Civil society groups in the Niger Delta region have warned that the government is destroying communities’ health and Nigeria’s environment by flouting laws against gas flaring, a technique used in oil production.
For decades gas flaring has been used to separate crude oil from the associated gases that are extracted with it, but Nigeria flares more gas today than any nation in the world after Russia, even though it is only the world’s eighth largest oil producer.
In most other countries the excess gas has been harnessed to generate power, but about 50 communities in the oil producing Niger Delta region have had to put up with gas flares burning continuously for decades.
Bari-ara Kpalap from the Nigerian non-governmental organisation (NGO) Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, which is based in the Delta and represents a large ethnic group there, said oil and gas flaring had caused devastating pollution for the region’s farming communities.
“The pollution is making agricultural harvests very poor,” he told IRIN. “That in turn has affected the well-being of these communities. Many families are not able to provide for themselves.”
Corroded roofs, contaminated soil
Communities say gas flares contribute to acid rain. “Even the roofs of the homes are corroded,” Isaac Osuoka of the NGO Social Action in the Delta’s capital, Port Harcourt, told IRIN. “Iron sheeting is the most common form of roofing in rural areas, and in a year or two, it is completely destroyed because of corrosion.”
A recent study by Nigeria’s Abia State University published in the African Journal of Biotechnology, indicates that soil near flare sites is significantly more acidic than uncontaminated soil. Soil bacteria, vital for agriculture, is also greatly reduced in proximity to flares.
There have been no comprehensive studies on the impact of gas flaring on community health, but residents complain of respiratory infections, skin rashes, and eye conditions as a result of the fumes from the flares.
“Most of these communities say they are unhealthy,” says Anyakwee Nsirimovu, executive director of the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, also in Port Harcourt. “People still die as a result of this flaring. It affects every aspect of life.”
Phase-out deadlines come and go
Nigeria’s government passed a law banning gas flaring in 1979, but allowed the Ministry of Petroleum to grant exceptions. Today, most operators are still relying on those exceptions, rights groups say.
An agreement between oil companies and the Nigerian government had promised to end all gas flaring by 2008, but human rights groups from the Delta say neither side looks set to meet the deadline because the state oil company, which has a 50 percent stake in the nation’s oil operations, has failed to provide its share of the funding to stop flaring.
The 2008 deadline was an agreement between oil companies and the government after earlier deadlines in 2003 and 2004 failed to be met.
“The gas flare-out target or deadlines have not been backed by any legislation, so they are more or less voluntary targets that the government and the oil companies agreed to and which they violate at will,” Isaac Osuoka, director of Social Action, said.
The Nigerian government has indicated it might impose tough penalties on companies that fail to end flaring by the deadline, though the state oil company would not be punished. Most assume that the deadline will be pushed back to 2010 or later, as oil companies have requested.
“At the level of civil society we are all very disappointed with the way government has gone about the deadline,” Anyakwee Nsirimovu, executive director of the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Port Harcourt, told IRIN.
“[Gas flaring] is compounding the problems in the region and is going to continue to compound them unless something is done to stop it,” Nsirimovu said.
On 10 December, hundreds of ethnic Ogoni, led by members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, protested against gas flaring and other environmental degradation at the Shell headquarters in Port Harcourt.