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Death rate soars in Niger Delta as residents live on contaminated fish, others

Host communities of multinational oil companies and those impacted by their activities in the core Niger Delta states of Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers are said to be experiencing unprecedented rise in death and infection rates following the pervasive pollution of their environments and residents’ consumption of contaminated water, fish and other aquatic food. Many farmers and fishermen have also lost their means of livelihood to environmental pollution, compounding the poverty level and youth restiveness in the areas, INNOCENT DURU reports.

  • We bury no fewer than six people weekly — Goi monarch

  • Breast cancer, miscarriage, early menopause hit female population

  • We’ve been penalising defaulting multinationals, getting compensation for communities — FG

The Sangana Beach in Bayelsa State was recently littered with different sizes of dead fishes suspected to have been killed by the pollution of the water occasioned by oil spills. The sight of dead fishes floating on the river or motionless by the sea shore invokes memories of a scene of genocide where carcasses of human bodies litter the ground.

The incident, according to the natives, who are mainly farmers and fishermen, was just one of the numerous damages and setbacks that incessant oil spills have brought to their communities.

“Our terrain is gone, totally gone. There is no fish in it again and we are suffering,” Noel Ikonikumo, Chairman, United Fishing Union of Sangana Community, told our correspondent in a tone of despondency.

“Oil spill is a serious matter. We experienced it even yesterday. I was on the sea when the spill started. Whenever the spill occurs, we would not see fish in that area again in the next 10 years. Our members have been leaving our area for other places in order to make a catch and take care of their families. There is no way the people that are fishing in the creek can cope because everywhere is contaminated.”

To dissuade people from consuming contaminated fish and contracting life threatening diseases, Noel said many communities, including Sangana, now engage town criers to go round and alert the people to the dangers.

In spite of that, he said, “some people still manage to eat the contaminated fishes because there is nothing they can do. When you eat it, you will perceive the smell of crude oil.

“Periwinkle is one other thing that is almost vanishing from our area. It is one of the things that crude oil normally kills.

“Once crude oil gets to the mangrove, it will remain there for some days before it will melt into the ground. Small crabs are no longer there again too. If this continues for the next four years, I don’t know how the fishermen would cope.”

A former Chairman of Nigerian Medical Association in the state, Dr Michael Azebi, said many of the residents had been presenting myriads of health challenges including diarrhoea, chronic skin diseases and cancer, among others, as a result of their exposure to polluted water and consumption of contaminated fishes and other sea foods.

In Rivers State, pollution of the environment together with the attendant challenges is said to have spiked the death rate, with Goi community in Gokana Local Government Area of the state the worst hit.

“Every week, we bury no fewer than six to seven persons in my area. More than five people have died today. The people who died were just between 25 and 40 years. The water we drink and the polluted environment have increased our mortality rate,” the monarch, Chief Eric Dooli, said.

Basil Nkpordee, a community leader in Ogoni, captured their plight thus: “We are living corpses because the air is polluted and the water too is polluted. We eat the fish from polluted water and we also drink the water because there is no alternative. The pollution in Ogoni is pervasive.

“Oil pollution has become a reccurring decimal in Ogoni land. The activities of oil multinationals have not changed since the late Ken Saro-Wiwa publicly denounced it.

“Many communities here in Ogoni have become environmental refugees because of pollution. One of such communities is Goi. Life is completely dead in that community.

“The presence of oil in Ogoni has brought crisis instead of development, and that is why if anybody crosses the age of 50 here, it calls for celebration.”

Corroborating Basil, Goi’s monarch, Chief Eric, said: “The mortality rate is very high. The amount of sicknesses we have been having here is enormous. We have people with rashes and respiratory problems among others.

“Recently, there was massive death of fishes in the Boni side which also affected our creeks here. Some people who were desperate to get fish to sell and sustain themselves went and packed the dead fishes. Many of the people who bought the polluted fishes and consumed them died.  Those concerned are yet to address the issue.

“Many of our chiefs are young people. Look at my age. I am the head of my dynasty in the whole Gokana Kingdom. Many of the council of chiefs’ members in Gokana are small boys who inherited the thrones of their fathers because of the mortality rate caused by high intake of polluted water, food and air.

“The children too are dying in their numbers while the women are having serious miscarriages.”

Friday Mbani, one of the youth leaders in Ogoni, said:  “Life expectancy is becoming very short here in Ogoni. The only thing we are always inviting people for is burial. The elderly chiefs we have are only in their 40s.”

