Almost every night, for about 20 years, Numopre Crispin has gone fishing. She paddles her boat from the Esinyefakiri coastal community to the Santa Barbara River channels and creeks in Nembe, tucked in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.
But the night of Tuesday, May 5, 2022 – six months after a devastating oil spill from a crude oil wellhead operated by Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production Company had polluted the Santa Barbara River – reminded her of a distant past and what oil exploration in Nembe has cost her.
Since the spill happened, Crispin had found it more difficult to catch enough fish. So, as she picked up her fishing nets and hooks, she hoped that night would be different. In addition, her 7-year-old daughter was sick and she needed enough fish to sell for money to pay for the medical bills. But her hopes were dashed.
“I came back with only four mullet fish after (fishing for) six hours,” Crispin said, recalling how frustrating the night was.
“It was not like this. In the past, if we just fished for one hour, we’d have plenty of fish to sell,” Crispin reminisced. “Now we hardly catch anything and I have six children to care for.”
The burden of taking care of her six children is on her alone because she lost her husband a few days after the spill. “My husband was not sick. As the spill happened, he went to the site. Some days after, his stomach got swollen and we went to the hospital. He died in the process of being treated,” she recounted. “Now my children have no father. I am the mother and the father.”
Environmental pollution has made it increasingly difficult for indigenous Nembe people, like Crispin, and other indigenous communities in the Niger Delta, to survive – the rivers they rely on for fishing and land for farming have been polluted by thousands of oil spills.
The region is now a nightmare compared to what it used to be 66 years ago when Shell pumped the first crude oil from the region. In fact, Amnesty International says it is now one of the most polluted places on earth.
Between 2012 and 2021, 8219 oil spill incidents took place in the 9 states of the region, according to data from the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) of Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Environment. But environmental activist and representative of the Environmental Rights Action (ERA) in Bayelsa State, Morris Alagoa, believes the numbers are higher. “Sometimes (especially when the spill occurs on land) before the oil company would come, the oil would have already leached into the ground and they would claim there was no spill. Some, we don’t even hear about them,” Alagoa said.
He explained further that “in the past, a young cassava farm was flooded with crude oil in Ikarama (near Yenagoa) and the community called us. In one hour, I got there and saw it. When the oil company delayed and came three days later, the oil had leached into the ground and they started asking, ‘you said there was a spill, where is the oil?’”.
Delaying the reporting of any spill incident to NOSDRA is against the agency’s regulations which mandate companies to report and respond to any spill within 24 hours of learning about them.
The Director-General of NOSDRA, Musa Idris, told Nigerian Tribune via Zoom that the agency has zonal and field offices from where it responds. “To be able to get to oil spill incident areas as quickly as possible, we set up a field office in Yenagoa and we have about 22 staff there. Immediately after the spill was reported, we swung into action,” Idris explained.
But the Santa Barbara spill was reported four days after it started, ERA’s Alagoa pointed out.
‘A fairly irregular spill’
The blowout spewed a yellow-brown wad of waste content. Experts say it comprised 20 per cent crude oil and 80 per cent associated gas and was spewed into the atmosphere, Santa Barbara River and adjoining farmlands. It left a slick of oil on the shorelines and creeks and rivulets and on the fibrous mangrove roots.
For more than a month, it continued, pointing sadly to how the region, once known for its fertile land, fish-filled rivers and creeks and mangrove swamps has now become one of the most polluted places on earth.
The Santa Barbara River crisscrosses about 30 communities and fishing settlements, some of which are Worikumakiiri – the host of OML 29 well 01 – Crispin’s Esinyefakiiri; Shellkiiri; Sandsand; Tweni and Sunnykiri.
Experts say the spill, of about two million barrels (318 million litres), an equivalent of 9,882 tanker trucks’ worth of gasoline, is the worst in recent years in the region.
The News Agency of Nigeria reported that Aiteo’s Global Group Director, Andrew Oru called the claim of two million barrels “spurious”.
He condemned claims that the leak spilt two million barrels of oil into the creeks, explaining that the well’s production capacity, including its total reserves, was nowhere near two million barrels.
