The Deepwater Horizon disaster caused headlines around the world, yet
the people who live in the Niger delta have had to live with
environmental catastrophes for decades.
We reached the edge of the oil spill near the Nigerian village of
Otuegwe after a long hike through cassava plantations. Ahead of us lay
swamp. We waded into the warm tropical water and began swimming, cameras
and notebooks held above our heads. We could smell the oil long before
we saw it – the stench of garage forecourts and rotting vegetation
hanging thickly in the air.
The farther we travelled, the more
nauseous it became. Soon we were swimming in pools of light Nigerian
crude, the best-quality oil in the world. One of the many hundreds of
40-year-old pipelines that crisscross the Niger delta had corroded and
spewed oil for several months.
Forest and farmland were now
covered in a sheen of greasy oil. Drinking wells were polluted and
people were distraught. No one knew how much oil had leaked. "We lost
our nets, huts and fishing pots," said Chief Promise, village leader of
Otuegwe and our guide. "This is where we fished and farmed. We have lost
our forest. We told Shell of the spill within days, but they did
nothing for six months."
That was the Niger delta a few years ago,
where, according to Nigerian academics, writers and environment groups,
oil companies have acted with such impunity and recklessness that much
of the region has been devastated by leaks.
In fact, more oil is
spilled from the delta's network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations
and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico,
the site of a major ecological catastrophe caused by oil that has poured
from a leak triggered by the explosion that wrecked BP's Deepwater Horizon rig last month.
disaster, which claimed the lives of 11 rig workers, has made headlines
round the world. By contrast, little information has emerged about the
damage inflicted on the Niger delta. Yet the destruction there provides
us with a far more accurate picture of the price we have to pay for
drilling oil today.
On 1 May this year a ruptured ExxonMobil
pipeline in the state of Akwa Ibom spilled more than a million gallons
into the delta over seven days before the leak was stopped. Local people
demonstrated against the company but say they were attacked by security
guards. Community leaders are now demanding $1bn in compensation for
the illness and loss of livelihood they suffered. Few expect they will
succeed. In the meantime, thick balls of tar are being washed up along
Within days of the Ibeno spill, thousands of barrels of
oil were spilled when the nearby Shell Trans Niger pipeline was
attacked by rebels. A few days after that, a large oil slick was found
floating on Lake Adibawa in Bayelsa state and another in Ogoniland. "We
are faced with incessant oil spills from rusty pipes, some of
which are 40 years old," said Bonny Otavie, a Bayelsa MP.
point was backed by Williams Mkpa, a community leader in Ibeno: "Oil
companies do not value our life; they want us to all die. In the past
two years, we have experienced 10 oil spills and fishermen can no longer
sustain their families. It is not tolerable."
With 606 oilfields,
the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports
and is the world capital of oil pollution. Life expectancy in its rural
communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to
little more than 40 years over the past two generations. Locals blame
the oil that pollutes their land and can scarcely believe the contrast
with the steps taken by BP and the US government to try to stop the Gulf
oil leak and to protect the Louisiana shoreline from pollution.
this Gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the
company would have paid much attention," said the writer Ben Ikari, a
member of the Ogoni people. "This kind of spill happens all the time in
"The oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do
not care and people must live with pollution daily. The situation is now
worse than it was 30 years ago. Nothing is changing. When I see the
efforts that are being made in the US I feel a great sense of sadness at
the double standards. What they do in the US or in Europe is very
"We see frantic efforts being made to stop the spill
in the US," said Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth
International. "But in Nigeria, oil companies largely ignore their
spills, cover them up and destroy people's livelihood and environments.
The Gulf spill can be seen as a metaphor for what is happening daily in
the oilfields of Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
"This has gone
on for 50 years in Nigeria. People depend completely on the environment
for their drinking water and farming and fishing. They are amazed that
the president of the US can be making speeches daily, because in Nigeria
people there would not hear a whimper," he said.
It is impossible
to know how much oil is spilled in the Niger delta each year because
the companies and the government keep that secret. However, two major
independent investigations over the past four years suggest that as much
is spilled at sea, in the swamps and on land every year as has been
lost in the Gulf of Mexico so far.
