Thirty metre high flames burn day and night in the village of Ebedei, in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. The heat from these fires is not soft or warm, it is prickly. The constant noise makes wild animals flee, and people must shout to be heard. Fields of crops, once green, turned yellow or stopped growing. The village no longer has darkness or the respite of cool at night. The air is contaminated with gas and harmful particles.
“You can’t believe it when I got close to the flare site, I felt first hand the heat, and it was like my skin was being pierced with some kind of needles or tips of broomsticks,” said Okonta Emeka, a Nigerian reporter who we collaborated with on this investigation.
Millions of people live within five kilometres of a gas flare in the Niger Delta, the oil-rich region in southern Nigeria. Below the flames, they’re extracting oil. With the oil comes unwanted gas, which is burnt off in a process called gas flaring.
Benjamin Nwaiku lives beside a constant flame. In 2001, he moved back to Ebedei where he grew up, retiring from his job to become a farmer and raise his seven children.
But in 2009, a flow station was erected right near his house to extract oil. He immediately became concerned about the possible effects on his health and his children’s’:
“We are living under the shade of hazard because of this flaring,” Mr Nwaiku said.
The flaring affected his income. He noticed his corn crops growing strangely, shooting up, as he described it, “like an electric pole, without any fruit”. The rise in soil temperature caused him and others a loss of crop yield.
“You plant and before you know it everything is dead,” he explained.
“It is a disaster.”
The noise and light of the flare bothered him too.
“If you are not sleeping with the noise and the heat you can’t sleep again,” said Mr Nwaiku, adding that he missed experiencing “total darkness,” and that his village hadn’t seen it since the flaring began.
During the rainy season, the rainwater was visibly black.
“It is not consumable,” Mr Nwaiku said, inspecting the sample of water his neighbour collected, “no need for a microscope.”
He said some in his community “risk their lives to drink the rainwater. They know the hazard they see.” “We can’t even use it to bath because it is very, very poisonous to the eye. Almost the whole of this community is having eye problems,” said Mr Nwaiku.
The rainwater, he said, corroded his zinc roof. Holes appeared and rotted the wood inside.
Flaring on the rise
Gas flaring was officially banned in 1984 but the government has repeatedly failed to meet promises to end the practice.
To test whether the government’s most recent claims to put an end to gas flaring by 2020 were realistic. this report commissioned a geospatial data expert to analyse infrared data to assess whether the number of hotspots had decreased over time.
“The satellite data appears to show a marked increase in radiant heat emitted by gas flares in Nigeria starting late 2017” explained Rory Hodgson, the analyst who compiled the figures.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite, which collected the data, has recorded infrared readings since 2012. It is the first time since its launch that readings for Nigeria have been so high.
“The data points to 2018 having more gas flares burning more intensely than has been seen for the past five years,” said Mr Hodgson.
According to the World Bank’s rankings Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership from July 2018, Nigeria is the sixth largest gas flaring country globally, and the second largest in Africa after Algeria, moving up from the seventh global flarer the year before.
While many other top flarers – Russia, Venezuela, and Algeria – have decreased flaring levels since 2016, Nigeria’s have increased.
The practice of gas flaring is incredibly wasteful, with one senior executive at a gas processing plant saying “flaring gas is burning money.”
In a country where 27 per cent of Nigerians do not have access to electricity, many residents of communities living near gas flares are aware of the irony of the burning of a resource which could be converted into power.
Enizoka Prince, a student from the Niger Delta said, “they can convert this gas to light. If there was light, there would be development as well.”
Edward Obi of civil society group Gas Alert for Sustainable Initiative (GASIN) agreed, saying “it defies all economic thinking.”
The United States Environmental Protection Agency greenhouse gas calculator quotes the amount of greenhouse gas emitted by gas flaring in 2016 Nigeria as equivalent to over three and a half million passenger vehicles driven for one year and over four coal-fired power plants running for a year.
Anslem Onyibo is a 35-year-old teacher at a primary school in Obodougwa. The flow station is 500 metres away from his classroom. It began flaring the same year as Ebedei’s, in 2009, selling crude oil the following year. Now, instead of talking when he teaches, he says he must shout over the noise of the flare.
“It takes a lot of energy,” he said, “and the student that does not have smart hearing ability will not get through.”
“You know, some students are shy,” he said, “they are not hearing what we are saying but they claim to have heard it.”
The primary school teacher noticed increased coughing among the 300 or so six to 13-year-olds who attended the school.
Friday Okolo, a father of five whose children attend the school, does not see a solution. “The children will still continue to go there to their school,” he said.
