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The Dark Side of Sudan's Oil

The Dark Side of Sudan's Oil

The oil story in Sudan is one of controversy, a messy tale of money, conflict and power enmeshed in the country’s decades-long conflict.  A new investigation by InfoNile reveals the dark side of the oil industry for people in Sudan’s West Kordofan state. It includes everything from increased droughts to strange health conditions for the people and animals exposed to oil contamination in the air, on the roads and in the local waterways.

This photo shows the "Jake" oil fields located in West Kordofan, Sudan / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

There are five major sites for oil drilling and processing in West Kordofan state, according to the deputy headmaster of local authority for Misearia tribe, Bashir E. “Jake,” located about 15-16 kilometers west of the city; “Star Oil” or “Albarasaia,” south of Jake fields; “Mitera,” south of Albarasaia; “Moga,” 45 km south of Alfola; and “Neem,” in the part of west Kordofan that is considered an extension of South Kordofan’s Higlieg fields.

Our journalist visited Alfola City in West Kordofan in April 2018 to seek the truth about how oil impacts the villages near the fields.

Obtaining information was very difficult as getting into the sites was banned, and the Oil Ministry and oil industries refused to meet the journalist in Khartoum. We had to work undercover to reach the villages surrounding the area. Most of the sources in this story who spoke of health and environmental effects asked to remain anonymous as they fear the consequences of them stepping into the light.

We couldn’t approach the companies at their sites, especially after being warned not to keep digging by a relative of Bashir E. who works for the Oil Security. We contacted many suggested engineers and company workers, but only two spoke to us to give us a better idea about chemical waste and their stand on contamination claims.

We visited many locations in West Kordofan, got as close as possible to Higlieg, one of the largest oil drilling corporations in Sudan, and met the citizens, some members of the local authority, and people working for the companies. We saw the waste locations and some cases of health problems; then we met with experts for more information.

Most of Sudan's oil fields are located in the south, along the border with South Sudan. We investigated the impact of the oil industry in villages near the Higleig oil fields in West Kordofan Province.

The discovery of oil: For centuries it has been both a blessing and a curse for some of the world’s poorest countries endowed with rich petroleum reserves.

With oil comes an enormous revenue source but one that often goes disproportionately into the pockets of corrupt leaders while leaving the majority of the population in poverty. Oil has been shown to trigger conflict and destroy the environment; at the same time, it sustains economies and fuels our energy-dependent societies.

In Sudan, the story is no different. Since exploration for oil began in Sudan in 1959, the oil industry has backed the economy of the dry north African state. Oil was also key in the decades-long conflict that embroiled the Islamic north and the Christian and Animist South, where both sides fought over prime oilfields located strategically along the borderline.

Though Sudan lost most of its oil fields and revenue after the south seceded in 2011, it continues to control the only pipeline for the south to transport its oil to international markets. And in recent months, Sudan and South Sudan have attempted to boost petroleum production, agreeing to soon resume operations at several closed oilfields located near the borderlands.

But while the international politics of oil in Sudan have been extensively studied, the oil industries operate under a great deal of secrecy in their day-to-day operations and interactions with the Sudanese people. Our investigation aimed to shed light on their impacts, to uncover the local consequences of the oil industries on the environment and peoples living around the production sites.

Petroleum in Sudan lays in many places, mainly in Kordofan (south and west), the White Nile region, Blue Nile region, Darfur and both Upper Nile and Bahr El Gazal area in addition to the Unity state before the separation of South Sudan.

An interactive map of all oil blocks under production (red) and exploration (purple) in Sudan and South Sudan. Click on the oil block to see the company and country shareholders in each block. China, Malaysia and India control the vast majority of the oil being produced in the Sudans.
This map was produced with data from OpenOil and the Small Arms Survey by Annika McGinnis of InfoNile and Rogers Mukalele of ITPlus Solutions.

A great deal of Sudan’s oil is drilled in West Kordofan State, located in the southwestern part of the Kordofan region, one of the country’s richest in natural resources.

Oil exploration started in the 1970s by American and French companies but now is dominated by Asian companies. Fields in the Kurdufan states are operated by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), the 2B Operating Petroleum Company and Petro-Energy. Most of these companies are jointly owned by Chinese, Malaysian and Indian investors along with the Sudanese state.

This investigation found that the oil industry’s disposal of toxic oil “production water” and radioactive elements contaminated local waterways and wetlands in West Kordofan region and was linked to a slew of environmental and health impacts for the people living around the processing facilities.

The oil contamination in West Kordofan happens in many forms, from leakage of oil in the extraction process to the industrial sources produced when oil is being treated to the human wastes associated with the oil industry.

