Oil pollution and environmental degradation are major issues in Nigeria's oil industry - and were the subject of a forum held this weekend by the National Assembly. The goal was to find long-term solutions to the problem. Local communities in the oil-rich Niger Delta region have consistently accused the government and oil companies of colluding to plunder their oil resources and impoverishing them through unmitigated pollution and environmental degradation. The two-day session closely examined the nature of oil pollution and environmental degradation in the oil-rich Niger Delta region.

Gamaliel Onosode is a leading financial and public affairs analyst who's also known for his extensive research on environmental problems in the Niger Delta. He listed the problems caused by the crisis. "The problem is serious in more than one way. First, pollution has affected the ecosystem generally. You can see the forest and mangrove swamps, those areas have been wiped out. Two, it has affected water quality. My home is a good example. You sink a bore-hole and you readily see evidence of seepage into the water supply. Thirdly, it has affected air quality." Local communities in the Niger Delta have often attacked the equipment, facilities and personnel of multi-national oil companies operating in the region. It is estimated that the attacks cost oil companies more than $1 billion a year. The government recently set up the Niger Delta Development Commission - NDDC - with a mandate to transform the Delta region by providing economic opportunities - and amenities such as education, health care facilities.

The chief executive of the NDDC, Goldwin Omene, says the commission can find a way to end years of pollution and degradation. "We are empowered to supervise and see that no further degradation takes place in all the various areas, not only oil companies but natural causes of ecological damages, coastal erosion, gullies and all the other types that create terrible things to everybody. And we are geared up towards addressing that issue as soon as possible." Many environmentalists and residents of the Niger Delta region believe the Nigerian government has actively colluded with oil companies for financial gain - thus creating the environmental crisis. Mr. Onosode says they cooperated in the effort to exploit the huge oil resources at any cost. "The oil industry was there before independence and there is a sense in which there are activities and extension of the impact of colonialism for the better or the worse. Secondly, the government itself is a key financial and economic player, and it takes a lot of experience and commitment for you to sit heavily on an activity in which you are the primary share holder."

Observers say the acrimony between oil companies and the local communities is well entrenched - and that this is the most serious problem facing Nigeria's multi-billion-dollar oil industry. Mr. Onosode says nothing short of a comprehensive and inclusive settlement will help. "I think all the stakeholders have contributed to the problem on the ground. And not surprisingly, all of them need to cooperate and make their respective contributions towards the solution. And this is why a major plank of the solution to the problem is a more effective, constructive, open, conscious interaction between the government on one hand, the operators on the other and the communities."

Environmental analysts say Nigeria flares more natural gas than any other country in the world, contributing immensely to global warming. Oil spills are almost a daily occurrence, with Shell oil-company accounting for more than 200,000 barrels in the last five years alone.

But by the end of the forum, participants were hopeful that the national assembly might soon pass a new law requiring oil companies in Nigeria to abide by world environmental standards. The government has already set a deadline of 2008 for the end of gas flaring during oil production.