Oil was found in their soil. Everyone was excited. But rather than the wealth they had hoped for, they got a sky-high death toll. What is killing the people? ‘Damilola Ayeni travelled to the region to find out, gathering evidences about the health and environmental dangers residents have lived with for 15 years.
Obituaries of young people littered Ebedei, a small village in Ukwuani Local Government Area of Delta state. One had images of two boys standing side by side, and a quote: ‘Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal’.
“We can’t take the rate of death among young people any longer,” a resident, Nwajeli Sunday, says. “When I just came it was very low, but ever since they started their oil operations, it has been nothing to write home about.”
Although the cause of the deaths appeared obvious, lack of medical documents made it difficult for villagers to ascertain.
“I cannot give the cause of the deaths since autopsies were not done,” Nwajeli continues.
The long breaks between his words depicted one trying painfully hard to avoid self-implication, like, You and I know, but who am I to confirm?
Dr. Sam Edewor (not real name), however, seemed to give a hint when asked of the impacts of gas flaring. He says: “Go to Ebedei. You will see. It’s too obvious.”
Dr. Sam is the Medical Director of a private hospital in Obiaruku, an Ukwuani town in Delta State. Since there is no hospital in Ebedei, villagers journey to the neighbouring town to see a doctor. And these days, up to 90% of Ebedei population visits the hospital.
This reporter followed their footprints to Obiaruku.
An attempt to get further information from Dr. Sam proved unsuccessful on the first meeting. Among other tasks, he was getting ready to dress a patient. He, however, confirmed that his patient had an accident at a gas plant in Ebedei while trying to load oil into the tanker.
Jokingly at first, Dr. Sam called the incident “one of the effects of gas flaring” but later called it “burns from the gas plant”.
The message was clear, however. Ebedei is bleeding, and oil is its blood.
Old Ebedei is No More
After 21 years in Lagos, Nwajeli went to live in Ebedei. His father had decided to relocate to his homeland to start farming. Ebedei at the time was a scarcely visible clustered settlement. Its only plea was its fling with nature, and of course, that was enough to cheer anyone coming from Lagos. Unlike the fog in Lagos, fresh air was abundant in Ebedei. Tracts of green vegetation covered the soil. The village stream awaited children who loved to swim. The people also smiled greetings every now and then.
Life can be good in a village. Something belongs to everyone. You can bite into fruits seconds after they have fallen, and then throw them away. While the rush and push of the city shields anyone from seeing anyone else, everyone belongs to everyone else in the village.
That fine rural life was, however, short-lived for Nwajeli. Oil was discovered in Ebedei. It would rip the village of its charm, the people of their innocence, and then introduce a squalid touch of development.
Initially, the discovery of oil enlivened the people; they saw the prospect of basic amenities and general improvement in their economic condition.
“We were very happy because we knew that wherever there’s oil there’s benefits,” Nwajeli says. “We expected good roads, pipe-borne water, employment, infrastructure, etc.”
Gas Flaring, A Threat to Life
All that is needed to establish the dominance of gas flaring in Ebedei is a walk round the village. Like a flag, fire waves in the air, shining on the streets like a full moon. It burns 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“That fire is seen everywhere in this village,” a young man who identified himself as Joe says.
The heat and hazardous particles from the fire, and the muffling flavour of burnt gases, mess up the small village.
Gas flaring violates the natural rights of human persons to life and dignity, as a polluted environment is a threat to life itself. Acknowledging this, several legislations sought to address the practice in Nigeria. One of such is the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill, 2017, which outlawed gas flaring. It sailed through the two chambers of the National Assembly but was denied assent by thePresident.
Gas flaring was initially prohibited in 1984, following the Associated Gas Re-Injection Act. The fade-out time, however, kept changing like the seasons, until it was put at 2020 two years ago.
Even that time has passed, now.
Cancer, Internal Heat, Insomnia, Difficulty Breathing
The go-to for many Ebedei patients is Spring Clinic, Obiaruku. The resident doctor, Samson, revealed that breast cancer was common among the people.
“There are many cases of breast cancer around here,” he says. “Back then in [medicine] school, when we asked these patients of their locations, a lot of them said Umutu, Ebedei and Okomu. We found out that these places are close to flaring units.”
Several studies have linked gas flaring to cancer. Flares are known to contain over 250 toxins, some of which are carcinogenic. As reported by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to flare smoke can prompt chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function and premature death.
Some of Dr. Sam’s patients had complained of “internal heat” in recent times. According to the doctor, “internal heat” is a strange medical condition. Its pal in the medical glossary is hyperthermia, which, as stated by Medical News Today, can result in organ failure or death. It’s a group of medical conditions which “occurs when the body’s heat-regulation system becomes overwhelmed by outside factors, causing a person’s internal temperature to rise”.
Dr. Sam also revealed that many young people in Ebedei find it difficult to sleep. They have not only been complaining of insomnia but also constant headache and runny nose.