Worldwide, if proper safety measures are not followed, petroleum industry waste is among the most dangerous threat to the environment. Spilled oil residues contain toxic substances such as sulfur, lead, hydrogen sulfide, and other dangerous chemicals that evaporate into the air or decompose into the ground. Such particles pollute air, water and soil.

While few formal studies have been conducted, our investigation revealed people around the oil fields who complained of strange illnesses, miscarriages, kidney problems and other serious conditions in themselves and their children that have emerged since the industries arrived.

Locals told of livestock with unusual tumors, chickens without feathers, and cattle with strange bleeding conditions that were exposed to oil industry wastes.

Trenches built around the oil sites have disrupted the area’s natural flow of water, killing trees and destroying wetlands. Locals said such trenches had caused more droughts, disrupting crop cycles for the farmers living around the area.

In the beginning, large numbers of livestock that drank the contaminated water died, locals said. Wild animal species had been forced to move from the region, they added.

Cows drinking from plastic containers used for storing water at a local house. Citizens often reused plastic containers used by the oil companies, which they did not know contained traces of toxic chemicals / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

While some community members said the oil business had helped to develop the area by building schools, water stations and health centers, others complained that the schools and water stations did not follow proper formal procedures and weren’t linked with the country’s official institutions. Other villagers complained of forced displacement from their homes to a nearby village being constructed by the industry to move them away from the oil drilling locations. 

This year, a group of activists called on the government to formally evaluate the environmental repercussions of the area's oil activities and take action to remedy any impacts. Some companies have initiated environmental units seeking to address the concerns.

Environmental change: Less water, more droughts

As the reporter investigating this story for InfoNile, my first trip was to Neem village. Neem fields are considered an extension to Higleig fields; the oil is extracted and produced by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company.
The village was the most distant place in the state from Alfola City. I was able to get a private car belonging to an official entity so that we wouldn’t be stopped at every checkpoint along the road, particularly since the guards were familiar with the driver, dressed as a local woman visiting her relative. One of the local youths who works at an organization based in Alfola accompanied me for safety.
After three hours, we arrived at Neem market. The market was like all rural markets, which are considered to be the heart of the villages in the area, except everywhere I looked there were army men in their uniforms (Oil Security members) who guard the field.
Around Neem village, we passed the oil wells and processing units. Flairs were burning the gas waste extracted from the oil drilling. A resident from the area named Abd Alhamied met me at the market and gave me a tour around.
On my second trip, again with the anonymous sources that facilitated my movement, I visited Jajaia. The village was east of the Albarasaia site by 4 km, 10 km from the Mitera flair and 25 km south of the Jake compound. “In the middle of the action,” as the guide said joking. I met Mamoun A, a citizen there who has lived all his life in the village. He took me around to many villages in the area where I met people of different ages and heard different stories and points of view.

Jajaia village surrounded by the oil fields of Albarasaia, Mitera, and Jake / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

Villagers around the drilling sites in West Kurdufan said the oil industries had altered the natural environment. They complained of more droughts, deforestation, reduced wildlife species and detriments to agriculture.

“Before the oil exploration, the area was rich with forests and wild trees; most of them fruitful,” the village resident, Mamoun, said. “Those trees had been either cut when the companies first arrived or died over time. We used to have bamboo plants which we use to build our local houses. Not anymore; the petroleum business changed the environment with the wastes, gases and radiations," he said.

“Wildlife as well has been affected significantly, as the trees were cut and the increased human activity forced the animals to move," Mamoun continued. "There were monkeys, gazelles, foxes and other animals that don’t exist here anymore. They run away to the south. Even the wild grass doesn’t grow anymore.”

West Kurdufan is hot, ranging from a semi-humid climate to a desert with little water.

The majority of the population in the region are Misseriyya, a cattle-raising Arab pastoralist tribe that has been living in the area since the end of the 1700s. In 2005, about three-quarters of the about 1.2 million Misseriyya people living in West Kurdufan were rural.

Most of the Misseriyya people were originally shepherds who lost their cattle during the civil war. “Then they tried to settle and practice agriculture,” said the deputy headmaster of the Misearia tribe.

But the quantity and quality of crops have declined over the years, he said.

In the past, one field could produce up to a dozen varieties of crops; now it's just one or two, Mamoun said. There were more droughts now, he added, especially close to the flairs, and the rate of rain has dropped considerably.

In Baliela, Albarasaia and the surrounding areas, the change is great, said Mamoun, suggesting that people should move away from those places.

2016 satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe shows the Higleig oil fields surrounded by nearby farms.

