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The delta covers 20,000 km² within wetlands of 70,000 km² formed primarily by sediment deposition. Home to 20 million people and 40 different ethnic groups, this floodplain makes up 7.5% of Nigeria's total land mass. It is the largest wetland and maintains the third-largest drainage basin in Africa. The Delta's environment can be broken down into four ecological zones: coastal barrier islands, mangrove swamp forests, freshwater swamps, and lowland rainforests. This incredibly well-endowed ecosystem contains one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet, in addition to supporting abundant flora and fauna, arable terrain that can sustain a wide variety of crops, lumber or agricultural trees, and more species of freshwater fish than any ecosystem in West Africa. The region could experience a loss of 40% of its inhabitable terrain in the next thirty years as a result of extensive dam construction in the region. The carelessness of the oil industry has also precipitated this situation, which can perhaps be best encapsulated by a 1983 report issued by the NNPC, long before popular unrest surfaced:
The Department of Petroleum Resources estimated 1.89 million barrels of petroleum were spilled into the Niger Delta between 1976 and 1996 out of a total of 2.4 million barrels spilled in 4,835 incidents. (approximately 220 thousand cubic metres). A UNDP report states that there have been a total of 6,817 oil spills between 1976 and 2001, which account for a loss of three million barrels of oil, of which more than 70% was not recovered. Most of these spills occurred off-shore (69%), a quarter was in swamps and 6% spilled on land. Some spills are caused by sabotage and thieves, however most are due to poor maintenance by oil companies (Shell).
The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation places the quantity of petroleum jettisoned into the environment yearly at 2,300 cubic metres with an average of 300 individual spills annually. However, because this amount does not take into account "minor" spills, the World Bank argues that the true quantity of petroleum spilled into the environment could be as much as ten times the officially claimed amount. The largest individual spills include the blowout of a Texaco offshore station which in 1980 dumped an estimated 400,000 barrels (64,000 m3) of crude oil into the Gulf of Guinea and Royal Dutch Shell's Forcados Terminal tank failure which produced a spillage estimated at 580,000 barrels (92,000 m3). In 2010 Baird reported that between 9 million and 13 million barrels have been spilled in the Niger Delta since 1958. One source even calculates that the total amount of petroleum in barrels spilled between 1960 and 1997 is upwards of 100 million barrels (16,000,000 m3).
Oil spills are a common event in Nigeria and occur due to a number of causes, including: corrosion of pipelines and tankers (accounting for 50% of all spills), sabotage (28%), and oil production operations (21%), with 1% of the spills being accounted for by inadequate or non-functional production equipment. The largest contributor to the oil spill total, corrosion of pipes and tanks, is the rupturing or leaking of production infrastructures that are described as, "very old and lack regular inspection and maintenance". A reason that corrosion accounts for such a high percentage of all spills is that as a result of the small size of the oilfields in the Niger Delta, there is an extensive network of pipelines between the fields, as well as numerous small networks of flowlines—the narrow diameter pipes that carry oil from wellheads to flowstations—allowing many opportunities for leaks. In onshore areas most pipelines and flowlines are laid above ground. Pipelines, which have an estimate life span of about fifteen years, are old and susceptible to corrosion. Many of the pipelines are as old as twenty to twenty-five years. Even Shell admits that "most of the facilities were constructed between the 1960s and early 1980s to the then prevailing standards. SPDC [Shell Petroleum and Development Company] would not build them that way today.” Sabotage is performed primarily through what is known as "bunkering", whereby the saboteur attempts to tap the pipeline. In the process of extraction sometimes the pipeline is damaged or destroyed. Oil extracted in this manner can often be sold.
Sabotage and theft through oil siphoning has become a major issue in the Niger River Delta states as well, contributing to further environmental degradation. Damaged lines may go unnoticed for days, and repair of the damaged pipes takes even longer. Oil siphoning has become a big business, with the stolen oil quickly making its way onto the black market.
While the popularity of selling stolen oil increases, the number of deaths are increasing. In late December 2006 more than 200 people were killed in the Lagos region of Nigeria in an oil line explosion.
