The spot where Rivers Niger and Benue empty out into the Atlantic Ocean must, no doubt, be aesthetic; one begins to imagine how nature must have turned out in such a place, and not to my surprise, Niger Delta was enchanting, : home to one of the largest bio-diversities in the world. Crops bloomed without holdbacks, trees flowered, and fresh water fishes—the largest species in West Africa—lived in the waters of this floodplain. Hence, for the 20 million people living in the area, life was close to a bed of roses.
A serious local would take advantage of either the coastal barrier island, the mangrove swamp forests, the fresh water swamps, or the lowland rainforests for whatever type of farming he/she could imagine. But, in the spate of 25 years, this appealing ecosystem washed-out. The roots of vegetations were poisoned; the waters blackened, killing fishes and other aquatics. The once very rich soil now took pleads to produce a meagre harvest, while herbs and trees took turns to fall. Niger Delta had been degraded; its waters, too, had been polluted. Who had bewitched a people? What had happened to their land?
Oil was found in the region back in the late ’50s and operations began not long after. But, nigh the close of the ’70s, about tweny years into oil production in the area, the pipelines—with an estimate life span of fifteen years—were ageing, and so gave in to corrosion. Thus, oil started leaking from these weakened and all-spent infrastructures, free-falling into the land and waters on which the locals who, for that matter, got zero or pint-size benefit from oil operations relied on.
This running spillage, poison to aquatics and green plants, was so severe that in ten years, over a million barrels of oil had broken out into the Niger Delta. The populars; now jobless, thirsty, hungry, and desperate; told the story of their pains, many a time, through a series of bloody conflicts with oil workers and millitary personnels attached to the area. Of the many devices of violence—the type of which had lead to the death of many: soldiers and civilians alike—was the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), a militia that saw the shutdown of oil terminals and, in fact, caused the reduction of Nigeria’s oil production to its lowest in twenty years; leading the country to recession in 2016.
Pipe lines were blown off, manifolds went up in flames, and oil wells also became ashes; but, rather than solve problems, these attacks only rotted the environmental challenges of the area. Blow up of oil installations lead to more oil spills which lead to more land degradation and water contamination. It was a disaster in instalment.
As I write, People of the affected areas face a number of health challenges: breathing problems, skin leisions, etc., and as if that is not enough, researchers have found out that babies whose mothers lived near oil spills are likely to die in their first month of life. We can’t brush aside the fact that for many Niger Deltans today, access to food and clean water is a thing of the dream land, but the worst is yet to happen!
What is that again (you ask)? A sea level rise of one meter (and that can happen any moment from now) could result in the loss of 75% of the region. Why? Mangroves which should be the natural barriers to the inward movement of the sea have been lost to oil spills or indiscriminate elimination by the villagers.
All that said, if we really want to do it, we can clean up the Niger Delta through bioremediation and other means, but should we start now, it’ll take us some 30 years. How Do we help the Niger Deltans? How do we help a people in trouble?
Ayeni Faith Damilola writes for Green Global Environmental Network (GGEN)
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