What’s been described as the most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up plan in history was launched in Nigeria Thursday to restore hundreds of square miles of Delta swamps ravaged by nearly sixty years of oil extraction and spills.
The move to restore Ogoniland, located in southern Nigeria and home to more than 800,000 people, comes a year and a half after Shell agreed to an $84 million settlement with residents for two massive oil spills in 2008 and 2009. By then Nigeria had asked the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) to study the area. UNEP released a report in 2011 noting oil impacts on Ogoniland are ongoing, widespread, and severe. In turn, Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, started a $1 billion restoration plan this week to clean up decades of spills by Shell and other companies, including the state-owned company.
It will be at least 18 months before full remedial work starts, the Guardian reports. Some $200 million will be spent annually for five years to clean up 1,000 square miles — an area about the size of Rhode Island — though more money may be needed to fully restore the ecosystem.
“The people of Ogoniland have paid a high price for the success of Nigeria’s oil industry, enduring a toxic and polluted environment for decades,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director, in a statement. “Today marks a historic step toward improving the situation of the Ogoni people, who have paid this high price for too long.”
Ogoniland is situated in the Niger Delta region, the third largest mangrove ecosystem in the world. Oil was first discovered there in the 1950s and Shell operated in Ogoniland from around 1958 to 1993, when production stopped following a series of environmental protests led by the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa who criticized the destructive impact of the oil industry. Saro-Wiwa was convicted and hanged in 1995. While oil has not been produced in Ogoniland for more than two decades, spills from illegal, aging, and poorly maintained refining infrastructure continue.
The effects of oil pollution are so profound that full restoration could take up to 25 years, according to UNEP. Oil has reached many inter-tidal creeks and left mangroves devoid of leaves and stems, and has affected fisheries, drinking water, and crops. Abundant rainfall and years of unattended spills and leaks have exposed groundwater and soils to crude oil. UNEP observed hydrocarbons, the chief components of petroleum, in soils at depths of at least 16 feet. In addition, the agency found heavy contamination present 40 years after an oil spill occurred, despite repeated cleanup attempts. These are indications that the younger generation in the Ogoniland community has lived with oil pollution throughout their entire lives, according to UNEP.
Studies note that residents in the Delta region risk exposure to harmful oil pollution through contaminated surface water, ground water, air, and crops tainted with hydrocarbons like benzene and metals that may be carcinogenic. Oil exposure can lead to a 60 percent reduction in household food security in the Delta, and could result in a 24 percent increase in the prevalence of childhood malnutrition. That’s aside from the economic losses fishermen or entrepreneurs who tried to set up fish farms in or near the creeks suffered.
The plan was designed by UN engineers, oil companies, and the government, and includes building a factory to process and clean tons of contaminated soil. The cleanup, which is expected to create jobs, will also include a mass replanting of mangroves. However, it faces tough challenges ahead. Aside from discomfort by communities left out of the plan, the government could face troubles in financing the $1 billion remediation in the near future.
Nigeria has been over-reliant on oil revenue for years. In fact, some 70 percent of its revenue comes from oil, so as prices have dropped the country’s economy has suffered. The naira — Nigeria’s currency — has been dropping in value and a recession now looms on Africa’s largest economy, according to Bloomberg.