“If you don’t sleep,” says the doctor, “you will have a headache.”
As gathered from medical literatures, constant noise, heat and light from flaring units may result in sleep deprivation, which can worsen into insomnia. This was the case for a man named Goodnews, who used to find sleep difficult when he lived in Ebedei a few years back. He believed it was a result of the steady heat coming from surrounding flares.
“Sleep was difficult when I was living in this village because of the heat coming from the flare,” he says.
Goodnews, a motorcycle rider, can also tell a difference in his breathing the moment he steps into Ebedei.
“The air here is heavier”, he notes. “It feels like someone is sprinkling dust”.
Many researchers have raised concerns over air quality. Several health issues, including endocrine dysfunction, reproductive disorders, and rheumatic diseases have been linked to poor air as fallout from environmental pollution. As stated in a WHO record, up to seven million people die every year from diseases related to air pollution.
Acid Rain Suspected
Villagers began to notice changes in their roofs few months after the commencement of oil operations. Nwajeli recalled how zinc sheets quickly took on a new colour, saying: “All roofs that were shiny in those days became brown.”
Another villager narrated how people had to take down their heavily damaged zinc sheets barely six months after roofing.
Generally, acid rain damages roofs in places close to factories, gas plants, and power plant smokestacks. The rapid corrosion of zinc sheets reported in Ebedei may have resulted from the emission of sulphur dioxide, methane, and other flare compounds that make downward rain acidic.
Acid rain is equally harmful to health. A World Bank report has related it to cancer, anaemia, renal dysfunction and some neo-behavioural changes in humans.
While, for fear of acid and flare particles contamination, some residents have since ditched the village stream, others continue to drink from it for religious and/or cultural reasons.
“All of us used to drink from the stream,” says Joe. “Even now, some people still prefer water from there.”
A Blaze and a School — ‘The Students are Ignorant‘
PNG Gas Processing Plant is located right in front of Ebedei Secondary School, which is home to tens of teachers and an estimated 600 students five days a week.
The windy-stormy sound of flare could be heard in the vice-Principal’s office.
“It distracts us”, he laments. “Sometimes it’s very high. Other times it goes down. Often I ask myself what’s happening before remembering it’s the flare.”
Section 17 of the Petroleum (Drilling and Production) Regulations forbids oil-based activities in any area put to public use. A school, on the other hand, should not be sited near an industry or any source of environmental pollution, according to the School Siting Guidelines of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Interestingly, Ebedei Secondary School occupied the area first. It was established in 1980. The PNG Gas Plant started operations much later, in 2016.
At the school gate, the combined effects of a flare and the sun felt like ‘the gate of hell’. The heat was skin-burning. The flare was as loud as the sea. It’s a mystery, how learning takes place in such an environment.
With such close proximity, one will expect that the school will be poorly populated, but the opposite was the case.
“Enrollment is not affected, yet”, the VP reveals. “The black man can adapt to any situation. More so, the students are ignorant.”
Produce has Gone Down
Oil-based activities in the Niger Delta have always been injurious to farmers. Flares, spills and leaks deteriorate soils and water bodies. Residents who depend on income from farming are now so poor and malnourished. Ogoni Land is one of the hotspots of such environmental degradation in Nigeria, and years of government promises to clean up have birthed little or no fruit.
The effect of flaring on farming is a common knowledge in Ebedei. Many residents agreed that harvest was no longer what it used to be years back.
“Ever since they started gas operation”, says Nwajeli, “produce has gone down”.
The Vice-Principal of Ebedei Secondary School told a similar story of the school farm, saying: “The maize will grow very tall, but without cob. Before, the cobs were very big.”
Bad harvest in an oil-rich community may have root in the intense heat coming from flares. Heat alters the process of nitrogen and organic matter formation in soils. Researchers also prove that the cation exchange capacity (CEC) of soils close to gas flaring may reduce significantly. This has implications for the fertility and nutrients of such soils.
After uprooting three stands in his farm near PNG Gas Processing Plant, all that Nwajeli got wouldn’t add up to half the expected size of a cassava tuber. One was as tiny as a drum stick. Another looked like the clapper of a handbell.
Cassava like Poison
This reporter returned to Lagos with the tubers from Nwajeli’s farm, and then to a laboratory. A careful analysis conducted by a registered public analyst revealed the presence of heavy metals in the following quantities: 0.84mg/kg, lead (Pb); 19.68mg/kg, Zinc (Zn); and 0.20mg/kg, chromium (Cr).
Being well above the EU and WHO set limit for each metal in plant tissues, the figures above imply toxicity.
A WHO report linked lead toxicity to increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage in adults. Exposure to chromium irritates the lining of the nose, and sparks runny nose and breathing problems such as asthma, wheezing, cough and shortness of breath.
This makes sense of the high rate of death and health issues reported in Ebedei. Many farms are sited close to flares where crops can easily pick up dangerous metals.
Further analysis revealed that Polyhydric Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) were present in cassava samples collected.
