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Bassey: Foundation For Implementation Must Be Backed By Law

OIL-SPILL• The Ogoni hold their breathe as they await the commencement of the clean-up of their land that was ordered by President Buhari 

An architect, environmentalist, author and poet, Nnimmo Bassey is the Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF). In this interview with ALEMMA-OZIORUVA ALIU, he spoke on the UNEP report implementation and how the exercise will help improve living standard in Niger Delta. 

How do you feel about the decision of government to implement the UNEP report as regards cleaning up Ogoniland? The UNEP report was formally submitted to the Federal Government on 4 August 2011.

The findings were alarming, although they mostly just validated the complaints of the Ogoni people and watchers of the heavily degraded Niger Delta environment.

There have been attempts at assessing the Niger Delta environment, but the UNEP report is the first concluded official audit of the environment of any part of the Niger Delta.

The all-embracing effort commissioned by Shell, the Niger Delta Environmental Survey (NDES) was carried out between 1995 and 2004, but the reports remain locked up in the filing cabinets of Shell and is not formally available to the public.

The UNEP report made recommendations for emergency action, short-term actions, medium terms actions and long term ones. It is all put in a way that underscored the depth of the problem and also shows that implementation is both urgent and feasible and ought not to be ignored.

It was one full year after the submission of the UNEP report, whose production was also paid for by Shell on the Polluters Pay Principle, before government makes a concrete response towards its implementation.

That response was the setting up of the Hydrocarbons Pollution Restoration Project otherwise known as HYPREP. We have said before that the defective title given the project may also have an underlying defective formulation of the entire scheme.

Nobody asks for pollution to be restored, the thing that needs to be done, and which we believe is the intention of government, is to have the pollution remediated.

The cleanup will bring back life; It will bring back livelihoods. It will bring back crops and aquatic resources that support life. Songs and laughter will break out once more in the creeks, in place of the funeral dirges for young folks that pervade the communities every weekend

So HYPREP could be renamed and reformulated as a Hydrocarbons Pollution Remediation Project. Some people insist that the name is not the problem, but we cannot deny the fact that the naming of a thing suggests our understanding or perception of that thing.

Having said that, the move by President Buhari shows that beyond setting up the HYPREP, real action must be taken to clean up the environment.

The former HYPREP’s major achievement was the posting of danger signs in the communities. These are commendable, but they cannot stand alone as indicators of progress.

If people must keep off contaminated lands and water, there must be concrete alternatives. The provision of alternative drinking water is a major need. Nigerians cannot be allowed to drink water that is loaded with carcinogens, water that is visibly polluted and deadly. But that is still the lot of the Ogoni people. That is still the lot of peoples in other parts of the Niger Delta.

Now that President Buhari has announced the basic structures of the implementation structures, we hope it will not be long before the structures are populated and the strategy for the cleanup process is unveiled.

Time is running and we cannot afford another waiting game. What is the logistics of the clean up in terms of technology and the cost? The President has taken the first step; what has been done is actually simply taking forward what the former administration was, very sadly, lethargic about.

The UNEP report gave us a sense of the cost of the clean up in terms of time and financial implication. We should also say here that that UNEP had recommended the setting up of an Ogoni Environmental Restoration Authority to oversee the clean-up process.

There was also a recommendation for setting up an Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre as a place for training locals in the business of environmental remediation.

An “Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority,” a government body to oversee the implementation of the report; “an Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre,” as a major industrial enterprise in Ogoniland that would employ hundreds of people, and a “Centre of Excellence for Environmental Restoration” to train the stakeholders in environmental monitoring and restoration; and “an Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland with an initial capital injection of USD 1 billion contributed by the oil industry and the government.

These are concepts that ought to have been taken forward and up-scaled to encompass the entire Niger Delta and ultimately the nation. It is a concept that suggests a comprehensive approach to the exercise.

They also suggested the setting up of clean up institutions – for training of personnel to ensure that the exercise is sustained in the face of continued polluting activities of the petroleum sector in the region.

In terms of financial cost, UNEP recommended a one billion US Dollars as a start up fund to be contributed by the polluters. The key polluter of Ogoniland is Shell; do not forget that Shell is in joint venture with the NNPC. We should not also forget that the NNPC runs a highly polluting refinery in the area and has contributed some of the most atrocious environmental damage in the area.

When UNEP report stated that ground water has been found in some areas to have 8cm layer of refined petroleum product, the report was fingering NNPC.

The actual costs of remediating the Ogoni environment will only be known by further cost analysis; I cannot speculate on this. But it will run into billions of US Dollars, definitely.

The cost should not deter the work. Life is more expensive than cash or crude oil and we cannot afford to keep a death sentence hanging over our peoples.

There are various technologies and means of tackling hydrocarbon pollutions and we should expect the drivers of the project to choose the most environmentally benign solutions.

The side effects and implications of any selected technology or means or cleanup should be transparently transmitted to the public. Indeed, the selection process should include obtaining the consent of the people.

Who is going to fund the clean up and what is the duration? All players in the Joint Venture operating in this area must place the needed cash into a designated finical pot.