A traditional chief in Gbaramatu Kingdom of Delta State, who doubles as the National Coordinator of Centre for Peace and Environmental Justice, Comrade Sheriff Mulade, said the same problems apply in Delta State.

“In fact, the surface of our land is destroyed. No agriculture can take place in this environment. The water body is contaminated and you cannot use it for anything.

“As Ijaw people, our means of survival is the fish and the river. Today, we cannot drink from the river or bathe with the water. It causes untimely death,” Mulade said.

He alleged that “if there is a spill in any of the multinational companies, it is the same companies that will provide logistics. They will fly National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) to Warri. The same company that caused the spill will lodge them in a hotel. They will be the one to convey them to the spill location. So, what do you expect? It is what the company wants that the environmental agency will agree to.  Then the community will stand alone.”

Strange diseases hit communities

Following the enormity of the pollution in the communities, residents said they have continued to witness and lose their beloved ones to sicknesses that were hitherto not found in the areas.

“Before now, we had not experienced cancer. But today, breast cancer is the order of the day, as well as typhoid fever and malaria, all because of oil pollution,” Nkpordee, an Ogoni community leader said.

Asked about the connection between oil pollution and cancer, he said: “I earlier told you that we eat polluted fish. If you go to Goi community and you meet a fisher man that is coming from the creek and buy a fish from him, when you open the fish, you will see that there is oil in it.

•Crude oil spreading on water

“Research has shown and proved that the reason why the women have breast cancer is that they are the ones that like to eat the head of fish.

“The gill of the fish absorbs the crude oil and they find it difficult to clean the oil from the gill. Therefore, eating the fish’s head makes them to suffer cancer.

“We contacted health personnel to know why there has been pervasive cancer in the land and they told us it occurs as a result of the contaminated fish consumed by Ogoni people, especially the head of fish.

“Between 2018 and 2020, more than 20 persons died of cancer of the breast, which was so strange in Ogoniland.”

Nkpordee further said: “In Isisioke, the well that is consumed by the people contains benzene, which also causes cancer. For the fact that they don’t have alternative means to get water, they keep drinking this water and thereby contact these diseases.

“In a community called Kani in Gokana Local Government Area, there is no single oil well. But when it rains, the colour of the rain water is black. In Ogoniland before now, when it rained, we used to bathe with rain water, drink and use it for domestic purposes. But because of the high rate of pollution, rain water is no longer usable because it is black.

“Even when you place a bucket at the centre of your compound and rain falls into it directly from heaven, the colour of the water is black. It is a very pathetic situation.

“When oil came, we thought that it was oil. We never knew that it was blood, because its presence has done us more harm than good. We have lost generations of leaders because of the oil multinationals.

“It was stated in UNEP report that Isisioke should be given emergency water, but up till now, nothing has been done.”

Women and children according to Friday Mbani, an Ogoni youth leader, are more vulnerable to the health problems.

He said: “The pollution is causing many of the women to have menopausal problems. When you see a young girl, she will tell you she is not seeing her period again. I am a practitioner in the medical field, and many people bring their issues to me.

“It appears there is a conspiracy between the government and the multinational oil companies to destroy life in Ogoni land and the Niger Delta as a region.

“No wonder many of the plants and the animals that we were used to are no longer there now. It is hard to see a vulture here.  Even butterfly, you can’t find it again. Many medicinal plants and trees are not there again.”

Ayiba Tonye, a fish seller in Sangana area of Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, said she and many other women had developed itchy skin from using the polluted water. The problem, according to Ayiba is called ‘sweetie’ among the people because it is enjoyable scratching it.

“Pregnant women whose pregnancies are not strong perceive the toxic smell and have miscarriages. A young girl lost her four-month-old pregnancy recently.

“It is also causing sweetie for us. Sweetie in our place is skin rash that swells and brings out water when you scratch your body. I have it on my body as I am talking to you now. I have gone to the hospital but the rash refused to go.”

Kroma County, another fish seller in the area, corroborated Ayiba’s claim.

She said: “As women, we sometimes go to the waterside to wash our body. The oil in the water causes infections for us. We do have rashes after bathing with the water.

“Whenever we have infections, we go to the chemist for medications. We don’t have access to potable water. Whenever it rains, the water would be dark and look like smoke.”

Pollution renders fishermen, farmers idle

Fishermen and farmers are said to have been badly hit by the level of pollution in the region. The land and the rivers are massively polluted, rendering the people jobless and incapable of fending for their families.

