INVESTIGATION: How decades of gas flaring is harming Nigerians (Part 1)

A Shell gas flare site at Rumuekpe
A Shell gas flare site at Rumuekpe

There has been sufficient evidence and exhaustive researches on the adverse effects of gas flaring on the inhabitants of host communities.

It was a few minutes past 2 a.m. when the baby’s cries shattered the stillness of the night at Mgbede. Roused from her sleep, Philomena Chibuike reached for her usual quick-fix remedy – the bottles of cough syrup and Vitamin C at the foot of the bed.

“I gave those to him and he’s still crying. I gave him food, he’s still crying. So later in the morning, by 4 (a.m.), he slept,” said Mrs. Chibuike, 28.

“His breathing is fast and noisy and he is coughing. The cough is too much, I now bring him to the doctor.”

Her six month old son, Excel, was experiencing an onset of bronchitis, she was told later as she visited the community clinic.

Such conditions are not uncommon in Egbema area, in Rivers State, where gas flaring has continued, unabated, for over five decades.

According to a World Bank study of the environment in 2000, gas flaring in the Niger Delta, particularly in Rivers and Bayelsa states, releases about 35 million tons of carbon dioxide and 12 million tons of methane each year – about 815,000 metric tons per year of air pollution load exists in both states.

The screams that rob Mrs. Chibuike of her night’s sleep aren’t exactly a new experience for her. She says her two previous children had dragged her through the same ordeal; her husband would take turns with her to watch over the babies every night and cradle them back to sleep.

One quiet evening, at the Rivers State Primary Healthcare Centre in Mgbede, where smell of fresh paint hung in the air; Mrs. Chibuike, with her baby strapped to her back, sat inside the doctor’s office and listened intently.

Soft music from a Nollywood movie on cable television drifted across the waiting hall into the consulting room.

“Is it just because your baby was crying at night that you brought her to the hospital?” The doctor, his face a mask of seriousness, enquires.

“No no no. He is breathing… (the mother lets out a throaty sound to describe the baby’s noisy breathing) and he is coughing,” Mrs. Chibuike explains, a shy smile lingering on her face.

Built two years ago, the clinic, with its regular availability of a resident doctor has been a source of comfort for the local people, most of whom could ill afford the trip to the nearest General Hospital some five kilometres away.

Since he resumed at the clinic, last year, Princewill Ukod, the resident doctor, says that bronchitis and broncho-pneumonia are one of the three most common ailments diagnosed at the health centre.

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Malaria and diarrhoea are the other two.

“The child that just left has bronchitis,” Mr. Ukod says, as he motions towards the direction of another woman who had left minutes ago with her baby.

“There are children who come with acute respiratory diseases.

“But you can’t really say whether they are caused by gas flaring. Bacteria can also cause such.

“If u have to link gas flaring, there have to be ample evidence, community based study,” Dr. Ukod adds.

Respiratory challenges

There has been sufficient evidence and exhaustive researches on the adverse effects of gas flaring on the inhabitants of host communities.

For instance, there were 362 reported cases of cancer disease at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital between December 1997 and December 2000; these incidences correlated with the activities of Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, in the communities where the patients reside.

However, infants, with their associated tender immunity, are highly susceptible to ailments resulting from gas flaring, according to Fouad Adetoro, a lecturer at the University of Lagos.

“The most common is upper respiratory challenges, either directly from the flared gas or suppressed immunity in secondary infection like bacterial, viral, or fungal infection,” said Mr. Adetoro, who teaches at the Department of Zoology.

“Secondly, is the potential of tumour or cancerous growth in certain parts of the body, most likely upper respiratory infections like lung cancer,” he added.

A study, ‘Effects of gas flaring on blood parameters and respiratory system of laboratory mice, Mus musculus’ by researchers at the Department of Zoology, University of Lagos, published in 2010 attempted to evaluate the potential harmful effects of gas flaring on mammals.

The study, by Adebayo Otitoloju and Jemima Dan-Patrick, exposed the mice to gas flares for eight weeks under laboratory.

Although gas flares burn continuously during the day and night, the mice used in the experiment were exposed to 4 – 8 hours of gas flaring to simulate the situation whereby inhabitants of communities where gas is flared often have the need to move out of the impacted areas either due to work, visits, or holidays.

“The detection of the increasing level of eosinophils (associated with inflammation in the respiratory systems) in the blood of mice exposed to gas flares was indicative of a degenerative disease condition and usefulness as a good marker of pollution for monitoring, and early detection of adverse effects of gas flares was recommended,” the study noted.

“Histopathological examination of the lungs of exposed mice revealed distortions in the segmental bronchus and alveoli of the respiratory organ, with interspersed brown pigments and polymorphonuclear cells, which were absent in the controls,” it added.

The study concluded that gas flaring threatens the well-being of continuous existence of life for people and organisms inhabiting areas around the flares.

“Furthermore, it also provides additional experimental evidence of the deleterious effects of gas flaring and the need for the oil-producing companies to stop their present state of self-denial that gas flaring is not harmful to the people and stop gas flaring, particularly those situated in terrestrial locations around human habitations,” the study noted.

