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Reuters: NIGERIA: No respite for people of Niger Delta

EXTRACT:  Royal Dutch Shell, Nigeria’s biggest oil producer, said on Tuesday that a leak to an oil pipeline in Rivers State had cut its output there by 180,000 barrels per day. The source of the leak was not immediately clear.


26 Jul 2006 13:47:09 GMT

YENAGOA, 26 July (IRIN) – When oil began seeping from pipelines owned by Italian oil company Agip recently, Nigerian newspapers reported that the spill was caused by sabotage.

Agip denied it had been forced to cut production because of an alleged attack, but acknowledged that its network had been damaged and that repairs were underway.

It is unclear exactly what happened to the Agip pipelines but that is nothing unusual in Nigeria’s troubled delta region, where sabotage, accidents, oil siphoning and deteriorating infrastructure all mean the same thing to millions of local villagers: more pollution.

“Oil spills have become a great environmental tragedy in Nigeria, polluting streams, farmlands, the air and destroying lives,” said Nnimmo Bassey, head of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), which is affiliated with the international environmental group Friends of the Earth.

Prior to the oil boom of the 1970s, Nigeria’s main exports were agricultural products. Although the majority of the population identifies farming as their livelihood, investment in the agricultural sector over the years has been sidelined in favour of oil.

Since December last year, more than 10 major oil or gas pipelines have been blasted allegedly by militants belonging to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Foreign oil workers are routinely taken hostage, although they are released within days or weeks unharmed.

Nigeria’s oil output has been slashed about about one-quarter because of recent leaks, sabotage and unrest in the delta.

Royal Dutch Shell, Nigeria’s biggest oil producer, said on Tuesday that a leak to an oil pipeline in Rivers State had cut its output there by 180,000 barrels per day. The source of the leak was not immediately clear.

Militants claim to be fighting for an increased share of oil wealth for the delta’s inhabitants, many of whom live without electricity, running water or access to education. Although the country now has a democratic government after decades of military rule, the people of the Niger Delta complain that little has changed in terms of their standard of living.

Environmental Damage

Each pipeline blast has caused a major oil spill, and in one case in December at least eight people were killed when a fire borne by an oil slick swept through their homes. In the report “Nigeria: Want in the Midst of Plenty,” the Brussels-based Crisis Group said recently that despite more than US $400 billion in oil revenue over the past three decades, nine out of ten Nigerians live on less than US $2 a day.

Crisis Group said growing tensions in the delta were a direct result of decades of environmental harm and political neglect. While oil companies blame most of the spills on sabotage and vandalism, activist groups insist that more of the damage and spills come from poorly maintained pipelines.

“The spillage has been there long before the militants,” said Peter Ajube, spokesman for Ijaw Youths Council (IYC), an influential activist group campaigning for the rights of the delta’s dominant ethnic group, the Ijaw.

“We don’t like what the militants are doing because we’re non-violent, but we know that most of the spills are caused by aged pipelines,” said Ajube. “And whenever you have a spill it is the communities in the area that suffer, losing their fishing areas, losing their farms and source of drinking water.”

Inhabitants of Igbomotoro, in Bayelsa state, suffered short- and long-term effects from an oil slick that came from a ruptured pipeline on Nun River in July.

“I lost my fishing nets used to trap fish in the river along with a night’s catch,” said Inikro Alaowei. “I don’t expect any harvests either later this year from my cassava farm, which was also affected.”

A communal forest serving Igbomotoro was also swamped by the oil, destroying a source of food and traditional plant medicines.

Alienated from Land and Resources

Community members expect no solace since oil companies as a tradition do not pay compensation for ecological damage caused by sabotage. The rationale is to discourage wilful vandalism in expectation of compensation, a practice the companies blame for a larger share of oil spills than the activists and the communities accept.

In other cases, residents damage pipelines in an effort to siphon oil to sell. The practice, known as ‘bunkering’, is highly dangerous. Scores and sometimes hundreds of people die each year if the gushing fuel catches fire as they scramble to scoop it up.

The heightened threat to the environmental health of the Niger Delta resulting from oil operations are highlighted in a recent human development study published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Nigeria.

“Oil spills and gas flares in particular have destroyed natural resources central to local livelihoods,” said the report. Gas flaring produces greenhouse gases and exposes communities to heat, noise and air pollution.

The UNDP report said people in the delta have been alienated from their land and resources, leaving them frustrated with both the oil companies and governments that have failed to regulate them.

Royal Dutch Shell, the biggest international oil operator in Nigeria, accounting for roughly half the country’s exports of 2.5 million barrels daily, also has more onshore operations in the delta than other major oil companies. Figures released by the company show it has more than 1,000 oil wells in the region linked by more than 6,000 km of pipeline network.

Shell acknowledges the extent of its presence in the delta poses a major environmental challenge, which it says it is working hard to manage.

“Our environmental programme is geared towards reducing the negative impact of our operations on the environment,” Shell states on its website. In this regard the company has since 1997 made environmental sustainability a key principle to be considered in all business undertakings. This has resulted in increased environmental monitoring and more rapid response to remedy situations created by spillages.

Lack of Enforcement

Inyang Duke, an environmental expert from the University of North Carolina visiting Nigeria, said strict enforcement of regulations is key to improving environmental practices in the delta.

Nigeria recently acquired patrol boats to help monitor the delta. However, observers say it is difficult to affectively monitor much of the region because of dense mangroves.

“Nigeria has the right (environmental) regulations and policies but lacks the technical capacity to implement and enforce them,” Duke said.

One major reason for this failure is the government’s awkward position as regulator and primary beneficiary with the majority stake in joint venture operations run by oil multinationals that produce nearly all the country’s oil, said Duke.

“You have to separate the regulated from the regulator; there must be no conflict of interest,” he said.

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