In 2012, after the South Sudanese army invaded the area and took over some oil locations in Higleig, the Sudanese government dug deep trenches to protect the oil fields. This changed local watercourses and caused rivers and streams to dry up, the Misearia headmaster said. The companies required people to move further and further away from the trenches – from 10-70 kms away, he said.

Most of the natural ponds in the area that people used to rely on as a source of water are now dry, he said.

Deep trenches dug around the oil fields affected local waterways, causing streams and rivers to dry up / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

Research backs up locals' comments. Satellite images show a distinct change in the Western Upper Nile/Unity State regions from 1965 to 2000 due to oil production, a 2003 Human Rights Watch report found. In addition, construction of roads and survey evacuations by oil companies contributed to dried-out rivers and streams and changed the underlying water table of the area, the report found.

According to a 2009 report by the Overseas Development Institute, deforestation from oil extraction triggered conflict among the Missiriya tribe, in addition to water pollution and deaths of cattle. Discontent grew further due to a lack of youth employment in the oil sector. The tribe eventually kidnapped Chinese oil workers in 2008, resulting in four deaths, the report found.

However, environmental changes were not solely a result of oil activities. Sara Omer, an environmental researcher based in Khartoum, said that the environmental problems in the west of the country date back to a time of drought during the 1980s, which drove people to migrate to West Kordofan.

The increased population put more pressure on resources, practiced uncontrolled hunting, over-cultivated the soil and over-grazed. Natural population growth, climate change and reduced rainfall exacerbated environmental destruction, Omer said.

Abeer Abd-Abd-Algaume, an environmental researcher currently working on the impact of mining, said population growth and migration had also contributed to the environmental changes in West Kordofan.

“Since the area had been subject to civil wars, a lot of people were often displaced from other places and came to more safer areas – around oil fields for example, as they are well guarded – as the population grew; they put more pressure [on] the natural resources in the area," she said.

"They cut and burn the forests for charcoal, their animals overgraze, and even sometimes they over-cultivate the land. The population expansion not only pressures the resources; it also affects the wildlife as the animals flee what used to be their natural home,” she said, adding that poverty as well forced people to overuse resources.

Both researchers said there was a lack of effective government policies and strategies for sustainable development in the area.

It is even more difficult to implement laws since traditional local authorities were replaced by governmental authorities who lack the trust of the local people to be able to approach them with their issues, Abd-Abd-Algaume said.

Water contamination

Problems with contamination of water largely stem from the processes used in disposing of industrial waste in large vats that overflow during the rainy season and pollute local waterways, according to local authorities and citizens in West Kurdufan.

Oil blocks 4 and 5 within Sudan and South Sudan fall into parts of two of the biggest tropical wetlands in the world: Bahr el Ghazal, which is one of the five large Nile River Basins, and the Sudd wetland, a Ramsar World Heritage site recognized for its ecological importance.

But most of West Kurdufan in the north is hot and dry, with frequent droughts and rainfall that varies significantly depending on the place and season. Since water is scarce, finding access to adequate water sources to raise their cattle and crops has been a central point for tensions and conflict among the Misseriyya tribe, especially after the oil industries came in the 1980s, according to the 2009 report by the Overseas Development Institute.

People on their way to fetch water from a water station built by the oil companies in Neem village / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

The tribe lives in small camps of household groups, which traditionally migrate with their herds from the north to the south to follow the rainy seasons. But when the oil companies came, they built drilling sites, pipelines and roadbeds on the tribe’s farmland and grazing areas.

These blocked the tribe’s migration routes and reduced the flow of water to their farms, the report found. And as more people moved to the area seeking economic opportunities around oil, more pressure was put on the already-limited water resources.

Hot and dry Jajaia village, with few trees and water sources / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

Oil contamination from the drilling sites has also seeped into local waterways, causing health and environmental consequences, this investigation found.

In April at the liquid waste site near Neem village, a large hopper was connected to another smaller fenced one with pipes pumping in liquid waste from oil activities. The large hopper wasn’t fenced, as citizens had stolen the iron from the fence to make beds, Alhamied, the local who showed me around the market, said. The main pipe was pumping water into a large concrete squire-shaped sink.

In the Neem oil fields, a box-shaped basin where the pipe pumps the liquid waste that flows to the pond / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

“In autumn – the rainy season- the pond is filled, and its water gets mixed with the water that goes to the wetlands and seasonal creeks,” Mamoun, the local resident, said. “Now we don’t let our animals drink from it as it’s not covered as you can see, but in the past, many of them died in large numbers at the first production of oil in the area.”

Citizens were facing similar problems in Jajaia.

