Black Soot, Unemployment, Environmental Degradation: Is Oil Discovery a Curse to Niger Delta Residents?

With a crude production capacity of 2.5 million barrels a day, Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of oil and the 13th largest oil-producing country on the globe. Oil account for around 65 percent of government revenue.

Over its five decades of oil exploration, it has made tens of billions of dollars from crude oil proceeds. But despite the humongous revenue year in year out, the oil host communities reek of poverty and many other economic and humanitarian issues, including frequent occurrences of black soot, environmental degradation, high rate of unemployment/underemployment, gas flaring, and oil spill from pipelines.

Most of these problems are recurring issues they have suffered for years without any lasting solution. The health and economic effects of these plights have become a serious burden on residents, including the elderly and children.

environmental issues in niger delta

The Menace of Black Soot

Black soot, which is gradually becoming a persistent challenge in many Niger Delta communities, has been linked to the upsurge in adverse respiratory, skin, and reproductive health conditions. A 2019 report showed that black soot-related health disorders were responsible for about 25,000 deaths in the region.

In the past few months, the situation has become even much escalated, and soot pictures gathered from the communities are devastatingly worrisome. Unfortunately, pleas to the state and federal governments have seemingly fallen on deaf ears as residents continuously groan in discomfort and pain.

There has been rising concern among residents in Bayelsa, one of the states in the Niger Delta, over the noticeable black soot across the skyline.

According to a group known as Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV), the development is largely linked to the increase in ‘Kpo-fire,’ an illegal but booming oil bunkering activity in the Niger Delta region. Kpo-fire is a local oil production process of heating the crude oil in a fabricated oven to get petroleum products while its residual is indiscriminately released into the environment, with no regard for its effects on the ecosystem.

Some other factors said to be responsible include the burning of seized stolen crude by security operatives and setting ablaze crude oil sites by some oil contractors in the industry, all in the name of cleanup.

“Presently, as you walk with barefoot in your home, the sole of your foot becomes black, wash your clothes and hang same outside, they are stained with black particles, you wipe your face with a handkerchief, and it becomes black,” a Bayelsa resident, Oyinkuro Jones noted with concern.

A few months ago, towards the end of the rainy season, some residents in the state raised the alarm over what was described as black rain anytime there was a downpour but did not take their worry seriously until the soot started appearing in late November and turned the cloud to a hazy grey. The problem is reportedly more noticeable in the morning time when the thick blanket of black soot covers the landscape.

Immigration Advice Service (IAS) spoke with some residents in Port Harcourt, Rivers, another Niger Delta state, who lamented the health and environmental impacts of the soot.

“The black soot has been a big problem to the environment. In my home, we do not open our doors or windows because the place gets dirty almost immediately after we clean,” Mildred Alerechi, a health style coach, complained. “My nails are also dirty for no reason; the black soot finds its way into my fingernails.”

There has been a wide outcry on the sheer negligence by the government to the residents’ plight. Unfortunately, concerned authorities both from state and federal levels haven’t shown significant willpower to end the menace.

Another resident who spoke with an IAS correspondent said: “To the best of my knowledge, no concrete action has been taken; I’m sure they [the government] are aware of the underlying cause and can tackle the problem if they want to.”

Environmental degradation

The debilitating impacts of oil exploration on the ecosystem have been a great concern for decades. According to a report on the Niger Delta ecosystem, the advent of oil production in the region has also negatively affected the communities due to unprecedented oil spill, which has been happening “for the past five decades, making the region one of the most polluted in the world.” The reckless corruption in the government-established agencies that ought to be responsible for the welfare of the region has further contributed to the persisting ecocide.

An NNPC report back in 1983 noted that the slow poisoning of the waters and the destruction of agricultural land and good water source by oil spills usually occurred during petroleum operations. But since the beginning of the oil industry in Nigeria, there has been no effective and lasting effort made by the government and oil operators to control the environmental crisis associated with the industry.

