Silent Holocaust in the Niger Delta?

Leaking wellhead

The Niger Delta is a top “ecocide hotspot” on planet Earth. Minor and major oil spillages are common, frequent and ubiquitous causing untold pollution and ecocide with highly devastating impacts on the lives and livelihoods of the people who reside in the region. There seems to be a sleek everywhere; on the water (the Niger Delta is constituted of the riverine terrain), on the land (in the villages, in the towns, on farms, in houses, in schools, in churches) and in the air even though it is bordered by the ocean. Animal and plant life in the ecosystem have suffered a terrible terminal fate. However this is an endless perennial story, usually more of the same.

The Niger Delta region is situated in the southernmost part of Nigeria and it is where most or all of Nigeria’s oil wealth comes from. By implication it is the region that makes Nigeria the eighth largest producer of oil in the world. However, the same Niger Delta is one of the most wantonly devastated areas in the world resulting from intensive large-scale exploitation of oil and gas reserves.

One new issue about the environmental devastation in the Niger Delta, is largely a very silent one which at best constitutes a continuous incidence of genocide or even more disturbingly a potential Holocaust. The UNEP Report (2011) was dedicated to a rigorous scientific investigation into pollution in the Niger Delta; the outcomes produced were disturbing. A reading of the report will intimate the reader with some very belief-defying facts regarding benzene pollution and contamination and the degree of human exposure; all day, every day without hopes or opportunities of escape.

Benzene is an aromatic hydrocarbon that is a constituent of crude oil. It is also a volatile organic compound which means it vapourises easily especially in the tropics. The resident of the Niger Delta breathes in more benzene vapour than cigarette smokers would do in a single day. The Nigerian government does not have to ban smoking since people get their benzene directly from the air that is supposed to be fresh. Tests show that water contamination by benzene, be it surface water from rivers and ponds, groundwater from boreholes and wells or rainwater from the sky; they are all dangerously polluted with benzene. The water table has long be thoroughly contaminated.

The US Congress in 1974 Congress passed the “Safe Drinking Water Act” to control pollutants that could cause adverse effects to the health of people. It set amongst other things the safety limit for benzene in drinking water at 5ppb and anywhere it was found that potable water exceeded this limit it had to be treated with immediate effect. The results of specific experiments conducted in the UNEP Report demonstrate that groundwater and surface water often contained up to 1000 times over the safe level of benzene in water which is 5 ppb. As essential as air and water is to human existence, the residents of the Niger Delta are denied this necessity.

A myriad of herbs and substances are commonly used by the residents to partially or completely mask the taste of benzene just to make the water “swallowable”; the alternatives are thirst and dehydration in one of the hottest parts of the tropics. Benzene is certainly more insidious than causing harm in lungs and stomachs; it can be very effectively absorbed through the skin causing havoc via the circulatory and lymphatic systems.

The invisible impact of the benzene pollution and contamination is the health hazards it creates for people. The benzene which the people are inescapably exposed to is both genotoxic and carcinogenic and a long trail of severely expired and diseased people is the consequence. It is known to efficiently cause sudden death or death in a short time, hours or days.

The most notable diseases caused by benzene contamination are (a) bone marrow damage: aplastic anaemia, (b) leukaemia, (c) mutations / changes in circulating blood cells, (d) developmental and reproductive defects, (e) alterations in immune response e.g. immunosuppression, (f) nerve damage and (g) cancer e.g. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Immediate health symptoms such as vomiting, tachycardia, drowsiness, convulsions, tremors, sleepiness, dizziness, headaches, irritation of the stomach, confusion, unconsciousness etc. are less scary but soon culminate into the aforementioned diseases considering the level of daily exposure the residents’ experience.

According to Dr Cal Amayo of the Ethiope Foundation based in London, the real tragedy of benzene pollution and contamination for the people of the Niger Delta is that there are no hospitals or medical facilities to test for and monitor the named diseases anywhere in the Niger Delta. No one knows how many people in the Niger Delta  are suffering from benzene related diseases in the present and how many suffered the same in the past. Certainly no one can even estimate the death toll resulting from benzene contamination. The fate of many an indigenous Niger Deltan is living on land that has generated close to a $1 trillion in oil revenues but have to die a painful, untreated, protracted and silent death as a consequence.

There is no end to the production of crude oil and there is no clean-up of the oil spillages no matter how many times a high court or appeal court will order the culpable oil corporations to do it. “Produce and pollute” without any responsibility is the doctrine of the oil corporations with the watertight complicity of the Nigerian government. Promises of clean-ups are at best vainglorious comforts.

There will be no withdrawal from production and no withdrawal from polluting the land, air and water by the oil corporations; there are stuck on the land in an unbreakable relationship to make ever more profits. So there will be more of expanding benzene pollution and contamination in the land by default. Government and corporate promises to clean-up the Niger Delta so far are worth little less than the decibels at which they were pronounced.

That there is severe benzene pollution and contamination in the Niger Delta is a fact. That it has been responsible for genocide or even a Holocaust is something everyone is ignorant about suppositions will not suffice. But in this case ignorance is certainly not blissful. The unaccounted death toll could easily run into the millions. As Dr Amayo declares, “we shall do something about it”. Maybe the solution lies in the hands of independent minds and groups.

Grimot Nane

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