Initially, the local people benefited from many natural ponds and surface water sources fed by rain; the water was potable and clear, Mamoun said. But last year, an oil well exploded in the valley, “and the water came mixed with oil,” he noted.

“We have warned the people from using it for domestic uses or for the animals, and currently we don’t use valley’s water at all as there are many wells and water waste locations in the valley, and of course the chemicals in the ponds that’s filled by the rain and reaching the stream,” he said.

Pond of liquid waste from the oil drilling in Neem oil fields / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

As early as 1999, the Sudanese Environmental Conservation Society complained that the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) had contaminated water through oil extraction, which seeped back into underground waters in fragile wetlands such as the Sudd in South Sudan.

In June 2014, the Sudanese oil ministry admitted that oil workers in West Kurdufan had been accidentally exposed to radiation, the Sudan Tribune reported.

There are only 30 remaining cattle of a group that used to number 200, according to Mamoun of Jajaia village / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

The deputy headmaster of the Misearia tribe, which makes up the majority of the population in West Kurdufan, emphasized that water contamination in the area came mainly from the oil companies’ waste management processes.

This is the stage in oil drilling where the raw oil is processed and toxic water called “production water” or “drilling fluid” is separated from the oil, according to Mahmoud Badawi, a well-site and operation geologist who works for an oil company in another area of Sudan.

The toxic chemicals originally enter the water through the drilling process, where chemically treated water called drilling fluid is used to extract oil. Under heavy pressure, the fluid is used in the well to pump the oil to the surface.

At the end of the process, this toxic water gets biologically treated before being put in a basin, which then flows through a pipe to a treatment pit. Usually, a special type of plant is grown around the treatment pit that helps absorb toxins in the water, Badawi said.

“The pits are padded with plastic coating to avoid leaking; these pits also get exposed to the sun for long periods of time, which ends any toxic effect, and after they are through they bury it,” he said.

The pond of liquid waste in Neem oil fields that can overflow during the rainy season into local waterways / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

But often the pits overflow in rainy season, leaking the toxic water to the waterways and valleys near where the people live, the deputy headmaster of the Misearia tribe said.

Prof. Asim El-Moghraby of the Sudanese Environment Conservation Society said the water contamination also entered the Nile River, the longest river in Africa that stretches through 11 countries from Uganda to Egypt.

In April at a house near the processing plant, a cow was drinking from a plastic container similar to the ones stacked in the company facilities.

Unused plastic containers at Neem fields. Local citizens often take the plastic containers for home consumption not knowing they contain traces of toxic chemicals / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

The headmaster of the Misearia tribe said animals and local citizens often got exposed to chemicals by reusing plastic containers and barrels of chemicals from the companies in their homes.

Another danger is exposure to the radiant materials used in some devices after the drilling to detect the physical properties of sub-surface layers, according to Badawi. Still, he said the dangers were intended to be limited since the radiation range is only 20 meters and the materials are saved in shields handled only by specialists.

Additional problems result from flairs that burn throughout the year, emitting gases that pollute the air, according to Badawi.

Flairs at Jake oil fields / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

In 2010, Sudan burned about 11.8 billion cubic meters of gas, representing 0.2% of the total gas consumed globally.

An oil company executive in Higlieg said there were no residential areas besides the processing units and all of the Higleig oil processing locations were, “free of waste.”

“After finishing from chemical barrels or cans, we collect them all and damage them using a forklift. Even after the drilling rig finishes, we can’t move to another well unless we get approval by environment section,” he said.

“We deal with wastes seriously and monitor the disposal area; it’s well secured. Liquid wastes are sucked by vacuum truck and sent to processing units to be reused again.”

Pipes carrying wastewater to the pond near the Neem oil fields / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

Regarding the claims of contamination and the effects on local people, the executive said: “It’s a big challenge, and most of the local people know the working area and its effect on them and their animals.”

Over the years, the government and oil companies responded to claims of environmental and health impacts by establishing environmental units, conducting reports and making plans to address the issues. However, these plans were not publicly available, and it was unclear whether they had been implemented.

In January 2018, a local committee of scientists, experts and environmental specialists held a conference where they presented papers on environmental pollution and the spread of fetal illnesses that had occurred allegedly due to oil industry activities.

To address some concerns, the companies said they had moved local people away from the oil sites. In 2018, the government was building new villages for some of these displaced peoples in the Neem area.

A village under construction near Neem, where citizens living close to the oil fields were intended to be moved / Credit: Elzahra Jadallah

Despite these efforts, it was unclear whether the companies had changed the way they handle dangerous waste, and they did not respond to repeated r