“We have no option,” he added.
Doctors are aware of the health impacts of gas flaring, and see the effects daily.
Mr Enebeli, a medical doctor at Trinity Hospital in nearby Obiaruku, sees about 20 patients per day, many of whom come from surrounding gas flaring communities, including Ebedei.
He sees a large number of patients who suffer from breathing problems, coughing and chest infections, particularly among the children.
“A lot of people die of chest infections,” he said, “the children are most affected.”
Omisivie Maduka, a medically trained doctor as well as a researcher, is working on an extensive study on the health impacts of gas flaring throughout a two-year fellowship and is still analysing the data.
“Just from the reports I was getting from the fieldwork,” she said.
“There were quite a lot of complaints about respiratory conditions, especially in children.”
According to a study, children are particularly vulnerable to the lowered air quality. She also found increased levels of hypertension in gas flaring communities.
As part of her research, Ms Maduka visited primary health centres. She said the data she collected was “grossly incomplete,” with blank spaces where the diagnosis should be.
“There is a whole spectrum of non-communicable diseases including cancers, respiratory conditions, skin conditions, diabetes and hypertension,” she said.
“There really should be a kind of emphasis on ensuring that we collect that data.”
Skin cancer, leukemia, and lung cancer have all been linked to pollutants released from flaring, but the lack of diagnosis and data on these means that assessing whether or not these are occurring is impossible.
But teacher Anslem Onyibo sees some benefits that came with advent of gas flaring, notably on the initiatives funded by the Nigeria company, Energia, which runs the flare.
“If you hadn’t been to the community in ten years you would not recognise it,” said Mr Onyibo.
“Our school is paid for by the money we get from there. They are trying to increase the level of employment.”
Samuel Ochonogor lives in Obodougwa, and his four children attend the local school. He wants electricity and clear water for his community as well as his crops to grow.
“If this issue is not handled now,” he said, “it will also affect our community’s children.”
Though these types of advantages vary from village to village, Dr Maduka believes that development does not have to be accompanied by gas flaring.
“My view I think is quite simple,” she said, “I think oil exploration is a source of development for people living in the Niger Delta. Oil exploration does not need to include gas flaring.”
A looming deadline
Lazarus Tamana, who has campaigned for 28 years with the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni people against Shell’s activities in the Delta said the government lacks the willpower or sincerity to force the oil companies to use modern equipment.
The flow stations Mr Tamana grew up beside were shut down following demonstrations by the Ogoni people over an oil spill in 1993, but he still vividly remembers the daily impact of the flares.
“It is just constantly like daytime and in that vicinity, you do not see any living thing,” said Mr Tamana.
“No insects. Even the wild animals are driven away because of the heat and the noise.”
He explained how in the first hour of rain during the dry season, the rain was black. He would let the rain fall and only collect drinking water when it started falling clear.
At the time, he said, he was unaware of the environmental impact.
“We didn’t take it seriously,” he said.
“We didn’t know the dangers that were surrounding us until we started seeing so many things that were happening. Our mothers, our fathers, our crops had started deteriorating.”
But he has spent his adult life campaigning with the MOSOP.
Mr Tamana blames the government for “zero” implementation of otherwise “fantastic laws.”
“The government doesn’t have the willpower or sincerity to force these oil companies to use modern equipment,” he said.
“If they were operating in a sensible way, whereby we can also farm and fish, while they are extracting their oil then there won’t be any difficulties.”
As Nigeria advances towards the 2020 deadline to end flaring, the problems linked to the practice are only set to rise because companies are continuing to flare.
Since 1984, flaring occurs through a system of fines and permits. Fines are consistently not implemented, culminating in $14.298 billion of potentially uncollected fines between April 2008 and October 2016.
A former manager of global oilfield services company who wished to remain anonymous said the cause of flaring is the same, anywhere in the world: “because there’s no distribution network, the source of the gas is too far from the potential client.”
Mr Obi, a Catholic priest who founded GASIN nine years ago, said the Nigerian government “has not made sufficient efforts to insist that oil and gas companies put down the necessary infrastructure to capture the gas and utilise it.”
He is currently working with a group set up by the government to commercialise the gas. He believes the government should not prioritise selling gas for profit because “gas as it is is already a hazard, so even capturing it and containing it is already a win.”
For Mr Obi, the 2020 flare out date is unrealistic.
“Speaking from someone who has worked in these developments over time, I have not seen any significant development that suggests that the 2020 deadline can be met,” he said.
“Absolutely nothing is on the ground that suggests a realistic 2020 deadline, absolutely nothing.”