One report, compiled by WWF UK,
the World Conservation Union and representatives from the Nigerian
federal government and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, calculated
in 2006 that up to 1.5m tons of oil – 50 times the pollution unleashed
in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska – has been spilled in the
delta over the past half century. Last year Amnesty calculated that the
equivalent of at least 9m barrels of oil was spilled and accused the oil
companies of a human rights outrage.
According to Nigerian
federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 spills between
1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites, many
going back decades, with thousands of smaller ones still waiting to be
cleared up. More than 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell
Last month Shell admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil
in 2009. The majority, said the company, was lost through two incidents –
one in which the company claims that thieves damaged a wellhead at its
Odidi field and another where militants bombed the Trans Escravos
Shell, which works in partnership with the Nigerian
government in the delta, says that 98% of all its oil spills are caused
by vandalism, theft or sabotage by militants and only a minimal amount
by deteriorating infrastructure. "We had 132 spills last year, as
against 175 on average. Safety valves were vandalised; one pipe had 300
illegal taps. We found five explosive devices on one. Sometimes
communities do not give us access to clean up the pollution because they
can make more money from compensation," said a spokesman.
have a full-time oil spill response team. Last year we replaced 197
miles of pipeline and are using every known way to clean up pollution,
including microbes. We are committed to cleaning up any spill as fast as
possible as soon as and for whatever reason they occur."
claims are hotly disputed by communities and environmental watchdog
groups. They mostly blame the companies' vast network of rusting pipes
and storage tanks, corroding pipelines, semi-derelict pumping stations
and old wellheads, as well as tankers and vessels cleaning out tanks.
scale of the pollution is mind-boggling. The government's national oil
spill detection and response agency (Nosdra) says that between 1976 and
1996 alone, more than 2.4m barrels contaminated the environment. "Oil
spills and the dumping of oil into waterways has been extensive, often
poisoning drinking water and destroying vegetation. These incidents have
become common due to the lack of laws and enforcement measures within
the existing political regime," said a spokesman for Nosdra.
sense of outrage is widespread. "There are more than 300 spills, major
and minor, a year," said Bassey. "It happens all the year round. The
whole environment is devastated. The latest revelations highlight the
massive difference in the response to oil spills. In Nigeria, both
companies and government have come to treat an extraordinary level of
oil spills as the norm."
A spokesman for the Stakeholder Democracy
Network in Lagos, which works to empower those in communities affected
by the oil companies' activities, said: "The response to the spill in
the United States should serve as a stiff reminder as to how far spill
management in Nigeria has drifted from standards across the world."
voices of protest point out that the world has overlooked the scale of
the environmental impact. Activist Ben Amunwa, of the London-based oil
watch group Platform, said: "Deepwater Horizon may have exceed Exxon
Valdez, but within a few years in Nigeria offshore spills from four
locations dwarfed the scale of the Exxon Valdez disaster many times
over. Estimates put spill volumes in the Niger delta among the worst on
the planet, but they do not include the crude oil from waste water and
gas flares. Companies such as Shell continue to avoid independent
monitoring and keep key data secret."
Worse may be to come. One
industry insider, who asked not to be named, said: "Major spills are
likely to increase in the coming years as the industry strives to
extract oil from increasingly remote and difficult terrains. Future
supplies will be offshore, deeper and harder to work. When things go
wrong, it will be harder to respond."
Judith Kimerling, a
professor of law and policy at the City University of New York and
author of Amazon Crude, a book about oil development in
Ecuador, said: "Spills, leaks and deliberate discharges are happening in
oilfields all over the world and very few people seem to care."
is an overwhelming sense that the big oil companies act as if they are
beyond the law. Bassey said: "What we conclude from the Gulf of Mexico
pollution incident is that the oil companies are out of control.
is clear that BP has been blocking progressive legislation, both in the
US and here. In Nigeria, they have been living above the law. They are
now clearly a danger to the planet. The dangers of this happening again
and again are high. They must be taken to the international court of
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