According to the Rise for Bayelsa Campaign, an online platform, about 40 million litres of oil are spilled every year across the Niger Delta.

Amnesty International in one of its reports described the Niger Delta as Africa’s most important oil-producing region and one of the most polluted places on earth.

Chief Eric of Goi Community, Rivers State, said oil spillage has had a telling effect on fishing and farming in the community. “There has been no source of livelihood again since this thing has been happening. There is nothing like fish for the fishermen to catch.

“The little they are getting now is not enough to sustain the community. They go as far as Boni and Andoni areas to look for fish.  We no longer find periwinkle and oyster shell in our area.”

Asked about the effect on farmers, the monarch said: “Whatever affects the fishermen also affects the farmers. Fishing and farming are the basic things that our people depend on for their sustenance.

“The spillage has also affected the crops cultivated. The harvest is nothing to write home about. Imagine an okro seed that you plant producing one big okro on its head and that would be the end. This is what people plant and harvest for three to four months in some other places.

“Our people here don’t benefit from agricultural seeds that the federal government gives to farmers in the north. For example, fertilisers and improved seedlings were given to farmers in the north but none of such was given to our farmers.

“Majority of our people have been displaced because of all these challenges. They have migrated to other places where they can get land to farm and sustain their families. Their income has been badly affected.

“Even if the problem is addressed, the government is supposed to make the oil companies to provide alternative means of livelihood for the people.”

While lamenting the damage that oil spills do to their fishing equipment, the Chairman of United Fishing Union of Sangana Community, Bayelsa, Noel, said they had been forced to go into the ocean in search of fish since they no longer get fishes to catch in the creeks and swamps.

“If the spill affects your fishing equipment, then it means they are gone forever. We always have to buy another one each time such a problem occurs.

“Unfortunately for us, fishing equipment has become very expensive. We always have to apply for loan to get money to buy new equipment, but it is always not certain the application for loan will succeed.

“We are crying to the oil companies to make sure they give us compensation or assist us to upgrade our fishing materials so that we can go deep into the sea. If you have a low powered engine, you cannot make a good catch.

“Our efforts to reach out to the oil companies are fruitless. We have written series of letters to government bodies without any response.”

The immediate past paramount ruler of Kalaba community, ayelsa State, Chief Roman Joe Orukali, regretted that the exploration of oil in the land has badly affected their farming and fishing business.

He said: “Several spills have occurred in our environment and they were not cleaned up, and when flood occurs, it carries these crude materials to our farms and cause serious damage to them and our fishing areas.

“The produce this time is nothing to write home about. In those days when oil pollution had not been much in the environment, we were producing a lot of food and even taking them to the market. But this time around, the produce are so small.

“The same thing applies to the fishes too. Some of our people no longer go into fishing in some areas because some of the swamps have been destroyed and there is no way to carry out fishing activity.

“When we no longer carry our produce to the market, definitely our income reduces. We find it difficult to even sponsor some of our children in school because the income is no longer there.”

The visibly disturbed chief further said: “Some of the fishes die inside the river and when the environment is no longer conducive for the fishes to live, they have to look for a place that is convenient for them.

“I know of a place where the spill occurred around my community in 2012 and till now, if you kill fish there and eat it, it will seem as if you are drinking crude oil. We thank God that we also have a running creek from where we manage to get fish to eat, but the catch is not as it used to be because of the pollution in our environment.

“We need assistance from all the multinational companies and even the government.”

Women who sell fish to augment the income of their husbands also decried the development in the community.

“When our men return from fishing, we would buy from them and resell to strangers. That has been what gives us the income that we use to train our children. Two of my children are in the university.

“The business is not what it used to be because of the spillage. The fishes are dying in the river as if the end of the world is approaching. If you take the fish home to cook and eat, you are sure to have sickness.

“Some of the dead fishes would already be rotten when they float on the water with maggot coming out from their heads. If you take it home to cook, you will find crude oil flowing inside them. If you eat it, you will contract sickness.

“The government takes our oil and we are suffering here with our children,” Ayiba Tonye, of Sangana Community, Bayelsa State, said.

Ayiba’s kinswoman, Kroma County, also lamented that the spillage does not allow them to get fish.

County said: “The fish you would sometimes see in the river would be floating, meaning that they have died. When you even manage to bring it home, you would not be able to eat it because the smell of fuel will be all over it.

“My husband is a fisherman but he doesn’t catch fish so well again. At times, they will buy fuel inside canoe with the little money they have, hoping that they would catch fish and make money after selling it, but at the end of the day, they return home without catching anything.

