Nigeria’s silent killer: Welcome to Ogoniland
In this first report, we travel to Goi, a community in Ogoniland, a region in Nigeria’s Niger Delta that was hit by oil spills in September 2008. These were not contained until November of that year.
Eric Dooh, 60, has just returned from Goi
He was visiting his family property that he had left a few years back due to air pollution. Near the property is a large river where men fish, but it has been terribly contaminated by oil spills. In turn, the spills pollute the earth and the air.
Dooh is exhausted after his trip.
Sitting on a couch in his living room, dressed in a red traditional shirt and cap, his eyes are red, burning from the polluted air he has been breathing. Independent test have found dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere there.
The plain trousers he wore the previous day are hung on a wall. Going over to them and dips his hand inside a pockets, searching for a sachet of franol; a medication that relieves breathing difficulties.
He usually takes this after returning from the oil spill site but this time he can’t find it.
“Our people suffer very seriously; they inhale chemicals,” explains Dooh. “My mother and father died in 2005 and 2012 respectively. They were diagnosed with respiratory disease and could not survive it.”
Nigeria has the largest oil-producing mines in Africa with the bulk of its crude oil found beneath farmlands and rivers in Ogoniland.
Crude oil is very important to Nigeria’s economy.
The Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS) states that crude oil export accounted for N3.74 trillion or 70.84% of total exports in the third quarter of 2019, making it the most exported product in Nigeria, while its contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was 9.77%.
But the oil-producing communities are the ones suffering from these major exports
Shell has been pumping oil from the Niger Delta since 1958 and it remains the largest multinational oil company operating there.
It has not pumped oil from its wells in Ogoni since 1993 after Ogoni activists led protests against the oil company for destroying the environment effectively halting its operations.
But its pipelines still carry crude oil – some 150,000 barrels – daily through the region to its export terminal at Bonny Island on the coast. The pipelines are reportedly ageing and poorly maintained says the human rights organisation Amnesty International.
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The poor state of the pipelines have led to multiple splits as a result of internal pressure thereby making them prone to spilling thousands of barrels of crude oil.
In a 2015 report, Amnesty International says some 352,000 barrels of crude oil were spilled between 2007 to 2014 from the Bomu Manifold, a Shell facility at Kegbara Dere (K-Dere) located in Gokana local government area of Rivers State.
But the major oil spill occured on 12 April 2009 when fire from the Bomu Manifold burned for 36 hours and spread to the neighbouring Goi and Mogho communities, causing damage that destroyed people’s livelihoods.
Loss of livelihood
During that cold night in 2009, 35-year-old Dorgbaa Bariooma kissed her children and husband good night, turned off the light and went to sleep. Neither she nor the thousands of people at K-Dere knew the following event would change their lives forever.
The first thing she woke up to was the immense heat from the explosion.
“It was as if our house had been set on fire. Later came the smell of crude oil. It was so bad we could not breathe well for the first few months,” explains Bariooma.
The oil spills had a devastating impact on the forests and fisheries that the local people depend on for their food and livelihoods. Many K-Dere residents grew up near Kidaro Creek where they fish. Fishing was one trade they excelled at, but since the spill, the catch is now poor as the creek remains contaminated with crude oil while the stench of benzene hangs in the air.
“Growing up, I would watch my father fish from this very creek and on sunny days like this, many of us will come to the creek to cool off. Here, there was once luscious vegetation and the sound of laughter and happiness was infectious,” describes Erabanabari Kobah, an environmental scientist from K-Dere, during a walk near the creek.
Driving to Goi by car, the smell of crude oil hit us hard.
All around we see deserted houses in what was once a thriving community.
Mounted near the riverbank is a public notice that reads: “Prohibition! contaminated area. Keep off”.
The river has been contaminated with crude oil. Fishermen can no longer catch healthy fish but opt for a few unhealthy crabs.
Raphael Vaneba, 47, still goes to the river to fish despite environmental and health risks. He comes out of the river carrying a fishing net on his right hand and an open gallon container holding five crabs he caught.
His body is soaked in crude oil. Soon after, he drops the fishing net and begins to scratch every part of his body.
“I scratch my body whenever I come out of the contaminated river after fishing. We do not catch fish here anymore because the spilled crude oil has killed them and we don’t get money,” he explains while opening the mouth of a crab to show the crude oil inside.
Caroline Gbogbara sells food items at the community market in Bodo, one of the affected communities that experienced major oil spills in 2008 and 2009. She would normally sell periwinkles (sea snails) picked from the river. But since the oil spill, she hasn’t been able to pick any.
Her farmlands were also hit hard by the oil spill but she still farms despite the contaminated ground. When it’s time to harvest her cassava and vegetables, she smells the stench of crude oil.
“We don’t have anything to eat. Farmers farm on lands filled with crude and have no choice but to eat the contaminated produce. Families are forced to eat the chemicals from the spills,” explains Gbogbara.
Food supplies affected
According to the Center for Environment Human Rights and Development (CEHRD), oil spills can lead to a 60 percent reduction in household food security and are capable of reducing the ascorbic acid content of vegetables by as much as 36 percent.
That alone can result in a 24 percent increase in the prevalence of childhood malnutrition.
In addition to the contamination of rivers and farmlands, the communities’ sources of drinking water, mainly underground water and streams, have also been tainted.
Goi had a stream where people would collect drinking water.
“If you fetch the water and pour [it] in a glass cup, you will see crude oil inside. We are drinking poison here,” explains Dooh.
This is part 1 of a 3-part series
*This investigation was supported by Microsoft Modern Journalism and International Center for Journalists (ICFJ)