Even to date, oil firms in the country still play the blame game on who should be responsible for these environmental problems. A Dutch Appeal Court recently found the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) culpable for some farmland and fishpond pollutions in the region.

Despite the court order asking SPDC to compensate the affected farmers, the oil company insisted that the damages were caused by sabotage and the firm should not be held responsible for the financial losses.

It took about a year before Shell began a mediation process with the farmers to settle the case out of court. Until now, the case is still ongoing, and it is left to be seen if both parties will reach a resolution soon.

Unemployment and Other Economic Problems

Economically, most oil-producing areas are poverty-stricken and plagued with a high unemployment rate. They also lack basic amenities such as stable electricity, potable water, hospitals, motorable roads, and a conducive learning environment in their schools.

As the communities suffer all these, paradoxically, local and foreign oil firms and politicians benefit handsomely from oil proceeds. Years of illegal bunkering, pollution from leaking pipelines, and other unwholesome activities have rendered several fishermen and farmers from the region jobless as their livelihood continues to be affected by oil exploration.

“The crude by-products are usually released into the rivers and on farmlands. Take Ogoni as a case study, oil spill has stopped fishing activities in that area, and it’s bad,” said Michael Ndukwu, a University of Port-Harcourt student.

Though unemployment is a nationwide issue in Nigeria, the challenge for Niger Delta residents is peculiar due to certain factors, such as environmental pollution resulting from oil exploration affecting farming, fishing, and other commercial activities in the region.

In a report that explored the root causes of unemployment and poverty rate in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, Dr. E.D Simon, a researcher at the Cross River University of Technology Calabar, reported that the “Oil and mineral extraction in the region promoted the looting tendency by various government in Nigeria and have linked with unusually high poverty rates, poor health care and high rate of mortality. This means that sustainable development can hardly be achieved under this unfavorable and in a secured environment”.

The cost of living is relatively high compared to most other places in the country, which makes salaries and wages of most employed residents insufficient, as they could best be described as underemployed.

While the huge cost of food importation/transportation usually increases feeding expenses among Nigerians, the burden is greater on Niger Delta residents, as they could barely source any food items locally due to the damage on farmlands and waters by oil exploration. They, therefore, depend more on food items imported and transported from other parts of the country. This, in turn, renders them underpaid even when placed on the same salary structure as people from other regions.

Gas Flaring and Oil Spills

The consequences of gas flaring are also one of the burdens that the people of the Niger Delta region have to endure. According to International Photography Magazine, “Nigeria flares more natural gas associated with oil extraction than any country. With an estimation of the 3.5 billion cubic feet (100,000,000 m³) of associated gas produced annually, 2.5 billion cubic feet (70,000,000 m³), or about 70%, is wasted by flaring.

The effects of this gas flaring affect not only the ecological system but also have adverse health effects on residents in those communities. The poisonous chemicals and carcinogenic substances released into the environment affect the respiratory system. They are also said to be one of the major causes of cancer and leukemia in the world.

Oil spill is another related challenge faced by the host communities. A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report shows that 6,817 oil spills were recorded in Nigeria between 1976 and 2001. 69 percent of these spills were said to have occurred offshore, a quarter was in swamps, and 6 percent on land.

Some researchers from the University of Lagos found that certain factors are majorly responsible for the recurring oil spill in Nigeria.: About 50 percent occur due to pipeline or truck accidents, 28 percent are caused by sabotage, 21 percent are caused during oil production operations, and 1 percent occur due to inadequate or nonfunctional production equipment.

The “sabotage” part perfectly describes the situation in the Niger Delta, and it is perpetrated by unemployed youths in the region who have embraced illegal bunkering as a source of livelihood. This worsens environmental pollution in the region and reduces people’s life expectancy.

impact of gas flaring in niger delta

“The poverty rate in those places is high; hence the reason residents are involved in this illegal business. There are barely health facilities and educational facilities, says Alerechi.”

