By Bob Anikwe

LAST  week, my wife and I received text messages warning us of the possibility of acid rain in Abuja, Nigeria. The message was said to have originated from NASA in the United States, thus lending it the required weight and authority.

My wife was afraid but I dismissed the message instantly. With the authority of my high school geography, I claimed that acid rain happens only in the Amazon jungles of South America! An official of the Meteorological Department lent weight to my claim, when he said on NTA that there is no cause for alarm. Then, all of a sudden, Abuja FCT became enveloped in a thick harmattan fog in March 2010, when the country was expecting the rainy season, and another Met officer alluded in The Guardian that the possibility of acid rain should not be ruled out.

Acid rain is a possibility in Nigeria, and the sign is here, in the thick smog that poses a challenge to air travel and to health. When I was told that a major cause of acid rain is burning of fossil fuels, which contributes to global warming, as well as air, water and land pollution, I did a double take.

Nigeria is a major burner of fossil fuel. The country flares an estimated 75 percent of its proven natural gas reserves (estimated at 124 trillion cubic feet) due to inadequate gas utilization infrastructure.

We face three dangers.

When we burn fossil fuels, we release large amounts of carbon into the air. The carbon contributes to the greenhouse effect, which causes the heat of the sun to be trapped in the atmosphere, leading to a sharp rise in global temperatures. This rise in temperature melts polar ice caps, thereby producing more water which causes ocean levels to rise. The rise in ocean levels threatens cities and settlements located close to sea levels. Proof? Lagos experiences intermittent sea surges that eat away its Atlantic shores and, since 1980, we have lived with the fear that Victoria Island will one day disappear under the sea.

A rise in global temperatures and the consequent melting of polar ice caps drastically reduces the level of salt in the ocean. This reduction in salinity of the ocean poses a danger to certain kinds of aquatic life, especially those that require average sea salt to thrive. Thus, it is possible that the devastation of aquatic life in the Niger Delta may not only have arisen from oil spills but also from the burning of fossil fuels by oil companies.

Burning fossil fuels releases sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. These gases react with water and other chemicals in the air to form sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and other pollutants, which travel with the wind for hundreds of miles and eventually return to the earth as acid rain, snow, or fog. As of this month of March 2010, we have experienced unusual fog tending towards smog in the atmosphere, and smog in the atmosphere is a sign that “acid rain” may be on its way. And, by the way, I was wrong on my recollection of my high school geography. Acid rain is indeed a current feature of US and Canadian cities, Europe cities, as well as Japan, China and countries in South East Asia. Scientists say that in combination with other chemicals which result in urban smog, acid rain attacks the lungs, causing illness and premature deaths.
These dangers should be a source of worry, especially for those of us living outside of the Niger Delta who do not fully appreciate what burning of fossil fuel and poor management of drilling operations do to the environment and to the future health of our population.

The world has been crying out over global warming arising from carbon emissions, and we were made to believe that this was a distant problem of those manufacturing refrigerators and air-conditioners, even as oil companies burnt fossil fuels and released carbons in our backyard.  The Kyoto Protocol, which requires Western countries to cut their greenhouse emissions by five percent between 2008 and 2010, will eventually catch us unawares. It has led to a strenuous search for safe and cleaner energy sources which, when fully implemented, will lead to drastic fall in oil demand, the lifeblood of our economy. Nigeria and most major OPEC production countries were not required to sign this Protocol, meaning that we were not gingered up to look for ways of diversifying our income sources. Thus, our economy will be devastated when the West finds alternative energy sources.

The world makes strenuous efforts to ensure that crude oil gases are not wasted into the atmosphere, and our leaders find it convenient to connive with the oil companies which waste the scarce resource and pollute our environment. The Niger Delta struggle, a worthy effort to safeguard the environment and protect our economic future, was hijacked by political and criminal forces and turned into a charade that celebrated extortions, kidnappings, and political vendetta.

This is why we must entertain hope at the coming of Goodluck Jonathan as head of government. As a Niger Deltan, will he be the leader that moves us towards energy reforms, stops the burning of fossil fuel in his ancestral home, and joins international efforts to look for safer and cheaper energy alternatives?

Or will he concern himself ONLY with how to use the proceeds of the current production methods to ameliorate the sufferings of the Niger Delta, while the country faces the possibility of an acid rain, the continued destruction of aquatic life in his backyard, the possibility of disappearance of our shoreline cities, health challenges of pollution and urban smog, and future economic collapse when oil income no longer fetches billions of dollars that currently propel our politicians to selfish power struggles?

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