For the past fifty years, oil spills have devastated the Niger Delta. But only now are we coming to terms with the environmental, social, and economic costs of a half-century of oil exploitation in Nigeria.
In a recent report undertaken by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the Niger Delta is now one of the most polluted places on the planet, and could require $1 billion and thirty years to clean up. It seems that the estimated 7,000 oil spills between 1970 and 2000 have “penetrated further and deeper than many have supposed,” according to the report.
Areas that seemed unpolluted from the surface were revealed to be highly toxic underground. 10 communities in the Ogoniland region were afflicted by high concentrations of hydrocarbons in their drinking water, with a half an inch of refined oil floating on the groundwater from one village in particular.
How did the Niger Delta succumb to such ecological damage from oil?
But oil development in the region garnered increasing criticism from local communities. It was seeping into the natural environment, slowly killing off fish, plants, and animals, and negatively affecting the livelihoods of the Ogoni people.
On the one hand, oil development became a central component of the Nigerian economy, but on the other hand, it was causing unaccounted for damage to local communities.
Eventually Shell was forced to leave the Ogoniland region in 1993 amidst escalating anger from local communities, although it still operates in other parts of the delta.
The UNEP is calling for the implementation of emergency measures to warn communities about water contamination and for remediation efforts to begin right away. They further recommend a $1 billion fund to be set up to tackle the environmental degradation in Ogoniland.
Reflecting On Oil Development in the Developing World
My guess is that most people in the developed world are probably unaware of the environmental emergency in Nigeria. Events like Exxon Valdez or the Gulf Oil Spill make headlines in every newspaper when they happen, yet spills that occur in Nigeria barely register on the Western media’s radar.
Two of Shell’s biggest oil spills in the Niger Delta affected over 70,000 people, and had a combined severity rivalling that of Exxon Valdez. The fact that oil spills continued over a period of fifty years without proper environmental studies or news coverage is a worrying indicator of how oil companies can effectively sweep environmental problems under the rug in developing countries.
The latest report about the Niger Delta gives us further reason to embrace clean renewable energy and move away from our reliance on fossil fuels. Oil spills are not a question of if. They are a question of when. As long as we continue to develop oil resources we will always have the risk of a large spill taking place.
Images CC licensed by Sosialistisk Ungdom – SU: Niger Delta oil.