Nigerian regulations of the oil industry are weak and rarely enforced allowing, in essence, the industry to self-regulate.
Oil spillage has a major impact on the ecosystem into which it is released and may constitute ecocide. Immense tracts of the mangrove forests, which are especially susceptible to oil (mainly because it is stored in the soil and re-released annually during inundations), have been destroyed. An estimated 5 to 10% of Nigerian mangrove ecosystems have been wiped out either by settlement[clarification needed] or oil. The rainforest which previously occupied some 7,400 km² of land has disappeared as well.
Spills in populated areas often spread out over a wide area, destroying crops and aquacultures through contamination of the groundwater and soils. The consumption of dissolved oxygen by bacteria feeding on the spilled hydrocarbons also contributes to the death of fish. In agricultural communities, often a year's supply of food can be destroyed instantaneously. Because of the careless nature of oil operations in the Delta, the environment is growing increasingly uninhabitable.
People in the affected areas complain about health issues including breathing problems and skin lesions; many have lost basic human rights such as health, access to food, clean water, and an ability to work.
Vegetation in the Niger River Delta consists of extensive mangrove forests, brackish swamp forests, and rainforests. The large expanses of mangrove forests are estimated to cover approximately 5,000 to 8,580 km² of land. Mangroves remain very important to the indigenous people of Nigeria as well as to the various organisms that inhabit these ecosystems.
Human impact from poor land management upstream coupled with the constant pollution of petroleum has caused five to ten percent of these mangrove forests to disappear. The volatile, quickly penetrating, and viscous properties of petroleum have wiped out large areas of vegetation. When spills occur close to and within the drainage basin, the hydrologic force of both the river and tides force spilled petroleum to move up into areas of vegetation.
Mangrove forests are included in a highly complex trophic system. If oil directly affects any organism within an ecosystem, it can indirectly affect a host of other organisms. These floral communities rely on nutrient cycling, clean water, sunlight, and proper substrates. With ideal conditions they offer habitat structure, and input of energy via photosynthesis to the organisms they interact with. The effects of petroleum spills on mangroves are known to acidify the soils, halt cellular respiration, and starve roots of vital oxygen.
An area of mangroves that has been destroyed by petroleum may be susceptible to other problems. These areas may not be suitable for any native plant growth until bacteria and microorganisms can remediate the conditions. A particular species of mangrove, Rhizophora racemosa lives higher in the delta system. As the soils supporting R. racemosa become too toxic, a non-native invasive species of palm, Nypa fruticans, quickly colonizes the area. This invasive species has a shallower root system that destabilizes the banks along the waterways, further impacting sediment distribution lower in the delta system. N. fruticans also impedes navigation and decreases overall biodiversity. In places where N. fruticans has invaded, communities are investigating how the palm can be used by local people.
The loss of mangrove forests is not only degrading life for plants and animals, but for humans as well. These systems are highly valued by the indigenous people living in the affected areas. Mangrove forests have been a major source of wood for local people. They also are important to a variety of species vital to subsistence practices for local indigenous groups, who unfortunately see little to none of the economic benefits of petroleum. Mangroves also provide essential habitat for rare and endangered species like the manatee and pygmy hippopotamus. Poor policy decisions regarding the allocation of petroleum revenue has caused political unrest in Nigeria. This clash among governing bodies, oil corporations, and the people of Nigeria has resulted in sabotage to petroleum pipelines, further exacerbating the threat to mangrove forests.
The future for mangrove forests and other floral communities is not all negative. Local and outside groups have provided funds and labor to remediate and restore the destroyed mangrove swamps. The federal government of Nigeria established the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) in 2000 which aims to suppress the environmental and ecological impacts petroleum has had in the region. Governmental and nongovernmental organizations have also utilized technology to identify the source and movement of petroleum spills.
The fishing industry is an essential part of Nigeria’s sustainability because it provides much needed protein and nutrients for people, but with the higher demand on fishing, fish populations are declining as they are being depleted faster than they are able to restore their number. Fishing needs to be limited along the Niger River and aquacultures should be created to provide for the growing demand on the fishing industry. Aquaculture allows for fish to be farmed for production and provide more jobs for the local people of Nigeria.