The government has presented the sum of 10 million US Dollars; this is a very slim fraction of what is needed to commence the work. However, Shell needs to step up now and place its own part of the can into the pot.

We recall that the company had announced a year ago that they have already set their contribution aside for the purpose and that they were merely waiting to know where to put the money.

Now that the picture is getting clearer, it is important that a transparent mechanism is set up for the financial and overall management of the project. My recommendation would be that the UNEP should play a key consulting role, in terms of oversight on who manages the funds and on what the funds are expended.

This should include ensuring that quality materials and technologies are utilized and that best-qualified companies in the field do this.    From the UNEP report, the cleanup of Ogoniland will take at least 30 years. The land will be cleaned over a period of about five years and then the water bodies will take another 25 years to clean up.

This suggests that at the best the clean up exercise will span a number of administrations in the country. At best, President Buhari will have eight years on the presidential seat, which will still leave a further 22 years for the job to be done.

With this scenario, it is extremely important that the foundation for the work is set accurately and backed by law. The cleanup should have clear provisions in the budget to ensure continuity.

The process must be continuous and should not suffer delays in its execution, otherwise gains would be lost along the line and the project life span could extend beyond the estimated period.  What role would the locals play and what kind of jobs are available for the boys? This is a very interesting question; the cleanup of Ogoniland cannot and must not be seen as an avenue for jobs for the boys.

It is an exercise that is meant to save lives and the boys should only step into the line if they have the requisite skills and capabilities for the cleanup.

This is a fight against ecocide.     Job for the boys has been the bane of cleanup exercises in cases of attempts to cleanup particular oil spills elsewhere in the Niger Delta. The insistence by local communities that their sons must handle cleanup contracts has had very unsavoury results. Communities are unable to insist on the highest level of cleanup when the contract is handled by one of their own.

And there have been cases where the crude oil has been set on fire after minor recovery of some of the crude, thus compounding the pollution problem. Where the local folks have the capacities for the highest-level delivery of needed tasks, they should have the first consideration.

I think this is why UNEP also suggested the setting up of a Centre of Excellence for Environmental Restoration, where locals would be trained to have skills to provide necessary service not only in Ogoniland, but also in the wider Niger Delta, and perhaps in Lagos when oil extraction begins there. The petroleum sector and environmental pollution are inseparable twins.

What are the envisaged results and the relief for the people such as farmers and fishermen?  Right now the Ogoni people are having a hard time living in their land and carrying out their livelihood activities.

With lands polluted to a depth of five metres at places, agriculture has become a toxic endeavour. I have seen young men fishing in visibly polluted water; I have seen women processing cassava in oil-coated water. It simply breaks your heart to see that Nigerians are forced to live in such circumstances.

The cleanup will bring back life; It will bring back livelihoods. It will bring back crops and aquatic resources that support life. Songs and laughter will break out once more in the creeks, in place of the funeral dirges for young folks that pervade the communities every weekend.

The UNEP report did not mention Goi, a community not far off Bodo, but which has been totally deserted following an oil spill and fire that occurred in 2004.

This is one community totally sacked by oil pollution. Everyone from Goi is now an environmental refugee. Cleaning up Goi waters and soils will bring back life to that community.

The necessity of handling this cleanup with every amount of seriousness is accentuated by the fact that other parts of the Niger Delta where oil exploitation is ongoing are also crying for environmental auditing.

The people of Egiland, also in Rivers State, have issued an appeal calling on the President to commission UNEP to also carry out an environmental assessment of their area.

They complain that their territory has become hellish due to environmental devastation caused by the activities of Total. This project was actually started by President Goodluck Jonathan, what do you think delayed the process? \This is a question that even President Jonathan may find difficult to answer. HYPREP was set up, for whatever it was worth. Persons were given the assignment of getting the job done.

Nnimmo-Bassey

Nnimmo-Bassey

Personnel were hired, and we hear they are being owed a sizable backlog of salaries. The key polluter, Shell, paid for the assessment to be undertaken and even announced that they were ready with their cash for the job to be done.

There was something inherently defective in that set up and I think this was the albatross that kept the process bogged down. President Buhari plucked the low-hanging fruit that President Jonathan did not look at despite the cries of the people.

What other opinion do you have about the project? Now is the time to honour all those who lost their lives in the course of the struggle for the cleanup of Ogoniland.

It is a time for the HYPREP or whatever it is called, to ensure that they consult the Ogoni people in the preparation of the programme as well as the content of work to be carried out. Clear targets and milestones must be set and the public should be kept informed of the steps taken.

To ensure that the project is successful, all stakeholders must be ready to play their part. There must be no third party interference with existing pipelines in the region, otherwise, the pollution will persist no matter the actions taken to clean it.

Another important point is that the oil fields should not be reopened until the cleanup exercise is completed, post impact assessments are conducted and systems are set in place to stem off future reoccurrence.

The cleanup process will require in-depth documentation and researchers should track the work at every step. Ogoni has been a perfect example of a polluted environment. It must now become a beacon of hope that environmental impunity can be halted and reversed.



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