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Rivers without water

The accusations have been put before Shell in an email for weeks, but the company did not respond.

Rivers without water

Written by Judd-Leonard Okafor Thursday, 19 January 2012

Rivers is a state of irony: its named for its predominant water bodies – the creeks and estuaries that fan their way to the Atlantic.

But it has no water, literally – at least none safe for drinking. Its ground water – a main source of water, along with hand-dug wells and boreholes – are seriously contaminated with hydrocarbons released in countless oil spills by the petroleum industry that’s become the bane of living in the Niger Delta.

The pollution is all over – in water, on water, has seeped down to water table underground, in swampland, soaked into aquatic life.

In one case study at Nsisioken Ogale in Eleme, investigators from United Nations Environment Programme which has released its assessment of spills in Ogoniland, reported finding 8 centimetres of pure petroleum product floating on the surface of groundwater at the site of a six-year-old spill next to an abandoned NNPC pipeline operated by PPMC.

Water sampled from five wells at the pipeline site, abandoned since 2008, and contained as much as 9,000 microgrammes of benzene per litre of water – almost 900 times higher than the limit of 10 microgrammes in WHO guidelines.

The least four wells contained 7,090 microgrammes of benzene per litre of water, and UNEP concluded “anyone consuming water from these wells will have been exposed to unacceptable levels of the pollutant.”

Most devastating

Residents in parts of the region under study are forced to admit that that’s exactly what’s been happening.

“Our illiterate people don’t know, and that is the most devastating part of it,” says Gabriel Igbara, a community leader in Noten-Bori, in the Bori headquarters of Khana – one of four council areas along with Tai, Gokana and Eleme studied in the assessment.

His community – only minutes away from Eleme by road – once depended on rainwater for drinking. “But we can’t do that now because of the pollution. It is filled with charcoal. It is coloured, almost black.”

As far as the community is concerned, rainwater is now unfit for drinking or bathing, and UNEP’s report is being hailed as “the true reflection of our experience in Ogoniland,” according to Igbara.

Before now, he said, his people “didn’t know and were unable to take precautionary measures.”

“All they do is take the polluted water and live by the health hazards that go with it. We cannot mention the cases of cancer, skin diseases and so many others. How many do I name? And the common man does not know that this thing is harmful.”

“Spillages were going on,” Igbara goes on, warming to the subject. “Our people didn’t know that what was killing the fishes, the aquatic life, was this oil lying on the surface of the water.”

As yet, the “oil lying on the surface of the water” is the hydrocarbon sheen UNEP investigators noticed on the water surface of creeks every day through the period of their fieldwork.

Its report speaks of the same sheen on rivers and fish farms, a common livelihood in riverine areas.

At her home in Noten-Bori, a student of the nearby Rivers State Polytechnic rushes through her hostel to show off a bucket of rainwater she collected.

“It’s like it is filled with gunpowder,” she says, describing the black particles that crowd the bottom of the bucket before differentiating it from water from boreholes. “The borehole water looks like it is filled with green things. You see it, and you can tell the difference.”

Getting safe water in Rivers doesn’t come easy. Boreholes promise a way but simply magnify the problem of contamination. Some residents have drilled deeper in search of clean water, but UNEP says it amplifies the problem.

Geographical profile of areas studied by UNEP showed a single aquifer – the underground layer that carries water. In the case study of Nsisioken, UNEP said “drilling deeper wells only serves to increase the rate at which contamination is spread vertically.”

It added, “there is no guarantee therefore that deeper wells mean cleaner water.”

John Tadio Igbara recalls fetching water from streams and a monopump. Now “we are not even sure of the monopump,” he says. “If it (the water) is not treated, you cannot take it.”

He insists the government has a duty and knows what measures to provide clean water.

Following UNEP’s recommendation, the state government has been doing just that.

Every morning, water trucks rumble through Eleme to pipe water into tanks in the street. The focus is here, being the most affect, based on the report, says Rivers State Water Resources Commissioner Patricia Simon-Hart.

The state’s urban water board supplies the capital, Port Harcourt through at least 12 megastations. Rural supply comes from smaller water schemes scattered around the state, but their functionality is in serious doubt, says Simon-Hart.

An estimated ten tankers set some 75,000 people in Ogale, Eleme. Neighbouring council area Gokana has four stations—some rehabilitated, some new.

The state government’s efforts has met commendation of Environment Minister Hadiza Mailafiya praising Governor Chibuike Amaechi for stepping in to implement that particular recommendation of UNEP.

Ogale community’s paramount traditional ruler, Godwin Okpabi also praises the move, explaining it is not in his people’s custom to look a gift horse in the mouth.

For others, it is more of a Trojan horse.

Jonah Chujor, coordinator of Asama Eleme pressure group, questions everything from “rickety tankers” to unknown “source of water.”

He also points to the long queues of people waiting late into the morning for water and charges that authorities have not effectively educated the public as to what is really going on.

“If the source of the water is clean, what is the hygienic condition of the tanker?” he asks. “My only query and fear is that we are not running from frying pan to fire- running away from benzene and consuming what is probably more dangerous than benzene.”

In his part of Bori, Tadio Igbara isn’t seeing any tankers in the morning. “Nobody is supplying us water. We manage the way we can, and pray to God,” he says. But he is also not sure he wants the water. “I am not convinced the water is treated. Some (tankers) just enter stream, fetch the water and start supplying.”

