep Horizon Spill has captivated the world’s attention for the past few months; there has been little if any notice paid to this same issue in Nigeria. Indeed, over the past 50 years, oil spills and hazardous waste disposal have effectively destroyed much of the ecological habitats and watersheds in and around the Niger Delta. In 2006, Royal Dutch Shell, perhaps the greatest offender, was ordered by the Nigerian Parliament to pay US 1.5 Billion dollars in compensation for environmental destruction in the Bayelsa Sate. Royal Dutch Shell continues to appeal the decision (AFP, 2006).
The compensation settlement may be of little help for the local residents. Chronic health problems among the local residents began to appear after the Shell injected a million litres of a waste into an abandoned Erovie oil well. (Olukoya, 2001).
Two months after the incident, residents began to develop unexplained illnesses including vomiting, diarrhea, rashes and extreme fatigue. Epidemiologists and health care investigators determined the source of the illness was the contamination of the local water supply and irrigated crops. This news came too late for 93 individuals who eventually died. Investigators and three independent labs were able to determine the area had been contaminated with toxic waste with heavy metal contamination far above acceptable limits (Olukoya, 2001).
Oil or petroleum contamination has its own risks. Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) and Benzo(a)pyrenes are common organic pollutants that are found in petroleum products. Because they are lipophilic, they have a tendency to bioaccumulate or to be stored in lipid (fat) cells. This is especially true for marine organisms in coastal areas such as the Niger Delta. In laboratory tests, chronic exposure to these contaminants has shown to extremely carcinogenic. Often resulting in tumors of the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory system and liver (Irwin, 1997).
According to Anyakora, Arbabi and Coker (2008), fish samples from four different species, namely Parachanna Obscura, Pseudolithus Elongatus, Lizza Dumerillii and Clarais Gariepinnus, were screened for the presence Benzo(a)pyrene. These fish were targeted in the study due to their wide spread consumption in the Niger Delta regions. The samples demonstrated consistently high levels of Benzo(a)Pyrene accumulation in all the fish samples. Therefore this study concludes that the population carries an increased risk for developing cancer.
This trend is likely to continue if not become worse over time as more and more contaminants are released and make their way up the food chain. Unfortunately, it must reach this level for laws and other regulations to be passed. Often it’s too late for many, who fall victim to preventable disease brought about by greed or excused by ignorance. There may not be any easy answers to solve the problems of the Niger Delta. Although much damage has occurred in the past century, it is not impossible to undo some of the damage, or at least prevent a continued deterioration. We no longer have the excuse of ignorance that our forefathers did.
References: Anyakora, C., Arbabi, M., & Coker, H. (2008). A screen for Benzo(a)pyrene in Fish Samples From Crude Oil Polluted Environments. American Journal of Environmental Sciences, 4(2), 145-150.
Associated France Press (2006, May 21). Shell ordered to pay 1.5 billion dollars to ethnic Ijaws. Associated France Press
Irwin, R. (1997). In Environmental Contaminants Encyclopedia Ft Collins, CO: National Park Service
Olukoya, S. (2001). Environmental Justice from the Niger Delta to the World Conference Against Racism. Corpwatch