“The talk of two million barrels of oil spilling from the well is spurious. Two million barrels is about two supertankers. The oil would have spread over the entire country.
“The reserve of the well itself is nowhere near two million barrels.”
The company’s spokesperson, Matthew Indiana-Abasi declined several requests for comment on the incident. NOSDRA’s Idris says that the spill was “a fairly irregular” one because it came from a wellhead instead of a pipeline. He explained that regular spills occur from pipelines, flow lines or transnational pipelines that convey oil and gas from one location to another. It is irregular for it to occur from a wellhead – a system of spools, valves and assorted adapters at the surface of an oil and gas well, enabling pressure control of the well.
“We have just had about five or six of such incidents in the last 15 years,” he said. But he failed to acknowledge that many communities were affected.
The cause of the spill was vandalism, according to the Joint Investigative Visit (JIV) report that was carried out, said Idris. JIV involves teams from regulators such as NOSDRA, the host community, the state and local government, and the oil company operating the affected facility visiting the incident site to determine the cause of the incident.
“When you have vandalism, certainly, forget about the number of communities that were affected because nobody is going to get anything,” said Idris.
NOSDRA often blames most of the oil spills in the region on criminal gangs who vandalise oil facilities. Oil theft from vandalism feeds illegal small refineries in the region, but activists say that both regulators and oil companies often shift the blame for oil spills to criminal gangs.
In contrast, if the JIV had found Aiteo guilty of negligence, the legal responsibility to compensate the affected communities would have been on the company. However, multiple legal frameworks, like the Oil Pipelines Act, the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan and the Petroleum Act that provide for compensation, fail to explicitly state in financial terms what the affected communities should get. They leave room for negotiations between the affected communities and the polluter which, in some cases, have led to prolonged litigation. Also, the affected companies have the responsibility to clean up the polluted communities but, just as in compensation, they default.
Citing a lack of transparency, the Bayelsa State Government rejected the JIV outcome. “The cause of the spill is equipment failure, and (Bayelsa State Government) shall take all appropriate steps to pursue environmental justice for itself and affected communities,” said the state’s Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Biriyai Dambo in a December 2021 report by Vanguard Newspaper.
Alagoa, also insisted that, despite the outcome of the JIV, the spill was caused by negligence (lack of maintenance or equipment failure) on the part of the owners of the facilities. “This is not the first time the wellhead has spilt oil into the Santa Barbara River,” he said. “I was there in 2019 when that same wellhead spilt crude oil.”
Over the past 10 years (2012-2021) about 4,303.83 barrels of crude oil have been spilt in 296 incidents in Nembe Local Government Area while in Brass, 2918.13 barrels have been spilt in 272 incidents, according to NOSDRA data.
However, these numbers are very conservative. Environmental rights activists say NOSDRA fails to capture all the incidents. For instance, the Santa Barbara spill of November 2021, as of June 13, 2022, was not listed on the spill monitor as one of the spills that occurred in 2021. Only 74.61 barrels were said to have been spilt in six incidents in Brass and Nembe and they did not involve any Aiteo facility.
Environmental devastation affecting Nembe tradition
The Nembe indigenous people are one of the most prominent in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, predominantly found in the east of the region’s Bayelsa State (Nembe and Brass local government areas). The area covering about 760km2 (Nembe) and 1,404 km2 (Brass) is traditionally governed by kings titled Amanyanabo.
Traditionally, the Nembe have ties with the rivers, laying credence to why one of their most revered creatures is the periwinkle. Before western civilisation, the people had so much respect for the periwinkle that they did not trade it. Even to date, there is still a lot of respect for the creature in far-flung Nembe communities.
The periwinkle does not just hold a crucial place in the tradition of the people but serves as a source of food. “The periwinkle is what God has given to us as free seafood for consumption and usage before we were born. Here in Nembe, you will see that most of the structures of the ancient Nembe city were built with periwinkles,” said Nengi James-Eriworio, an environmental rights activist and prominent Nembe chief as reported by Vanguard Newspaper in 2015.
