Port Harcourt, Nigeria – Prince Gbosidan still vividly remembers April 12, 2009.
That was the day a fire from a major oil spill spread to his hometown of Deeyor-Kira from an oil facility in neighboring Kegbara-Dere and destroyed his farms.
“Before the oil spill, you could plant for four to six months and get good yields,” the 49-year-old father of four told Al Jazeera. “But now, we are living in extreme poverty because our livelihood has been destroyed. I stopped farming because there’s no point in earning nothing.”
In the mid-1970s, when Gbosidan began farming with his father in Deeyor-Kira in Nigeria’s oil-rich Rivers State, the harvest was plentiful and people from neighboring communities came to buy the crops. giant yams at his village market, he said.
But harvesting enough to meet his family’s daily needs is very difficult these days, he said, because of the oil spill and subsequent incidents.
For decades, crude oil from the Niger Delta accounted for most of Nigeria’s export earnings. But pollution from repeated oil spills continues to endanger the lives of 30 million residents in an area that spans nine states and has a coastline of about 450 kilometers (280 miles).
Between 2011 and 2021, there were 9,870 oil spills, releasing a total of 466,214 barrels of oil into the environment, according to data from the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), the agency responsible for oil spills. responsible for monitoring and responding to oil spills in the United States. Nigeria.
About 16,000 babies in the Niger Delta died within the first month of life in 2012 from an oil spill, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the researcher at the Swiss Institute of International Economics, University of St Gallen.
Life expectancy in the region is currently 41 years old, 10 years lower than the national average.
The most internationally known incident is the 2011 Bonga oil spill from the Shell oil field, in which 40,000 barrels of oil spilled into the Atlantic Ocean and affected 168,000 people in 350 communities in the Bayelsa and Delta states of Nigeria. .
The incident prompted NOSDRA to impose a $3.6 billion fine against Shell — which also owns the facility where the 2009 spill occurred — in December 2014. Three years later, Oil Spill Victims Vanguard (OSPIVV), a local nonprofit, has filed a lawsuit asking the UK to go to court to force Shell to clean up the heavily polluted environment and compensate 168,000 people directly affected by the spill. oil and community.
The case is still on trial, OSPIVV Director General Aloysius Okerieke told Al Jazeera.
Ogoniland, 261 communities spread across the four local government areas of Rivers State, covering nearly 1,000 square kilometers (385 square miles). Historically, it has been the epicenter of pollution.
Between 1976 and 1991 alone, more than two million barrels of oil in 2,976 separate spills contaminated the region, according to Friends of the Earth International, an organization that promotes social and environmental justice.
Analysts say the oil-rich region has been contaminated by poorly maintained pipelines by domestic and foreign oil companies.
Emmanuel Obemeata, an environmental health scientist and senior lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt, said: “The Ogoni problem started with problems related to faulty, old and exposed pipes that already existed. at lifetime. “Every company is required to maintain pipelines and conduct an environmental survey every five years. If these companies fail to fulfill their responsibilities, then you would expect this to happen.”
Repeated oil spills have triggered an environmental assessment report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Published in August 2011, the report found widespread soil and groundwater contamination and recommended comprehensive cleanup to restore contaminated environments in the area.
Five years later, the cleanup was kicked off in a grand event at the Bodo community in Ogoniland with notable attendees such as Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and United Nations Under-Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who at the time it’s the country’s environment minister.
Osinbajo, who started the cleanup, said Ogoniland’s environmental restoration would take 25 to 30 years and “the cleanup approach will ensure job creation for young people”.
“Oil exploration and production has been going on in Nigeria for six decades. Oil has boosted the Nigerian economy, but the ecology of the Niger Delta has been severely damaged. Fishing and agriculture have been hit hard,” he said at the event.
But it was not until 2018 that the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), the government agency that coordinates the process, began preliminary remediation at the contaminated sites.
To date, it has awarded 50 lots of land to contractors in a process estimated to be worth up to $1 billion. But experts say this was poorly done, blaming HYPREP for flouting the rules.
The criticism aligns with an investigation by local newspaper Premium Times which revealed that companies with no remediation experience have been awarded contracts to clean up Ogoni. One batch was sent to a livestock company and another to a development and financial consulting firm.
“The cleanup did not take place as recommended by UNEP,” Obemeata said. “Unless the current management takes this seriously. [and] try to avoid politicizing the whole process, only then will we think about making progress.”
“The whole cleaning process will be questioned [and] eventually, remediation will be done again,” Saatah Nubari, president of the civil society group Niger Delta Congress, told Al Jazeera.
In addition to land remediation, UNEP recommends providing clean water throughout Ogoniland as many water sources are already contaminated.
Charles Oyibo, an environmental scientist and lecturer at Niger Delta University, told Al Jazeera that this could lead to health complications for locals.
“The [impact] keep piling up until they become exaggerated and over time they will start to manifest into health complications like cancer,” he said.
“The [contaminated] springs are our water supply… we go there to get water to drink,” said Nyiedha Nasikpo, 59, who once ruled the Bomu community.
The whole cleaning process is fraught with holes and requires experts from many different fields, not just HYPREP, says Oyibo.
“HYPREP is not a cleaning agency. It must be a governing body and [more] like the government’s eye on the project,” he said. “Cleanup is a multi-dimensional activity that needs multidisciplinary professionals like medical doctors and agronomists because we are looking at a situation where water bodies will be treated, vegetation will be activated. and the land will be treated.”
HYPREP did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
In Deeyor-Kira, Gbosidan had lost hope in the exercise.
“People have suffered a lot. Now there is no money and more sickness. If you don’t have money to treat yourself, you will die.
“What I want is for the Nigerian government to visit and see everything with their own eyes,” he said.