Writing about the creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta can be quite a struggle for me at times. Many times, I have set aside my poetry quill and declared to myself that I would no longer write poems like these. But then something happens that prompts a line, and then another one, and more.
I would rather write more poems about lush vegetations, of butterflies and beautiful gazelles. Poems inspired by love, of which I have done a few in the past. One stanza penned for my soul mate echoes in my mind often: When I see you/ I see you again/ and again and again. On reflection, those lines echo lines by the master poet, Odia Ofeimun, which he wrote about his father: I see my father’s face in every mirror, if I remember correctly.
I see the creeks of the Niger Delta in every creek and river I encounter in my pollution tours around the world. When I look into streams and rivers and see the fish swirling about, and the pebbles and white sands way beneath the surface of the water, I pause and reflect on what once was the condition of the Niger Delta. I also think of what was once the state of the lagoons of Lagos, the Challawa River of Kano as well as the Kaduna River. These creeks, streams, rivers and estuaries of the Niger Delta now wear the cloak of hydrocarbon pollution, like the proverbial mourner or penitent dressed in burlap.
It would probably take a space probe to see the bottom of even the shallowest creek or pond in the Niger Delta because of the thick layer of crude oil and related pollutants that have literally choked the daylight out of them. The only relief to the eye in these hellish seascapes is fish floating belly-up having dared to survive for a time in such a hostile environment. The Lagos Lagoon and rivers Challawa and Kaduna do not fare any better, clogged with pollutants of a different class – ranging from effluents from factories, waste oil to sundry wastes from households.
What is hardly spoken about is the huge amount of waste water that comes out of crude oil drilling. Known as produced or process water, this highly toxic water can, at times, be radio-active. On average, about five barrels of water are produced for every barrel of crude oil extracted. Some oil fields may produce higher volumes, but if Nigeria extracts 2 million barrels of crude oil per day, we can expect that there are 10 million barrels of produced water to contend with on a daily basis. How do oil companies dispose of this highly toxic wastewater?
The wastewater can be used as production fluid by pumping or reinjecting it to help recover more oil from the wells. They could also be stored in containment ponds lined with water proofing membranes and detoxified to some extent before being discharged into the environment. The question as to whether this toxic wastewater is handled in Nigeria according to the best international standards is an open one.
Between 2008 and 2010, Sign of Hope, a German charity, took 90 water samples from 76 locations in oil field communities in Thar Jath, South Sudan. The result of the hydrogeological study was released in 2014 and showed that the ground water in the areas was heavily contaminated with salts and heavy metals. It was later confirmed, by scientific analyses of hair samples, that the people have been exposed to chronic poisoning by the heavy metals including lead and barium. The threat to the health of the people has been persistent and unrelenting. The conflict situation in the area may have served as a cover for environmental misbehaviour, but with returning peace, demands are being made for thorough health audits of the population and the provision of alternative and safe drinking water for the people.
The oil pollution in South Sudan pales compared to the situation in Nigeria. Now is the time to ask questions about how Shell, Chevron, Exxon, Agip, Total, the Nigerian Petroleum Development company and others handle their toxic produced water. Could it be that millions of barrels of toxic water are discharged into the creeks, rivers and estuaries of the Niger Delta on a daily basis without sufficient treatment? The study of the environment of Ogoni by the United Nations Environment Programme showed high levels of pollution of land, surface and ground water. The situation is the same or worse across other oil field communities elsewhere in the Niger Delta.
These questions assault our dream of clean creeks in the Niger Delta. And this is why the success of the Ogoni clean-up project is so vital for the health of our present and future generations. With the completion of the long process towards the award of the contracts that would allow the clean-up machinery to roll in, we urge the Hydrocarbons Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) to ensure that delays become a thing of the past. Ogoni is a living laboratory and the clean-up holds out hope for a detoxification of the entire Niger Delta, and the clean-up of the entire pipeline routes in the country as well as the refinery area in Kaduna and, of course, the Lagos zone when the mammoth refinery being built there begins to produce and to pollute.
We dream of seeing the pebbles at the bottom of the creek at Bodo, Goi, K-Dere and in other parts of Ogoni. We also have the dream that one day, as the Ogoni clean-up unfolds, the periwinkles, crabs and myriad aquatic life forms will return to the mangroves. We dream that at that time, the mangrove roots will breath again. And so will the people.