So, the repeated spills have not just affected their health and means of livelihood, but they are causing cultural dislocation. They are also exacerbating food insecurity and household hunger. A 2008 study of a spill that took place in Etiama, another Nembe community, in 2000, found that it increased household food insecurity and childhood malnutrition in the community. Another study also found that oil spills could lead to a 60 per cent reduction in household food security and a 24 per cent increase in the prevalence of childhood malnutrition in the affected community.
Famokuma Efere, 75, is the traditional ruler of Shellkiri. He says oil spills are driving all seafood away from them including the revered periwinkle and feels sad that his people’s traditions are threatened. At the current rate, he fears that the next generation may not fully understand the place of periwinkle in their tradition.
People are leaving the community because of the spills, he said, and they may not return any time soon. Sadly, the more they leave and stay away for fear of the contaminated environment, the more they lose ties with the culture, he said. “…But I am old and have nowhere else to go.”
Ivory Pegi is the paramount ruler of Worikumakiri. He has since relocated to uptown Yenagoa – about 70 kilometres away – because of the spill and is not sure of going back to the community until a comprehensive clean-up of the environment is done, he said.
Not only did Pegi lose cash crops and large fish ponds, and fishing nets, but he also lost the serenity of the river and mangroves. Now he relies on aid for upkeep and has to make do living in an increasingly noisy neighbourhood in Yenagoa.
Pegi said the community received some foodstuff from the government and Aiteo, but they were nothing compared to the losses he has suffered. “Security agencies helped to rescue us the night the spill started and since then, we have been displaced,” said Pegi. “I was thinking the oil company or the government would take us to a displaced people’s camp, but up till today, nothing has happened.
“The people (we) are suffering. There’s no food to eat; no medical treatment was given,” he complained.
“I am a farmer (and a fisherman),” he said, as are most other residents of Worikumakiri. “I don’t think in 100 years to come, anybody can farm there.”
Sadly, Pegi’s hope of seeing Worikumakiri comprehensively cleaned up may remain unfulfilled given that the JIV result says the spill was caused by third-party interference.
Six months after the spill, residents of the communities should not swim in the river or use it for anything because it is not safe yet, says Amarachi Onyena, lecturer of Marine Environment and Pollution Control at the Nigeria Maritime University in Delta State and Research Fellow at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, India.
So, they’d have to travel by canoe across eight kilometres to Nembe city centre to buy sachet water with a bag of 20 sachets going for N400 (about $0.90) – a huge amount for a group of people who live on less than $3 a day. Those who can’t afford sachet water are already drinking from the river.
When the spill happened, Crispin said she relied on sachet water for everything because the river was covered with a sheen of crude oil. But now that the oil is no longer visible on the river, she has stopped. But it could take years before the Santa Barbara River could become safe for swimming or any other human activity, says Onyena.
“When an oil spill happens, it affects oxygen access for aquatic organisms,” she said. “And sometimes oil gets into the sediments and causes a lot of harm.” Even when it’s no longer visible on the water, locals who use the water could still be at risk, Onyena explained.
Studies have found the hydrocarbon content from oil spills have an adverse effect on humans. For instance, methane, which is a significant part of the natural gas which the wellhead spewed, when inhaled in large quantities can lead to respiratory distress and the carbon contents could have cancer-causing effects on pregnant women and children.
Already, life expectancy in the region, especially among those constantly exposed to the polluted environment like the Nembe people, is about 13 years below Nigeria’s national life expectancy at birth according to a Bloomberg report. Onyena fears the latest spill and the continued exposure to the environment could further shorten it.
Dr Chinaza Ezeuzo is a public health epidemiologist in Port Harcourt. She says recurrent spills lead to “chronic kidney diseases, skin diseases, itchy skin, infertility, cancer…”
People in the Niger Delta are particularly at risk due to the contaminated nature of the water they drink and the reduction in the quality of crops they can harvest. She added: “Adequate nutrition, as compared to other regions, is not guaranteed.”
