The Delta I Used to know

I grew up in Warri; a town that was, at the time, a hub for oil and gas activities in the Niger Delta. It was commonplace to see expatriates and their families walk their dogs in the evenings, cool off on the beautiful beaches along the Atlantic coast, and at times even, I remember seeing them roam around freely enjoying the nightlife. Life was that good. This was the Niger Delta in which I grew up, a region that enjoyed robust economic activities as a result of oil and gas operations in the region, and spurred a generation of young men and women like myself to pursue careers in the oil and gas industry. Those years inarguably brought some socio-economic gains to the region but, they also brought along a host of political and environmental issues, the chief of which is oil pollution.

Several studies have been conducted on the economic, environmental and health impacts of pollution in the Niger Delta, and some of them like the UNEP Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland, made recommendations on possible means of improving these conditions. Numerous technical articles exist for anyone curious to learn about those details. This article focuses on my personal experience with oil pollution as someone who grew up in the Delta and knew how things were in time past in contrast to what they are today.

I took a boat ride from the Warri main market to Ogbe-Ijoh community in the Warri South-West local government of Delta State and what I saw was not only disheartening but was also frightening. It felt like we were riding on a pool of volatile liquid, with the thin film of colours indicative of a petroleum substance clearly visible on the surface of the water. The pollution was glaring. The mangrove trees along the creeks had all withered, and the soil beneath them darkened by a substance that ought to bring light and prosperity. The once-vibrant Niger Delta creeks filled with spectacular flora and fauna have now become a shadow of what it once was, a scene of horrific realities, and a present day example of how a thing of blessing can become a curse on a people and their land. The stench was nauseating, yet people sat oblivious to this fact, highlighting how accustomed they had become to the sickening smell on the waterways most of them ride daily.

The fishes have disappeared from the rivers, and so have the fishermen; the lands are no longer able to support farming so the farmers have become redundant. How then do these one-time fishermen and farmers make a living one would ask? Well, remember the saying, “Necessity, or shall I say adversity, is the mother of all inventions?” That, dear friends, is the reality of today’s Niger Delta. Makeshift refineries have sprung up in the creeks, and with some half-baked knowledge of distillation, illegally-obtained crude is refined by a process that contributes to the degradation of the ecosystem. Various factions of militant groups have arisen, threatening to cripple the economic mainstay of Nigeria by vandalizing oil installations and causing even more environmental pollution. How did things get this bad? Was this deliberate or was it due to sheer negligence? Did the oil companies and the government agencies responsible for monitoring their operations turn a blind eye while this scale of horror ensued? How do we move forward from here? How do we reverse the environmental and socio-economic devastation of these past decades to create sustainable solution for the present and future generations of the Niger Delta people?

This article is my first-hand account of the horrors of oil pollution in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. I am an indigenous person working with Sustainability International to raise global awareness of these horrors, and to facilitate the global conversation around ways to reverse the effects of the age-long negligence which has adversely impacted the lives of millions of people dead, living and unborn.