How Total E&P pollution is causing hardship for students, women farmers in Rivers Community

By Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi

Total oil pollution has destroyed several farmlands, and the only source of drinking water in Ovelle Oduoaha community, Emohua Local Government Area, Rivers State, which as a result, is causing water scarcity, and hardship for women farmers and schoolchildren.

Fifteen-year-old Ogene Kenneth, a senior secondary student, has missed several classes and tests in his school because every morning, he must walk a long distance in search of water to bathe and wash plates before going to school.

Kenneth said: “I wake up at 6:00 a.m., walk down to Elele community to fetch water, and before I get back home, bathe, and then rush to school; it will be 9:00 a.m. or later. Some classes would have ended.”

For the past five years, Kenneth has continued to fetch water every morning before going to school because oil multinational company, Total E& P polluted their only water source in the community, causing water scarcity in Ovelle Oduoaha community, Emohua Local Government Area, Rivers State.

Kenneth is just one of the numerous children who suffer to get water because their only water source has been polluted. Aside from schoolchildren, another set of people who bear the brunt of this water pollution is women farmers.

These farmers depend on the river to wash and soak their cassava. The situation is mostly trying for the women farmers because aside from using the water to wash their cassava and drink, they also need it for domestic chores.

However, since the pollution, life has become more challenging for them. Like the schoolchildren, these women farmers also have to walk long distances and carry heavy gallons of water to wash their cassava and do other domestic chores.

According to the Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF): “The United States National Research Council (NRC) published a report in 2002 that said globally, approximately 1.3 million tons of oil are released into the sea each year.”

SDWF also stressed that oil pollution could damage biodiversity ecosystems, including plants and animals, and contaminate water for drinking and other purposes.

Recent research published by Paul Kingston revealed that oil contamination might persist in the marine environment for many years after an oil spill and, in exceptional cases such as salt marshes and mangrove swamps, the effects may be measurable for decades after the event.

The Nigerian oil pipeline Act 2004 demands that cleanup and compensation should be paid to affected communities; however, Total E&P has failed to adhere to the law, thereby impoverishing the people of Ovelle Oduoha community.

Data visualiser: Oba Adeoye

It is more than 10 years since the French Company, Total E&P, polluted the river in Rumuekpe in Rivers State, and many communities, including Ovelle Oduaha community, where the company has its facilities, were affected.

In May 2021, stakeholders from the various communities that were affected, in conjunction with civil right group, Integrity Friends for Truth and Peace Initiative, in a Press conference in Port Harcourt demanded that the company pay the sum of N800 billion as compensation for polluting their environment.

Over 600 persons are said to have been killed by Total E&P oil exploration activities that brought illness to the victims. Executive Director of TIFPI, Livingstone Wechie, said since the Press conference in May 2021, the company has not paid any compensation.

“Total E&P did not do anything since after our demands,” the reporter was told on phone.

Farmlands and rivers were affected, and since the pollution, there have been allegations of illness and death as residents most times fall back to the water for drinking, according to a report by activists.

Ovelle-Oduoha community is an agrarian community, and on every working day, it is usually quiet because most people will be on their farms. On August 3, when our reporter visited, only a few elderly men and young boys were sighted.

In some households, both husband and wife are farmers. In other homes, widows are the breadwinners.

These two groups of people, according to the Community Development Chairman of the Ovelle-Oduoha Community, Mr Christopher Obara, survive from the sales of their farm produce.

“They leave early and return late from the farm, and then, prepare to visit the farmland the following day in order to get enough harvest to sell at the general market which comes every eight days,” Obara further stated.

Before Total IE&P polluted the river, women farmers used to take their cassava after harvesting to the Sambriora River, soak it for days, and then, “it ferments and becomes soft and easier to produce cassava paste for [fu-fu or loi-loi] as an alternative to the process of producing garri,” said 59-year-old, Dorcas Sunday, a farmer with six children.

Dorcas Sunday at her hut in Rumuekpe

Dorcas has spent all her life in the community, farming and using the Sambrairo River for drinking, soaking and washing. However, following the pollution, her husband had to dig a well for them to access water. That venture cost her family a tidy sum of money.

Dorcas said with resignation: “The pollution has increased my workload! It takes longer for my children and I to wash our cassava and start the process of making garri. Before the pollution, I usually fetch water from the Sambrairo River for drinking, cooking, washing clothes, and soaking cassava. We usually take the cassava to the river, soak and cover them in the river for days. When it is time, we go to check, and by then, it would have been soft and ready to be dried.”

According to her, women farmers in the community usually pray for rain. The rains, she said, reduce the suffering of the women. The dry season is a nightmare for them.

She lamented: “The well water will dry up, and we will have to walk for hours to get water that will be enough for all of us.”

Most residents in Ovelle community are into farming, and cassava is their major source of production.

The community is among the Rivers State communities producing and supplying cassava flakes (garri) to the urban dwellers in different parts of the state.

However, with the water challenge causing great suffering for the women, production of food crops to meet their former daily target has become difficult, said 23 years old Chioma Minioka.

Like Dorcas, Chioma used to walk miles to fetch drinking water and water for washing her cassava. She sometimes spends a minimum of N100 for sachet water, locally called “pure water” which, ‘is never enough for us,’ she said.

The river pollution by Total E&P affected her secondary school days, as she must wake up as early as 5:00 a.m. to search for water from the local mono pump built by the community elders in some strategic areas in the community to enable residents to have water for use.

“When there was no pollution, it was easy for us to get water from the river for use, but now, we have to use the well water, and when there is dry season”, Ms Minioka recalls, “I suffer to get water from the well, especially during my secondary school days when I would have to walk miles to get water for the family before going to school”.