Nigeria is a signatory to the Paris Convention on Climate Change and has been very vocal about its desire to reduce greenhouse emissions. At the United Nations’ global climate talks in Glasgow last year (COP26), it pledged to attain net-zero emissions by 2060. In its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), it pledged to cut emissions 20 per cent by 2030 compared with business-as-usual levels. If the country receives international financial support, it could increase the cut to 47 per cent below business-as-usual by 2030, it says.
“The continuous exploration of oil and gas and environmental impact from the sector, disjointed regulations, improper execution, and lack of political will to implement some regulations” will make it difficult for the country to meet such targets, says Kingsley Ukhurebor, a lecturer at the Department of Physics at Edo State University, Nigeria, and a Research Fellow at the West African Science Service Centre on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use (WASCAL), Burkina Faso.
After all, 60 per cent of the greenhouse gas emission in Nigeria comes from the energy sector, of which the oil and gas sector contributes a third, according to the NDC document submitted by Nigeria.
Studies clearly indicate that oil exploration is central to ecosystem damage which affects man and mangroves. When mangrove lenticels, which are like lungs to them, are covered with oil sheen from spills, air hardly reaches other parts of the mangrove. This leads to death.
And there are implications for global warming: mangroves capture and store greenhouse gases such as atmospheric carbon dioxide. Studies suggest that mangrove forests and wetlands are able to store carbon up to four times higher than terrestrial forests.
In a 2021 review work, Ukhurebor and his colleagues explained that oil exploration and spills have exacerbated climate change in the region and the impact is manifesting in coastal erosion which is washing off mangroves and displacing residents.
Water levels are rising; the rainfall pattern in the region has consistently and significantly changed, and this has affected crop yield, said Efere. “Before now, we used to harvest big crops, but with the oil problem, we hardly see anything when we harvest crops like cassava.”
When this reporter visited the affected communities six months after the spill, the spilt oil appeared to have been washed off the river surface. Access to Worikumakiiri, where the wellhead is located, is restricted by the Nigerian Navy, so adjoining communities were visited. This reporter submitted a sample from the flowing river to a laboratory at Esinyefakiri for testing to find out if the water was good for consumption.
Laboratory test analysis of the water was carried out on June 6, 2022, at the laboratory of Mides Glofem Services in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria.
The analysis found that the Total Dissolved Solid (TDS) in the water was at 10,100mg/l (milligram/litre), 20 times higher than the Nigerian Industrial Standard (NIS) limit of 500mg/l and World Health Organisation’s (1963) 1500mg/l as well as the Total Suspended Solid (TSS) of 3,800mg/l.
The nitrate content of the water (37,500 mg/l) was 750 times higher than the NIS standard of 50 mg/l and 3750 times higher than the WHO’s 10 mg/l. The test found no presence of lead, nickel, chromium or cadmium.
Onyena said she expected more dire results from the test given the scale of the spill. She, however, stated that the tidal and flowing nature of the river would make getting accurate results from a given location difficult and suggested that most pollutants must have been washed ashore.
“Even with the results, it is still dangerous for people living in those communities,” she said, noting that the high nitrate level could affect women like Crispin who drink from the river. Also, the NIS guidelines say, it could lead to cyanosis (blue-baby syndrome) in infants under three months.
It could also lead to algal bloom, which could block sunlight from reaching underwater plants, she said.
“The high nitrate level means that dissolved oxygen (the level of oxygen dissolved in the water which aquatic organisms depend on) will be low. I can tell you that the water is nearing a dead zone — a situation where either most marine life dies or mobile ones like fish migrate out of the affected area because of less oxygen dissolved in the water,” Onyena explained.
While some residents of the affected community have left, Crispins is likely going to spend many years there raising her kids and struggling to eat.
“At the moment, what is important is how we will survive here. Let them come and clean up the mess they have caused so that I can catch enough fish to feed my children,” Crispin said and walked back into her two-room apartment built with aged roofing sheets and wood planks.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in the Nigerian Tribune on July 26, 2022, and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: After oil spills in Niger Delta, proper clean up hardly takes place / Credit: Justice Nwafor