The Niger Delta -– the abundant source of much of Nigeria's oil riches –- is today decimated by pollution. Decades of single-minded exploitation by global oil firms has led to the gradual and conscious poisoning of water and land, impacting the health of the thousands inhabiting the region. Such is the depth and breadth of contamination that a comprehensive cleanup would take decades and be at a cost which would cause most firms to revoke their contracts rather than commit to fresh development.
More than half of petroleum spillages are caused by pilfering and sabotage of oil. As such, we are mistaken if we believe international companies have the local understanding necessary to engage meaningfully with the communities in which they operate in order to mitigate the effects of vandalism. Rather, indigenous firms must lead the way and engage where global players have failed.
Just last week in Akure, Ondo State, leaders of communities worn down by decades of disregard by oil majors in their hometowns in the Niger Delta met to discuss the future sustainability of the region. The tribulations experienced by these communities are an altogether holistic mess resulting from the interaction between globally-driven industry and natural resources.
But the issues of the environmental devastation of the Niger Delta are not simply a matter of water pollution or aesthetic tarnishing of bodies of water. They are a matter of liquid petroleum spilling from pipelines and facilities polluting water sources across an entire region and, in so doing, threatening the livelihoods of thousands living there: their health, the wildlife and the prospects of another industry flourishing.
Oil spillage and the consequent devastating environmental impact, are as established and as commonplace in Nigeria as the production from oil fields, which began almost sixty years ago. Today the estimated annual economic loss as a result of these spillages sits between US$3-US$8 billion USD –- a figure that could account for anything between 1 to 2.5 per cent of the nation's nominal gross domestic product.
Furthermore, this figure does not include the estimated US$2.3 billion USD spent annually on pipeline security and repairs. This is a figure which is wasteful and yet is also completely insubstantial, given the much-publicised failings of international energy firms operating in Delta to go far enough to protect against and undo the pollution already committed by their operations.
Our children will be left an inheritance of hampered industrial activity, a hazardous ecosystem, and the inevitable loss of human lives.
The continuing violation of the Nigerian environment on the part of global oil firms has consequences, the true pain of which will only be felt in future generations. Decades after perpetration, our children will be left an inheritance of hampered industrial activity, a hazardous ecosystem, and the inevitable loss of human lives, which is currently estimated to be around 1,000 souls annually purely as a result of explosions and the uncontrolled outbreak of fires.
The international media rightly decry these firms –- in particular, Royal Dutch Shell –- for the heavy contamination of both land and underground water sources. The dangerous concentrations of benzene found in drinking water in the region are nothing compared to the innumerable cases of water where levels of hydrocarbons are more than 1,000 times the level permitted by national drinking water standards.
However, what has been met with true dismay by local communities and the international community alike, is that in many cases contamination has been as a result of spillages of decades ago. As UN Environment Programme studies have shown, the majority of spill sites claimed to have been cleaned by oil firms still have dangerous levels of contamination.
The old adage that prevention is better than cure has never been truer than in the case of oil spillages. Simply put, the cost of a thorough clean-up of a substantial leakage of petroleum will certainly outstrip the cost of prevention and would negate the profitability of production if done properly, given how widespread contamination has become.
The failure of industry to engage with the communities in which they operate has in no small part helped to cultivate an environment in which vandals and militants hold sway.
But to be capable of such prevention requires comprehension of the causes of oil pollution, and it is not clear that international oil majors have either at hand. According to the Nigerian National Petroleum Company [NNPC], equipment and human failure has a role to play, for which there is no excuse on the part of industrialists. But the main causes of oil spillages today are sabotage and theft.
And whilst increased security and protection around oil sites can play their part in protecting against the bunkering of oil, international oil firms are creating another false economy if they believe that this truly constitutes proper prevention.
After 60 years of operating in Nigeria, they should know that the communities affected always turn to theft when they see an opportunity has been denied to them elsewhere. The failure of industry to engage with the communities in which they operate has in no small part helped to cultivate an environment in which vandals and militants hold sway. True prevention requires firms to engage with local communities and divert the development of militancy.
In this respect, there are indigenous firms which are equipped not simply with a competitive advantage because of their ability to combine local networks with international expertise, but also with an inimitable understanding of local communities.
If over half the oil spillages in the Niger Delta are caused by sabotage, then it is imperative for the future of the industry in Africa that international companies enlist the expertise of Nigerian firms to understand how they can better engage with the communities in which they operate and change the economics of industrial expansion to ensure communities enjoy the proceeds of growth.
In doing so, they will also create an environment where militancy and oil theft -– along with the pollution for which they are vilified –- eventually disappear.