Outdated and faulty pumping equipment is another factor responsible for oil spills in the country. However, despite its associated disastrous effects like the disappearance of mangrove forests and the death of aqua life, no serious move has been made to reconstruct these outdated production facilities.

While other oil-producing nations like UAE and Saudi use their generated revenues to develop their countries, oil discovery and its related activities seem to be a curse to the host communities in Niger Delta.

There is also great concern that if no concerted and urgent action is taken, oil exploration could result in an ecological disaster, which could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe in Nigeria’s oil host communities.

Impacts of Environmental Crisis on Mental Health

Our environment is deteriorating at a rapid pace which is impacting our daily lives in more ways than one. Environmental degradation is associated with many outcomes that may have direct as well as indirect impact on physical health as well as mental health of human beings. In recent years, the deterioration of the environment has emerged as a key contributor to increases cases of psychological ill-health across the world.

Environmental change–triggered extreme weather conditions, loss of natural environments, changing climate patterns, contaminated food, water and air are now acknowledged as major contributors to PTSD, anxiety, aggression, depression and breakdown of relationships.

What is Mental Health?

Mental health encompasses emotional, psychological, behavioral, and social well-being of an individual. It decides how a human being adapts to stress of life and impacts how we think, feel, and act. Mental health also determines how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. If you are stressed by academic worries, make a Google search on ‘do my homework‘ and get online academic assistance.

Environmental deterioration can cause and heighten pressure and uneasiness, thus unfavorably affecting psychological wellness and forcing people to seek help of mental therapists and psychologists. For example, hurricanes or severe droughts can cause depression, anger, and provoke sadistic attitude.

Everybody is in danger, yet not every person is influenced similarly. People who are more prone to mental health impacts of environmental changes include children, elderly and women. Among disadvantaged and marginalized groups, those with close bonding to the land, such as farmers and tribal communities, are more at risk.

How Environmental Degradation is Aggravating Mental Health?

Each aspect of the environment has an interrelated impact on mental health of human being. For example, children are more prone than young people to changes in their environment. The nascent mind is most delicate in the womb while early adolescence is sensitive to toxic physical, chemical and biological exposures. The harmful emissions from the transportation sector and industries coupled with waste generation from domestic and commercial sectors are the major contributors to modern-day pollution problem.

Social components, including poverty, education, employment, income, security, social support and housing are also determinants of mental health that likewise alter or overstate the impacts of exposures to physical factors in the environment. The total impacts of toxic environmental exposures over the existence course can cause physiological interruptions that persevere in future, and lead to deep rooted hindrances of physical or mental well-being.

Children can be exposed to toxins prenatally, and when they inhale poor air, drink contaminated water, breastfeed, ingest food and contact polluted soil and items. The major harmful compounds in the natural and built environments that influence neuro-development and the mental health include Lead, Manganese, Cadmium, Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons and Organochlorine and Organophosphate Pesticides.

People living in rural agricultural areas are more exposed to pesticides. Overwhelming metal contaminants and pesticides have been found to be agents that help develop Hyperactivity Behavior, including Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Noise and traffic-related exposures in the built environment have been related with poor mental health results.

Major acute mental health effects include trauma and shock, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compounded stress, anxiety, substance abuse, and depression. Major chronic mental health effects incorporate higher paces of aggression and violence, mental health emergencies, an exaggerated feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, or fatalism, fear, and loss of emotions. Thus, the prevalent environmental crisis can intensify chronic symptoms and lead to more serious mental health issues in all parts of the world.

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Final Words

The mental health consequences of the environmental crisis transcend countries, income-groups, race, religion and culture. The psychological wellness of the entire humanity has been negatively affected by rapid changes in the natural and built environments during the last 50 years or so. The urgent need of the hour it to address the wide array of environmental issues and their interconnected mental health effects through broader international and multi-sectoral cooperation, political struggle and a mass movement for environmental stability.