This article is part of a two-part series which covers the impact of soot pollution on local residents. Read Part One here.
The Niger Delta is an ecological disaster. Oil pollution, caused by oil spills and community members illegally diverting crude oil, has had a devastating effect on the region's ecosystem. In 2006, it was estimated that almost thirteen million barrels of oil had been spilled in the Niger Delta in the last 50 years. Furthermore, the Federal Government's inability to address long-term issues in the region has birthed insurgency and movements movements such as The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).
Now, people in parts of the Niger Delta have to deal with the problem of soot.
Since 2016, Port Harcourt residents have lived under a thick cloud of smog of soot, a deep black powdery substance caused by burning of organic matter. The soot is everywhere; people’s nostrils, feet, inside homes, and all surfaces. It has even turned rainwater black. Residents now wear protective masks. People in the state are angry and feel helpless, leading to the #StoptheSoot campaign on Twitter.
Before the soot hit Port Harcourt, an environmental activist was reported to have seen the soot in nearby rural communities and there have been various reports about the cause. When the issue was first reported, authorities said it was caused by an asphalt factory, which was then shut down. The soot reduced but it didn’t go. The Ministry of Environment described the situation as an emergency and listed probable causes ranging incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons, burning of waste and vegetation, burning of tyres, asphalt processing and illegal artisanal refinery operations. But the main cause of the soot is oil bunkering, the illegal diversion and refining of crude oil by local groups who vandalise pipelines, crudely refine the oil, and sell the derived petroleum products. Bunkering has been going on for years and environmental regulation officials have said that the soot is an accumulated effect of years of illegal bunkering.
The effects of the soot on the health and general well-being of the residents of Rivers State could be devastating. It could cause several types of cancer including cancer of the lungs, skin, bladder and oesophagus, as well as respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma. Doctors in the city have already seen an increase in reported cases of Asthma. The World Health Organisation published a report which points out that 3.7 million premature deaths were caused by outdoor air pollution and 4.3 million deaths were caused by household air pollution in 2012. Inhaling microscopic particles of less than 10 microns in diameter causes serious health risks because the particles can move quickly and easily through the bloodstream to cause cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and premature death. Soot, which is formed by incomplete burning of fossil fuels has an even smaller diameter of less than 2.5 microns.
Ecologically, the soot has already had a significant impact on the city. Years of oil exploration have adversely affected rivers and creeks in the state. Now the soot is also worsening the quality of rivers and is steadily killing off marine life. Rivers State used to be known for its rivers and seafood. Now, it’s difficult for fishermen to catch any fish within Port-Harcourt and when they do, the insides of the fish have turned black. The compounds in soot that cause smog can mix with moisture in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. These ecological effects could adversely affect agricultural productivity in the region which could cause an increase in the price of agricultural products and even a famine.
Security officials in the state are not unaware of the issue; actually, residents say they are actively aiding and profiting from oil bunkering. The government, at both state and federal levels are also aware of the situation. A few weeks ago, the Governor of Rivers State Nyesom Wike said he set up a technical committee to investigate the soot and they discovered that the Federal Government’s destruction of illegal refineries was behind the soot. He also said it was the Federal Government’s responsibility to stop the soot. While the Federal and state governments play the ‘blame game’, the quality of life in Rivers State is getting worse. Despite people’s tendency to ignore the environment, it is very real and countries around the world are paying more attention to the environment. The effects of climate change as a result of human activities are only going to get worse if environmental policies continue to be ignored and considered less important than economic or security policies. In short, we need to quickly #StoptheSoot.