“This spillage is causing us untold hardship. Everywhere you go, there is no fish. Before now, we used to have fish in excess. I used to buy and sell fish, but now I don’t get a good number of fish to buy.

“I now sell provision, but people hardly buy provision if they don’t catch fish. Once there is no fish, business crumbles. We are not government workers and dot no get salaries. When they catch large quantity of fish everybody feels happy and goes out of their ways to buy things.

“It is fishing that we are living on.  To pay the children’s school fees is even a problem.”

Economic setback fuelling youth restiveness

The menace of oil spills and the attendant economic effects on the people is said to be partly responsible for the escalation of violence in the Niger Delta.

A youth leader in Ogoni, Friday Mbani, said because of the poor living standard in the communities, “you will find communal clashes, conflicts everywhere.

“As we are talking now, if the community is aware that I am talking about oil issue, they will think somebody has given me money, and if you don’t manage the situation very well, it will turn into something else.

“This is why you will be hearing that Ogoni is a violent region. We are not actually violent.”

Benjamin Warder, a former youth leader in lkarama area of Bayelsa State, shared Friday’s line of thought. “Of course, the Niger Delta people are farmers and fishermen. Our farm lands and rivers have been degraded and polluted. Oil pollution has affected us economically.

“White collar jobs are not easily seen and found here. Whatever affects the community affects the youths also. It has a general effect on the society. This increases the crime rate in the society.

“For me as a youth leader, I have been advocating that the government and the multi- national oil companies should look into engaging the youths in skill development and craft development, so that everyone could be meaningfully engaged and not wait for white collar jobs. But some of those advocacies have not yielded any benefits for now.”

Bemoaning the negative impact of oil spill in Bayelsa and the Niger Delta at large, renowned environmentalist, Morris Allagoa, noted that crude oil has a very toxic effect on the environment. “If you pour crude oil in a well grassed area and you come back after a week, you will see all the grass dying. If it spills on a river, you would see the fishes and even the crocodiles and snails dying because of the chemical composition of crude oil. It is very, very inimical to the environment in terms of denying the people their means of livelihood.”

He further said: “When lakes or swamps where people are supposed to make money from are affected by crude oil, the fishes would all die. Those that will survive will find ways to migrate from that environment.

“That is how it even happens on the sea. That is how it denies the fishermen, fisher women and farmers of their livelihoods. It also denies them of their good health.

“Some of them come down with different types of sicknesses. Respiratory problem is more rampant. We are also denied of potable water.

“The people’s only source of water is the river or the rain water, but these have been affected by gas flaring.”

 

Residents present myriads of mild, chronic sicknesses —Medical expert

A former chairman of Nigeria Medical Association, Bayelsa State chapter, Dr Michael Azebi, in an interview with our correspondent, noted that there is great relationship between oil exploration and exploitation and certain health challenges suffered by the people in the Niger

Delta, particularly in the oil bearing communities, who have direct impact of the effects of oil pollution.

He said: “Crude oil is mainly hydrocarbon, and when hydrocarbons get in contact with the land, it depletes the nutrients so the land won’t be fertile. You can’t really plant things. It also pollutes the ground water as well as the surface water.

“Because of the level of poverty in these environments, people depend on the surface water and the few that can afford to sink boreholes don’t have the means of treating them. They only filter the water for their daily consumption.

“Without proper treatment, even the water that is sourced from borehole is still within the level of water that has been polluted by the hydrocarbon that pollute the land. Either through the surface water where you can actually see the oil floating or the shallow boreholes sunk by individuals, the people get water that is polluted, which invariably affects them.”

“The immediate effect, according to Azebi, is that some of them have infections like diarrhoea. “Those who bathe with the water with the oil floating in it have allergic skin infections. Some of them have chronic skin infections with the skin looking like that of crocodile. It comes with one itchy complaint or the other. “We also know that hydrocarbon is not bio-degradable, so, somehow, it gets into the system.

“We have also seen cases where people living in this environment tend to have chronic illnesses, and one of them is respiratory tract infections. Some have developed chronic bronchitis, some have developed asthma conditions.

‘Even for those who don’t have asthma running in their families, you see them developing asthma at an age they are not expected to develop it. So, we have asthmatic diseases, bronchitis which are inflation of the lungs, as well as other chronic conditions that have led to cancer of the lungs in people who are not known to be active or passive smokers.”

