Nigeria plans a massive cleanup in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, where some residents complain that years of poorly regulated petroleum production have taken a toll on vegetation, water quality, farmland and fishing communities.
Alhaji Ibrahim Usman Jibril, minister of state for environment, said President Muhammadu Buhari is committed to resolving the country’s environmental challenges while creating jobs and ensuring sustainable development.
As evidence of that commitment, Jibril noted Buhari created two cabinet positions for the sector. Amina Mohammed is the minister for the environment.
The environment ministry has started a sensitization program in Rivers and Bayelsa states, after meeting with governors and community members. Residents said oil spills have devastated vegetation, polluted water and destroyed their livelihoods.
“This pollution has been going for more than 40 years,” Jibril said, predicting the new program “will go on probably for the next 20 years. He said the government would strengthen the regulatory agency charged with controlling oil spills.
Communities in the southern part of Nigeria face environmental challenges including coastal degradation; climate change, which has led to a sea-level rise; and the destruction of mangroves through coastal erosion.
Cleanup and penalties
A 2007 U.N. environment report strongly recommended cleaning up the entire Niger Delta region and its oil-polluted Ogoniland. The report also urged that polluters pay for damages.
Shell Oil Co., a division of Royal Dutch Shell, admitted blame for oil spills in Ogoniland. But it vowed to withhold money from a restoration fund set up last year by Buhari until the Nigerian government put in place structures that “are robust and will be overseen correctly,” a Shell spokesman last year told The Guardian news organization.
Jibril said the government encouraged the community to back efforts to clean up the polluted areas.
“This is a multibillion-dollar project. The damage done to the environment is enormous. Livelihoods are lost, farmlands are lost, the fishing communities have lost the means of their livelihoods, the creeks are contaminated, and there [is] no good drinking water,” Jibril said. “These are challenges that the ministry of environment has to face in one part of the country.”
“What we are concerned about now is that the companies will have to pay, and there is money kept aside for that as recommended by the U.N. report,” Jibril said, noting the report “is seen as gospel in the Niger Delta.”
He said cleanup efforts would begin in Ogoniland and then move “to other parts of the Niger Delta that are equally or more seriously polluted.”
Jibril said regulatory enforcement is at least as important as the cleanup. “Once the cleaning is started, it has to stay clean,” he said, noting the government would hold companies “responsible and ensure that they pay for the cleaning.”
Environmental activists have criticized successive Nigerian governments for consorting with oil companies, which they accuse of polluting water and farmland as well as devastating communities in areas of heavy oil production.
Oil companies have not been held accountable, activists say, with government officials failing to impose fines for environmental damage.