Overfishing is not the only impact on marine communities. Climate change, habitat loss, and pollution are all added pressures to these important ecosystems. The banks of the Niger River are desirable and ideal locations for people to settle. The river provides water for drinking, bathing, cleaning, and fishing for both the dinner table and trading to make a profit. As the people have settled along the shores of the rivers and coasts, marine and terrestrial habitats are being lost and ecosystems are being drastically changed. The shoreline along the Niger River is important in maintaining the temperature of the water because the slightest change in water temperature can be fatal to certain marine species. Trees and shrubs provide shade and habitat for marine species, while reducing fluctuation in water temperature.
The Niger River is an important ecosystem that needs to be protected, for it is home to 36 families and nearly 250 species of fish, of which 20 are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. With the loss of habitat and the climate getting warmer, every prevention of temperature increase is necessary to maintain some of the marine environments. Other than restoring habitat, pollution can also be reduced. Problems such as pesticides from agricultural fields could be reduced if a natural pesticide was used, or the fields were moved farther away from the local waterways. Oil pollution can be lowered as well; if spills were reduced then habitat and environmental impacts could be minimized. Oil contamination affects the fish population and affects the farmers that rely on fishing to support their family. By enforcing laws and holding oil companies accountable for their actions the risk of contamination can be greatly reduced. By limiting the devastation caused by disturbances to the marine environment, such as pollution, overfishing, and habitat loss, the productivity and biodiversity of the marine ecosystems would increase.
Water hyacinth is an invasive species that was introduced into Africa as an ornamental plant, and which thrives in polluted environments. Water hyacinth has the capability to completely clog the waterways in which it grows, making it nearly impossible to navigate fishing boats. In recent years it has found its way into the Niger River, choking out both sunlight and oxygen to the marine organisms that live there. When a species such as water hyacinth makes its way into the ecosystem, it competes with native plants for sunlight, diminishing energy resources within the marine environment. With the loss of energy some populations will not be able to survive, or their numbers may drop beyond a point of no return, creating a threatened environment. Added to the loss of energy, water hyacinth also takes up and depletes the water of oxygen which is essential to the livelihood of all marine organisms.
Nigeria flares more natural gas associated with oil extraction than any other country, with estimates suggesting that of the 3.5 billion cubic feet (100,000,000 m³) of associated gas (AG) produced annually, 2.5 billion cubic feet (70,000,000 m³), or about 70% is wasted via flaring. This equals about 25% of the UK's total natural gas consumption, and is the equivalent to 40% of the entire African continent's gas consumption in 2001. Statistical data associated with gas flaring are notoriously unreliable, but Nigeria may waste US $ 2. billion per year by flaring associated gas. Flaring is done as it is costly to separate commercially viable associated gas from the oil. Companies operating in Nigeria also harvest natural gas for commercial purposes, but prefer to extract it from deposits where it is found in isolation as non-associated gas. Thus associated gas is burned off to decrease costs.
Gas flaring is generally discouraged as it releases toxic components into the atmospshere and contributes to climate change. In western Europe 99% of associated gas is used or re-injected into the ground. Gas flaring in Nigeria began simultaneously with oil extraction in the 1960s by Shell-BP. Alternatives to flaring are gas re-injection, or to store it for use as an energy source. If properly stored, the gas could also be utilized for community projects.
Gas flaring releases of large amounts of methane, which has a high global warming potential. The methane is accompanied by the other major greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, of which Nigeria was estimated to have emitted more than 34.38 million metric tons of in 2002, accounting for about 50% of all industrial emissions in the country and 30% of the total CO2 emissions. While flaring in the west has been minimized, in Nigeria it has grown proportionally with oil production.
The international community, the Nigerian government, and the oil corporations seem in agreement that gas flaring needs to be curtailed. Efforts to do so, however, have been limited although flaring has been declared illegal since 1984 under section 3 of the "Associated Gas Reinjection Act" of Nigeria.