Dibenz (a, h) anthracene, one of the PAHs found, had been determined by the U. S. Department of Health and Human services to be an animal carcinogen. Other PAHs found include Naphthalene, 2-methyl, Acenaphtene, and Indeno [1, 2, 3-cd] pyrene. Naphtalene destroys red blood cell and triggers a problem called hemolytic anemia especially in children. Acenaphthene causes kidney, liver, and lung damage; while Indeno [1, 2, 3-cd] pyrene has been linked to allergic lung inflammation and asthma.
Generally, PAHs are generated from the incomplete combustion of organic materials such as coal, oil, and gas.
Everybody eats cassava in Ebedei. An average resident eats it in one form or another at least once in a day. One can imagine the extent of the damage contaminated cassava tubers can cause residents.
Acid Rain Confirmed
Laboratory analysis revealed that the two most natural water sources available to the people are contaminated. Rain and stream water samples collected showed acid concentrations of 15 and 24 parts per million (PH value of less than 3) respectively.
Among other factors, high acidity of the stream may have been caused by the acidic rainwater. Acid rain falls directly into a stream and also flows in through the soil, leaching aluminum from soil clay particles into the water.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the pollution that causes acid rain can also create tiny particles. When these particles get into people’s lungs, they can cause health problems, or can make existing health problems worse.
Responding, NnimmoBassey, a prominent Nigerian environmentalist and Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, says: “It is not a surprise that life expectancy of the people of the Niger Delta is among the lowest in the world. Key among the impacts of gas flaring on the environment is the fact that it spews a cocktail of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, sulphur and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, thus contributing to climate change and associated harms.”
Flare Gases Aren’t Just Waste
As alternatives to flaring, several pathways have been identified for the use of natural/flare gases in driving economic growth. They can be converted to electricity, or purified and stored up for industrial and domestic purposes.
After launching the Nigerian Gas Flare Commercialisation Programme (NGFCP) in 2016, the Federal Government declared that the new body will help meet its 2020 flare-out target by exploring these alternatives.
In its own words: “The NGFCP is designed as the strategy to implement the policy objectives of the FGN for the elimination of gas flares with potentially enormous multiplier and development outcomes for Nigeria.”
But an investigation by On Our Radar, a London based non-profit, revealed that rather than reduce, the number of flares in the country increased in the two years that followed the programme launch.
This may have resulted from government’s hesitation to bear the upfront implications of commercialization.
Government’s revenue largely depends on oil sales. A fair share of Nigeria’s oil fields, meanwhile, has associated gases. Any effective commercialisation or flaring ban will require investments in new institutions and facilities, and this will initially reduce the revenue generated from oil. This is the risk the Nigerian government may not be willing to take.
Nigeria, today, ranks among the seven countries that flare the most gas globally, and the Niger Delta is the most polluted region in the world.
To What End?
The initial glee over prospect of basic amenities deflated as oil companies failed in their moral obligations to atone Ebedei community with strides of tangible social and economic development.
The level of abandonment by oil companies is appalling. For over 15 years of their presence, not a single hospital has been delivered. The only health centre also lacks facilities. There has been no blink of electric light for over one year. Everyone wakes and sleeps in the dark.The soil, too, is now so poor that young people have to flee to farm elsewhere.
Above all, the trademark rural life of love and unity seems to be under threat in Ebedei as oil companies deploy a divide-and-conquer strategy to advance certain objectives.
“They will give some people money and still be the one to leak the secret, just to cause a problem here and there”, Nwajeli revealed.
Fear in the Air
The atmosphere in Ebedei is one of fear and suspicion where people are cautious of speaking with strangers. This ignoble culture of silence can be traced to the series of oppression and harassment served to oil-rich communities over the years. In 1999, Nigerian soldiers invaded Odi, a predominantly Ijaw community in Bayelsa State, killing tens of residents following a conflict over rights to oil resources and environmental protection. Four years earlier, nine activists, including the renowned Ken SaroWiwa, were framed up and executed by the Nigerian government for speaking up against the series of environmental degradation caused by the activities of oil companies in their land.
But courage is fire.
While, like a child told to never talk to strangers, many of the residents dodged a conversation with this reporter, Nwajeli spoke and spoke again. He belongs in a group of brave young people who will stop at nothing to demand justice for Ebedei and its residents. They’ve learnt to neither complain to the seemingly complacent Nigerian authorities nor hit the streets with placards. Security agents, in their view, might take advantage of a protest to unleash mayhem on innocent villagers.
“We use the law to face them,” Nwajeli says. He had just returned from the court when he spoke one last time.
“The case is between one party from the community and the oil companies, Power Gas and Platform. It is about the way the companies are treating my people;”
Asked if the possibility of being persecuted or killed will ever hinder him from pushing further for justice, Nwajeli gives an emphatic no.
“People still remember Ken SaroWiwa till today,” he says. “If anything happens to me, I will be remembered.”
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