Actually, domestic flaring volumes have fallen by one-third between 2004 and 2010, according to a recent Oil Producing and Exporting Countries, OPEC, report, but Nigeria remains the second largest gas flaring country, contributing 11 per cent of the world total – there are still, at least, 58 gas flare locations scattered all over the Niger Delta.

Russia remains the world’s largest gas flaring country, but its oil and gas fields are situated in remote and hard-to-access areas.

bcm = billion cubic metres

A kingdom’s agony

At nightfall in Egbema kingdom, a string of oil rich communities in Rivers State, tongues of fire illuminate the night sky.

An Agip oil station flares its gas at Ebocha, but the effects are felt at Mgbede, Okwizi, Agah, Ekpeaga, and the other neighbouring communities in the kingdom in Ogba-Egbema-Ndoni local government area.

Oil exploration in the kingdom began in the mid-50s, according to the community chiefs, and so did gas flaring.

“The issue of gas flaring is intimidating. I want to inform you that immediately this gas flaring started, it began to cause a lot of deformities,” said Tom Chukwudi, 52, Secretary, Ebocha Council of Chiefs.

“Sometimes the indigenes are restless because from time to time, it seems everywhere is trying to burn off. You’ll be on the bed and your eyes will remain open because nobody knows what the outcome will be the next minute.

“When the people raise alarm, the oil companies use security to foreclose them,” Mr. Chukwudi added.

One of such alarms was a peaceful protest, about six years ago, by the women in the kingdom over the presence of numerous oil wells on their farmlands.

On that fateful day, the women, in their dozens, went to the road leading to their farms, erected canopies and, with chairs, blocked vehicular movement.

The fallout was inevitable: armed soldiers stormed the scene hours later and broke up the protest.

“As they scattered the women, they scattered the canopy, we were so annoyed that we covered the road that they should kill us,” said Peace Bathuel, a farmer and spokesperson for Okwizi Women Association.

“They packed our chairs and canopies, to the extent that the remaining canopies that they don’t want to carry, we started throwing it into their motor till their motor is filled with canopies and chairs. They followed another route and then come and dumped those things in our houses,” Mrs. Bathuel added.

Mrs. Bathuel is 40, but years of tilling the soil and toiling under the sun has been unkind to her physical appearance. After participating in, as well as witnessing, several protests against the oil companies in her community – including the most recent one in which the youth protested against their non-employment – she says it’s only the government that can save their livelihoods.

“Protest does not yield any result. When they come with their force men, what can you do?”

Although several military checkpoints as well as armed soldiers dot the landscape of Egbema kingdom, the inhabitants are never under an illusion as to where their priorities lie. During a clash between rival cult groups in Mgbede, last December, in which six youth were killed, the soldiers’ attentions were focused solely on the oil installations in the community.

“It is the oil companies that brought the military and so they are here for them. If you buy drink for them today and tomorrow you try to complain, they will shoot you down. They are not for the civilians,” Mr. Chukwudi said.

Such repressions to community grievances are not uncommon in oil producing communities where protests are generally regarded as rebellion.

For instance, on May 28, 1998, during a protest at Texaco’s Parabe oil platform in an Ilaje community in the Niger Delta, the company allegedly used the Nigerian Military helicopters to summarily execute unarmed youth and destroyed property.

Survivors and some community representatives filed a suit at a San Francisco District court – Larry Bowoto et al vs Chevron – accusing the company of gross violations of human rights.

In December 2008, almost nine years after the case began, the jury returned a judgment clearing Chevron of all charges, despite the ruling by Judge Susan Illston that Chevron Nigeria’s personnel were directly involved in the attacks – transported the Nigerian security forces, paid them, and knew that they were prone to the use of excessive force.

The amount of gas flaring per area in Rivers and Bayelsa states is about 48.4 percent greater than that of the entire USA and about 44.7 percent more than in the United Kingdom, according to a study by the Friends of the Earth.

In 2005, a coalition of civil society activists and community representatives of some communities in the Niger Delta approached a Federal High Court in Benin to compel the court to hold that gas flaring is illegal, a violation of the right to life of the people living in the communities, and must be stopped.

“There were seven of us when we started,” recalled Ikechukwu Okpara, a lawyer and indigene of Rumuekpe community in Rivers state.

“From Benin we went back to our respective state since the issue of jurisdiction would have come up. I and three other people were involved in the one at the Federal High Court, Port Harcourt,” Mr. Okpara added.

In November, 2005, the court in Benin declared that the gas flaring activities of SPDC and the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, in Iwherekan community in Delta State are illegal and a violation of the rights to life and dignity.

The activists in Rivers State, however, were not as fortunate; the court in Port Harcourt threw away their suit, insisting that the applicants ought to have come in their respective individual capacities to show how they have been adversely affected by gas flaring.

“I was very disappointed,” Mr. Okpara recalled.

“We got judgment at the Benin court, same federal high court. Our lawyer then was actually asking the judge to follow the example of her brother in the federal high court, Benin,” he added.

Although the landmark ruling at the Federal High Court in Benin threw the environmental rights community into jubilation, SPDC ignored the court’s ruling and has continued to flare gas in the community nine years on.

(Follow PREMIUM TIMES for the second part of this story).

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