Continuing, he said: “We have also seen some congenital abnormalities in some children that are delivered by people who are resident in the oil bearing communities. The effects of hydrocarbon is very, very massive in the environment.

“The other one that we know is as a direct effect of gas flaring. The hydrocarbon that gets into the air is converted to acid when the rain falls. So we have what is called acid rain.

“Poor people who manage to buy corrugated iron sheets to build their houses don’t enjoy them for long. As it rains for two or three seasons, all the roofing sheets will turn brown and begin to rust.

“Because of scarcity of water, people collect rain water.  But the rain water they collect for consumption is polluted because hydrocarbons are massive in the atmosphere and any particulate matter in the atmosphere does not disappear into the atmosphere; it will come back when it rains, and that will also pollute the water we drink.

“When the river is polluted, every of its content is also polluted. Apart from the fact you can hardly see fish in our rivers, the few that survive and are caught have every trace of oil pollution in them.

“When you remove the gills, you will see oil in them. When you wash them and boil, you will also see oil floating in the water you use to wash them before cooking.

“The main content of crude oil is hydrocarbon. If you consume hydrocarbon, since it is not bio-degradable, it finds its way into your cells and it is a big problem on ground.”

He submitted that the multinational companies know about the problems but “because we have a system where the government does not care about the citizens, we have them work unchallenged.

“The few times the indigenes have tried to take the law into their hands, it is the same government that sends the police and soldiers to disperse them.

“When you look at what happens in civilised countries like America when similar things happen, they go to the extent of getting adequate compensation. But it is not the same here.

“That women in the environment develop breast cancer is true because of the fact that the pollution we get from hydrocarbon can get into the cells. Transformation of cells when there is pollution of hydrocarbon can lead to skin cancer, and breast is one of the appendages, so it can also lead to breast cancer.”

 

We’ve been penalising defaulting multinationals, getting compensation for communities —FG

The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) says it has always responded promptly to complaints of oil spills in the Niger Delta region and penalised defaulting polluters.

The Director Oil Spill Assessment Department, Olubunmi Akindele, said: “Oil spill response is a process that starts with notification, and having received the notification, it is expected to be followed with joint investigation which includes the host community or communities impacted.

“At the stage of joint investigation, we identify the cause, and if we find the cause to be third party, there is no compensation but there will be clean-up. Most of the clean-ups were done by engaging the communities and the sites.

“We do a lot in making sure that it is done in good time to put the environment back to use. We have been receiving public complaints and have been resolving them.

“If the spill is caused by the company through negligence, we go about doing damage assessment after which the communities are entitled to compensation. After evaluation, there is monetary compensation.

“Sometimes, some oil companies even provide relief materials for the communities, but we have always insisted on fair and adequate compensation.”

He dismissed allegations by Mulade that multinationals provide logistics for NOSDRA.

“Anybody can say anything; it is for you to verify. Investigation is always done jointly with the participation of the community. Everybody decides and agrees that the spill is caused by an oil company or vandals.

“The person who alleges must prove it. If he doesn’t, then it is a little more of frustration. We are cock sure that our staff don’t get engaged in these things you are talking about.”

Reacting to complaints by the communities that it takes a long time before they can do meaningful business after an oil spill, Akindele said: “When a place is contaminated, the responsibility of the polluter is to restore the impacted site. After recovery, they can go back to their businesses.

“Are those places not re-polluted by the communities? Sometimes they don’t allow for clean-up. Sometimes we have to intervene to allow for the intervention of the polluter. It doesn’t have to be.

“If you re-pollute by way of doing illegal refining or vandalisation, the place would not recover, it would be re-polluted.

“The lifeline for recovery is about six years. After the place has been remediated, you need to leave it for natural attenuation. If the natural attenuation is not allowed, the place would not recover.

“There should be awareness campaign in this regard. The incident is not on the person who broke pipeline or illegal refining but on the community at large that suffers damage to natural resources, impacted environment.”

On what the agency does to polluters who fail to clean the spill, he said: “We have penalised oil companies that defaulted in the past. For instance, if they don’t report spills, we sanction them, and if they fail to pay, we will go and enforce our directive.

Specifically, we have succeeded in bringing old APPMC into compliance by so doing.  There is a company we sanctioned and we are in appeal court in Benin now.

“We are always taking steps to make sure that they comply. But that is not our ultimate goal. We make sure that they voluntarily comply without forcing them.

“There is a platform by which we engage them to sensitize them on early reporting of spill and adequate clean-up. If they don’t clean up, we ask them to go back.”

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