The Niger Delta is a top “ecocide hotspot” on planet Earth. Minor and massive oil spillages are frequent and ubiquitous in the Niger Delta, causing untold pollution and ecocide with highly devastating impacts on the lives and livelihoods of the people who reside in the region. There is evidence of a sleek everywhere; on the water (the Niger Delta is a landmass of the riverine terrain boarded by a coastline with the Atlantic Ocean). It is on the land (in the villages, in the towns, on farms, in houses, in schools, in churches). And it is in the air. Animal and plant life in the ecosystem has suffered a terrible terminal fate. However, this is an endless perennial story, usually more of the same.
The Niger Delta region lies in the southernmost part of Nigeria, and it is from there all of the oil wealth of the country comes. 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 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 a project of dedication 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 to 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 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 been a receptacle of contamination.
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 there is evidence that potable water exceeded this contamination limit, require remedial treatment 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 (parts per billion). As essential as air and water are to human existence, the residents of the Niger Delta have rights or provision of this necessity.
A myriad of herbs and substances are commonly used by the residents to partially, or completely mask the taste of benzene 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 on internal organs via the circulatory and lymphatic systems. Besides oil pollution, the surface waters, fresh before oil exploitation has become dirty due to several environmental malpractices and negligence.
The invisible impact of benzene pollution and contamination is the health hazards it creates for people. The benzene to which the people experience inescapable exposure is both genotoxic and carcinogenic. 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 in the serious diseases considering the level of daily exposure countless residents.
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. Or how many suffered the same in the past. 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 has 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 appellate 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 blessings 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; they are operating in the region, perhaps till the oil runs dry and 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 the pronounces were made.
That there are 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 run into the millions. As many activists declare, “We shall do something about it”. Maybe the solution lies in the hands of independent minds and groups.