A new oil spill at a Shell facility in Nigeria has contaminated farmland and a river, disrupting the lives of fishing and farming communities in the Niger Delta. This region has long endured environmental pollution caused by the oil industry.
The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) stated that the spill originated from the Trans-Niger Pipeline, operated by Shell, which passes through communities in the Eleme area of Ogoniland. Shell has faced local opposition to its oil exploration in this region for many years.
The exact volume of the spilled oil is yet to be determined, but activists have shared pictures showing polluted farmland, oil sheens on water surfaces, and dead fish trapped in the sticky crude.
While spills are frequent in the area due to pipeline vandalism by oil thieves and insufficient maintenance, this incident is considered a significant one, according to the UN Environmental Programme.
Fyneface Dumnamene, an environmental activist, described it as “one of the worst in the last 16 years in Ogoniland,” and it began on June 11. The spill continued for over a week, reaching the Okulu River, which connects to other rivers and eventually empties into the Atlantic Ocean. It has affected several communities, displacing more than 300 fishermen. Oil sheens have even spread around 10 kilometers (6 miles) to creeks near Port Harcourt, the country’s oil hub.
Although Shell ceased production in Ogoniland over 20 years ago due to deadly unrest caused by environmental damage, the Trans-Niger Pipeline still transports crude oil from other areas through these communities to export terminals.
The leak has been contained, but the efforts to address the spill’s consequences on farms and the Okulu River have stalled, as per Idris Musa, the Director General of NOSDRA. Musa attributed the delay to protests by residents but assured that engagement with the affected communities is ongoing.
The impasse reflects a history of mistrust and past grievances in the Niger Delta region, which is primarily inhabited by minority ethnic groups who accuse the Nigerian government of marginalization.
Although Africa’s largest economy heavily relies on the Niger Delta’s oil resources for revenue, pollution resulting from oil production has denied residents access to clean water, harmed farming and fishing activities, and increased the risk of violence, according to activists.
Dumnamene stated that the affected communities are enraged due to the destruction of their livelihoods caused by outdated equipment used by Shell. They are concerned that both the regulator and Shell will blame the residents for sabotage.
Oil companies often attribute spills to pipeline vandalism by oil thieves or discontented youth in affected communities, which could absolve the companies of liability.
Shell, headquartered in London, stated that it is collaborating with a joint investigative team comprising regulators, Ogoniland residents, and local authorities to determine the cause and impact of the spill. The company’s response team has been activated, subject to safety requirements, to take necessary actions to safeguard the environment, people, and equipment.
NOSDRA confirmed the joint investigation, but the cause of the spill, whether sabotage or equipment failure, has yet to be revealed.
Dumnamene highlighted that hundreds of farmers and fishermen who have lost their means of livelihood will demand environmental restoration and subsequent compensation.
In 2011, at the request of the Nigerian government, the UN Environment Programme conducted an independent environmental assessment of Ogoniland. The resulting report criticized both Shell and the Nigerian government for 50 years of pollution and recommended a comprehensive billion-dollar cleanup.
Although the government announced the cleanup in 2016, there is little evidence of progress on the ground. The government attributes the lack of implementation to community protests and lawsuits filed by local activists.
Ledum Mitee, a veteran Ogoni environmental activist and former president of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, expressed disappointment, stating that a credible cleanup would have provided hope for the Niger Delta and other regions in Africa affected by oil pollution. However, he believes that the ongoing lack of progress indicates a cover-up and a failure to make a significant impact.
The recent oil spill at the Shell facility in Nigeria has further worsened the environmental situation in the Niger Delta. Fishing and farming communities are grappling with the consequences of contaminated farmland and a polluted river. Despite the containment of the spill, the delay in addressing the fallout and restoring the affected areas has caused frustration among the residents.
The incident highlights the long-standing environmental challenges faced by the Niger Delta due to the oil industry’s operations. Mistrust and historical grievances have exacerbated the situation, hindering progress in restoring the region and compensating those whose livelihoods have been severely impacted.
Efforts by Shell and the Nigerian government to investigate the spill’s cause and impact are underway. However, the affected communities remain wary, fearing that blame will be shifted onto them rather than addressing the root causes of the spill.
The Niger Delta, with its rich oil resources, plays a crucial role in Nigeria’s economy. However, the pollution resulting from oil production has led to significant consequences for the local population, including limited access to clean water, agricultural setbacks, and an increased risk of violence.
The lack of a credible and comprehensive cleanup, despite promises made by the government, adds to the frustration and disillusionment among the affected communities. The residents continue to advocate for environmental restoration and fair compensation to rebuild their lives and secure a sustainable future.
Environmentalists say it is imperative for both Shell and the Nigerian government to address the concerns of the affected communities, engage in transparent dialogue, and take concrete steps towards effective environmental management and restoration in the Niger Delta.