The Chief of Ovelle community, Sunday Minioka revealed that Total E&P had never cleaned the environment, nor had they compensated the affected communities. He said several letters had been written to the company, including the government, to help residents get water and other basic needs, but there had been no response.

Research by Adesina Temitayo Bello, revealed that Oil pollution distorts aquatic life which not only destroys the source of livelihood of fishers but also causes a shortage of supply of seafood. It destroys the fertile soil, making it difficult for the farmer to farm as a livelihood, and the supply of agricultural produce is reduced due to poor crop yield.”

Chidinma Nduberem. Picture Credit: Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi

Chidinma Nduberem, 27, was surprised to discover that her cassava got spoilt a few hours after she harvested them. Her farmland is among those close to the Sambrairo River, and the river has damaged her farmland.

Nduberem, who lost her husband in 2005 during a crisis in the community, said: “It is very difficult for me to get a cassava root that is good.”

A screenshot of the test result from the water analysis

Scientific analysis of the polluted water

A water sample taken from the Sambroira River for testing at the Plant Anatomy and Physiology Research Laboratory of the University of Port Harcourt revealed that the Sulphate (SO4 (mg/l) of the water has a level of 3.84 against the normal level of sulphate that ranges 250mg/l, while the Ammonia NH3 is 0.002 and Nitrate is 0052.

The only safe ammonia and nitrate is zero, according to Aqueon, an organisation that helps aquatic life.

Turbidity (NTU) is 10.88. Good environmental water should have a turbidity of 10NTU.

Others are, Chloride (Cl) of 10.0, while normal level is between 45-155mg/l for river water.

Total hydrocarbon is 1.50, and phosphate is 0.03. Any phosphate level that exceeds 0.01mg/l is considered to be high said Lehigh Environment Initiative.

Conductivity is 16.0, and conductivity should be between 200 to 1000 µS/cm and outside this is not suitable for certain fish species.

The total dissolved solid is 8.0, and an average of total dissolved is said to be 118mg l-1 for river water and 34 400 mg l -1 for seawater

Head of the University of Port Harcourt plant anatomy and research anatomy, Onwuegbu Japhet, said the substances found from the test result are within the normal level of the WHO standard, considering the water is a river and flowing water.

However, the water pH from the test shows 5.80, which is below the WHO standard for drinking water, it should not be between 6.5 and 9-5.

Extremes in pH are reported to make a river inhospitable to life, while Low pH is especially harmful to immature fish and insects. Acidic water also speeds the leaching of heavy metals harmful to fish.

Dr. Doyin Odubanjo, a public health physician, said that water contaminated with petrol chemical is being taken by humans. Several studies have revealed that ingesting petrol chemical substance can lead to the development of cancer, renal problems, death, and others.

“Hydrocarbons are not meant to be ingested,” he said.

Odubanjo added: “In fact, using such polluted water in the house may be inflammable if there is a fire in the kitchen. What you are seeing is that the water is not potable water, and normal marine life under the water, including fish, disappears when there is oil pollution. What affects the animals sometimes happens to us-humans-and if we pay attention to the environment, we will see that environment is also dangerous to human life.”

When asked about the impact of such pollution on cooked cassava when consumed by humans, Odubanjo stated that “We cannot say the polluted cassava when cooked and eaten can affect human except a scientific analysis is done after the cassava has been cooked, then we can confirm if eaten can affect human.”

Statistics of oil spills in Nigeria

Data from the National Oil Spill Detection Agency (NOSDRA), an agency in charge of oil spills and regulations, recorded a total number of 4,919 oil spills in Nigeria between March 2015 and March 2021.

The agency collects its data from reported oil spills by companies, after which the company representatives, the community, and the government agency would visit the polluted site as a “joint team” for investigation.

2021 Statistics of Nigeria of oil spill. Source: NOSDRA Data visualiser:Elfredah Kevin_Alerechi

NOSDRA, on its website, stated that several hundreds of oil spills are recorded yearly.

In 2021, it stated that over three million litres of oil were spilt, and around 382 publicly oil spills were recorded, while 33 of the oil spill sites were not visited by the agency’s joint investigation team.

Over 2500 barrels were spilt on land, swamp, shoreline, and open sea said NOSDRA.

Total E&P oil spill from Jan. 2014-July 2022. Source: NOSDRA
Data Visualiser: Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi

NOSDRA said its published data does not include the most recent oil spills.

Summarising the oil spill data between 2014 and 2022, Total E&P has polluted 31.15 barrels of oil spills with nine incidents, according to data from NOSDRA.

However, NOSDRA said it does not record spills before 2006 and spills that are under review.

Most oil spills are not reported to the agency, making it difficult to ascertain the statistics of oil spills.

Activist View

Human Right lawyer, Courage Nsirimovu, Execute Director Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law(HRHL), pinpointed that the community has the right to clean the environment, which the United Nations have declared that a clean environment is a human right.

Nsirimovu complained that oil spills can and have destroyed the environment, including biodiversity, so the affected community should report spills to NOSDRA.

NOSDRA has been accused several times of depending on polluters before it can carry out its primary assignment.

Nsirimovu said that NOSDRA was ineffective as it should be, considering the agency depends on reports from the oil companies.

“How can NOSDRA be independent if it depends on the polluters to fly its teams to the polluted site?” Nsirimovu queried.

“Even during the Ogoni cleanup, you hear community members crying that the sites NOSDRA have cleaned still bring out oil.”

Nsirimovu urged the Federal Government of Nigeria to provide adequate resources to make NOSDRA independent.

Charles Eberewon, spokesperson for Total E&P in Nigeria declined comments on the issue but stated in an SMS: “I can confirm we have a cordial relationship with our host communities.”

NOSDRA, however, is yet to respond to emails sent to it to state its side of the story on the allegations of being efficient because they depend on polluters for funding.