The state government has met the criticisms head on, maintaining it treats water supplied to towns. But it admits shortfall in supply.

“It is not enough, but that’s what we can afford at the moment, and we try and at least ensure that it gets to them every day,” says commissioner Simon-Hart.

Authorities have also faced charges that government contractors are milking the misery of the public. Chujor, a contributing writer for Rivers-based Clarion newspaper, is documenting evidence for a book to expose what he calls “profiting out of disaster situation.”

But the government has insisted water supply contracts are aboard. “We go through normal procurement procedure,” Simon-Hart says. “And this is an emergency. We had to intervene.”

“The way it was”

Marvin Yobana, president of Ogoni Youth Council says there is no sign to show UNEP’s report is being implemented.

“Even the water that the UNEP suggested should be given as an alternative means of water to the community, there is no sign of it. Everything is still the way it was,” he said in a telephone interview.

“It is another report that will end up on the shelves of government.”

Interventions recommended by UNEP are still far off. Federal committees are still studying the report, and environment minister Mailafiya has said consideration of the report is not “open ended.”

Her comments came the same day Shell’s Managing Director Mutiu Sunmonu visited the ministry, shortly after UNEP published its report in August.

Okpabi called Sunmonu’s visit to the ministry a “bureaucratic and ceremonial cordiality” saying it was “rubbish relative to the abject situation” in his hometown.

“What has that got to do with me in Ogale? What has it got to assist me, to stop my people from dying?”

Okpabi said Shell had a duty to take up where Rivers State government left off.  “The immediate thing now is for them to come and provide, what Rivers government is doing now, but they will now do it better, increase the points of this water stand, make it frequent, increase security of the water stand, find new water sources, build a big bat and distribute. While that is going on, test the level of damage they have caused to our bodies.”

He charges Shell has not met his community and alleges the company is continuing work.

“No Shell person or NNPC has come here in respect of the report. But as I talk to you, they are drilling. The same Nigerian Army and police that are supposed to protect the Nigerian people will carry them to go and put more benzene (into the environment). If we take laws into our hands, you hear (restiveness) and violence.”

The accusations have been put before Shell in an email for weeks, but the company did not respond.

Okpabi says the silence from both Shell and government committees set up in the aftermath of the report comes from a bad arrangement between the company and the Nigerian government that poorly distinguishes between Shell and Nigeria.

“The arrangement our leaders had with them is such that it is difficult to get them. Shell wears Nigeria’s face.”

He adds, “the whole thing shows the level of distance between the government and the governed.”

The assessment was meant to study the impact of spills so far before Shell’s operations can resume in Ogoniland, where they have been shut since 2003 in the aftermath of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death. But the lack of contact between communities and the company feeds calls to get Shell out of Ogoniland entirely.

Identity questions

The question of Shell and Ogoniland is an increasing source of discomfort for communities in the region, especially in the wake of possible billions of naira expected in compensation.

The pressure group, Asama Eleme has been drumming a single message – that Eleme is not part of Ogoniland.

By the light of a lantern, Asama Eleme’s coordinator Chujor displays tables from a population census dating back to 1963, which lists separate ethnic groups and nationalities in the country.

Ogoni and Eleme are listed separately, he points out, adding that even the Ogoni bill of rights presented by the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) notes the point.

He is leading a campaign to stop Eleme being identified as one with  Ogoni. His group which demanded a separate assessment of Eleme wants UNEP to name it Ogoniland/Eleme.

“The way the report is written indicates Eleme is subsumed under Ogoni, and that is what the Ogonis want, and that’s not going to work. The people of Eleme exist as a people. We have never been under ogoni as an entity. If we are found as stakeholders in a division, it doesn’t mean one subsumes the other. Eleme has been in Ahoada and Degema divisions, before we came into Ogoni division very lately.”

It goes without saying, he maintains, that no Eleme indigene is under the authority of Ogoniland’s paramount ruler.

The clamour to reinforce Eleme as a separate nationality distinct from Ogoni is slowly reverberating.

Paramount ruler of Ogale, Okpabi, questions any consideration of him as Ogoni.  “How can I be an Ogoni man, when I cannot speak Khana, Gokhana or Tai? If you say we are of the same ethnic nationality, can we sit and have a meeting in our vernacular?”

In response to the demand to address nomenclature,  head of UNEP’s post-conflict and disaster management branch Henrik Slotte, said, “ the scope of work for UNEP’s environmental assessment, “including the geographic areas of the study and technical details, were discussed and agreed with the Government of Nigeria and communicated to all stakeholders.”

“This included information that the survey should focus on Ogoniland covering the four local government areas of Eleme, Tai, Khana and Gokana,” said Slotte in an emailed response to Daily Trust.

Bargain power

Harrison Onungwe remembers acidic rain eating up the roof of his home in record time. He also has stopped using water from his borehole.

He isn’t alone. Across Eleme, bores sunk into contaminated ground have stopped pumping water altogether .

A chief in the community once warned me not to even buy packaged water coming from any factory sited in Eleme.

One resident Douglas gets his entire drinking water supply from sachet water.

But Onungwe will not risk that to bathe his youngest child. He uses one specific brand of bottled water, because he can afford it, he confides.

Not everyone can—not even in a land named for rivers.


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