While OPEC and Shell, the biggest flarer of natural gas in Nigeria, alike claim that only 50% of all associated gas is burnt off via flaring at present, these data are contested. The World Bank reported in 2004 that, "Nigeria currently flares 75% of the gas it produces.".
Gas flares have potentially harmful effects on the health and livelihood of the communities in their vicinity, as they release a variety of poisonous chemicals including nitrogen dioxides, sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds like benzene, toluene, xylene and hydrogen sulfide, as well as carcinogens like benzapyrene and dioxins. Humans exposed to such substances can suffer from a variety of respiratory problems. These chemicals can aggravate asthma, cause breathing difficulties and pain, as well as chronic bronchitis. Benzene known to be emitted from gas flares in undocumented quantities, is well recognized as a cause for leukemia and other blood-related diseases. A study done by Climate Justice estimates that exposure to benzene would result in eight new cases of cancer yearly in Bayelsa State alone.
Gas flares are often located close to local communities, and regularly lack adequate fencing or protection for villagers who may risk working near heat of the flare. Many of these communities claim that nearby flares cause acid rain which corrodes their homes and other local structures, many of which have zinc-based roofing. Some people resort to the use of asbestos-based material, which is stronger in repelling acid rain deterioration. Unfortunately, this only contributes to their own declining health and the health of their environment. Asbestos exposure increases the risk of forming lung cancer, pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma, and asbestosis.
Whether or not flares contribute to acid rain is debatable, as some independent studies conducted have found that the sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide content of most flares was insufficient to establish a link between flaring and acid rain. Other studies from U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) report that gas flaring is "a major contributor to air pollution and acid rain".
Older flares are rarely relocated away from villages, and are known to coat the land and communities in the area with soot and to damage adjacent vegetation. Almost no vegetation can grow in the area directly surrounding the flare due to the prevailing heat.
In November 2005 a judgement by the Federal High Court of Nigeria ordered that gas flaring must stop in a Niger Delta community as it violates guaranteed constitutional rights to life and dignity. In a case brought against the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (Shell), Justice C. V. Nwokorie ruled in Benin City that "the damaging and wasteful practice of flaring cannot lawfully continue." As of May 2011, Shell has not ceased gas flaring in Nigeria.
The use of biological remediation has also been implemented in areas of the delta to detoxify and restore ecosystems damaged by oil spills. Bioremediation involves biological components in the remediation or cleanup of a specific site. A study conducted in Ogbogu located in one of the largest oil producing regions of Nigeria has utilized two plant species to clean up spills. The first stage of cleanup involves Hibiscus cannabinus, a plant species indigenous to West Africa. H. cannabinus is an annual herbaceous plant originally used for pulp production. This species has high rates of absorbency and can be laid down on top of the water to absorb oil. The oil saturated plant material is then removed and sent to a safe location where the hydrocarbons can be broken down and detoxified by microorganisms. The second stage of bioremediation involves a plant known as Vetiveria zizanioides, a perennial grass species. V. zizanioides has a deep fibrous root network that can both tolerate chemicals in the soil and can also detoxify soils through time requiring little maintenance. The people of Ogbogu hope to use these methods of bioremediation to improve the quality of drinking water, soil conditions, and the health of their surrounding environment.
Within the Imo State of Nigeria, a study was conducted in the city of Egbema to determine the microfloral communities present at the site of an oil spill. These microorganisms have the ability to break down the oil, decreasing the toxic conditions. This is recognized as another method of bioremediation and scientists are trying to determine whether the properties these microorganisms possess can be utilized for the cleanup of future spills.
However bleak this situation may seem for the Niger Delta region there are clearly alternatives that can be implemented to save it from future contamination. Satellite imagery combined with the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) can be put to work to quickly identify and track spilled oil. To hasten the cleanup of spills, regional cleanup sites along the problem areas could help contain spills more quickly. To make these tasks feasible more funding must be provided by the stakeholders of the oil industry. Nongovernmental organizations will keep fighting the damaging effects of oil, but will not win the battle alone.