The oil and gas producing areas, including Ogoniland are haunted by many environmental challenges. In this interview with Udeme Akpan, the Distinguished Prof. Hilary Inyang, a world-renowned researcher, expeditionist and educator in the areas of environmental science and engineering, energy systems and international development, who is also winner of the 2013 Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) in science and technology as well as a Fellow of both the African Academy of Sciences and the Geological Society of London, spoke on a wide range of issues and particularly, the issue of environmental pollution in the Niger Delta region, as well as proffer solutions to them.
What do you consider to be the major environmental issues in Nigeria’s oil and gas producing area?
There are very many environmental problems in the oil and gas-producing areas of Nigeria. However, not all the problems can be attributed to oil and gas operations. The most critical problems that derive primarily from oil and gas operations there, are oil spills, including groundwater pollution, surface water pollution and damage to aquatic and shallow marine life; acid rain and air quality degradation due to gas flaring; and biodiversity loss.
How severe are these problems, especially in terms of impact on individuals, households and society?
Definitely, environmental pollution is a contributor to the low life expectancy of about 54.6 years estimated for all parts of Nigeria. The conditions are worse in some areas of the Niger Delta because of the large number of both legacy oil pollution sites and more recent oil spills which my assessments put at about 2900 in 2010 when I spent two years in Nigeria on the issue. I must however, add that there is the problem of fractional attribution because environmental pollution combines with diet, genetic pre-disposition and physical/emotional stress as determinants of life expectancy.
The Niger Delta has some peculiar vulnerabilities because it is a water-rich environment with the high probability of contamination from many sources and easy spread of contaminants by rainwater and rivers. The groundwater table is very close to the ground surface in many areas, somewhat different from circumstance in many other parts of Nigeria. In many Niger Delta zones the relatively dry soil that intervenes between the ground surface and water table is not thick and clayey enough to significantly adsorb spilled contaminants.
Does the UNEP report represent the reality of the situation in Ogoniland and other parts of Niger Delta?
Yes, it does. However, it should be recognized that the UNEP investigations were merely scoping studies that were limited spatially and temporally. I would estimate on the basis of the reports that I have reviewed for more than 20 years including what I did with the Obasanjo Administration on the establishment of NOSDRA, that contamination of Ogoni is four times worse than reported. Actually, the UNEP study focused exclusively on Ogoni. Many other areas of the Niger Delta, primarily, in Rivers State, Bayelsa State and to a lesser extent, Delta State and Akwa Ibom State, are contaminated by oil.
Can the implementation of recommendations of the report-assist in tackling the problems in Ogoniland and other parts of the Niger Delta?
Yes, it can. I have read the report in its entirety. It reinforces the recommendations (both technical and policy focused) that I submitted to the Federal Government in several meetings and reports since 2009. My reports were submitted to the leadership of the Federal Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, the Office of the Secretary to Government and the Presidency itself.
Globally or professionally, what are the modalities or approaches in carrying out a clean-up of this magnitude?
Problems of this type are usually addressed by a combination of regulations, policies, technical guidance systems/research, field projects, and incentives, monitoring systems, enforcement and education. Based on my experience as the former chairman of the Science Advisory Board (Engineering) of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) in Washington DC for two terms 1999-2002) during the Clinton and Bush Administrations, I made written recommendations to successive governments in Nigeria. Not much has been done with those reports. The revised copies of those recommendations are still available.
Can you comment on the steps already taken to effect the clean-up of Ogoniland?
The Niger Delta has two types of oil contaminated sites with somewhat different levels of technical difficulty as regards cleanup: the legacy sites that are mostly land-based; and the water contaminated sites where waves and tides continue to spread spilled oil. The water sites have bulk oil or floating oil and can be cleaned up using boats for oil recovery. Gains can be made within 12 months.
The on-land legacy sites that exhibit groundwater contamination could each take more than 15 years to remediate to acceptable levels. What are acceptable levels? That question has not been sufficiently answered for Nigeria and is not likely to be answered by the look of things. It is a highly specialized issue that has implications on how much will be spent to clean up each selected site. It costs about US $40 million to remediate a medium-sized water ground contaminated site. Nigeria has neither the money nor the technical organization to clean up all contaminated sites. About 100 sites should be selected using rational criteria, for cleanup/remediation during the next 20 years. This should be entered into Nigeria’s plan for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs 2030).
Is the private sector and professionals, especially environmentalists fairly represented in the two bodies?
I have not reviewed the expertise of those who constitute the committees that have been set up. All I know is that as the author of Nigeria’s ‘National Technical Guidance Manual for Oil Spill and Oily Waste Management (NOSDRA Tech No.3/2011)” under the auspices of NOSDRA and the UNDP, I should have been contacted for advice in the interest of the Nigerian public. Upon request by the Obasanjo Administration in 1999, I configured NOSDRA along with deep analyses of its technical requirements when both Dr. Ime Okopido (then Minister of State for Environment) and Rep. Almona-Isei (then, Chair of the House Committee on Environment) visited me in Massachusetts for help. It was during my service then, as Dupont Endowed Professor and Environmental Institute Director at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, USA. There has been regression from the work we did then for Nigeria.
How much will it cost to clean up Ogoniland and other parts of Niger Delta?
A deep analysis should show that it would cost more than US$50 billion to clean up more than 2500 sites in the entire Niger Delta, even with the recognition that there have been more spills than spill sites. It would also take more than 50 years, even if that money was available. My back-of-the-envelope estimate is that for Ogoniland sites alone, about US$6 billion is needed but risks can be reduced to tolerable levels with US$3 billion. So, it is quite untenable to attempt clean-up/remediation of all contaminated sites there. Technically, it is impossible to clean up all the sites in Niger Delta. A screening system that combines cost, ecological, proximal population and other rational factors should be quickly developed for use in selecting about 100-150 sites for focus.
From my review of circumstances at some sites, about 30% of the sites will simply need to be evacuated because of the risk of cumulative exposure to contaminants. Evacuation happens in other parts of the world under such circumstances. Examples are Chernobyl, and heavy metal contaminated areas in Southeast Asia. It is exceeding romantic to think that one will always occupy his/her native environment. That has not been the case throughout human history.
Do you think the implementation of the Niger Delta Master Plan will go a long way in addressing these and other issues?
As I have indicated it is unrealistic to be that “Niger Delta will be cleaned up”, rather a few parts of the Niger Delta will be cleaned up. It is expected that at least a third of the Niger Delta will be lost to the impacts of global climate change during the next 30-50 years. Some oil-polluted areas are in the threatened regions. Already, migration of some residents from such areas into the hinterland has started. I gave a full analysis of the circumstance last year during my 2016 Nigeria National Order of Merit (NNDM) Lecture in Abuja.
In the Master plan, the focus should be the configuration of policy, technical and market incentives for the clean-up of about 200 significant oil contaminated sites in the entire Niger Delta within the next 20 years or by 2030.
Can you comment on the capacity of the leadership of NDDC to implement the plan?
As you may know, sustainable development which is the target of Nigeria and its regions exemplified by the Nigeria Delta comprises more environmental stewardship. The other factors are economic development to provide jobs and services; population management that is ignored in many parts of Nigeria despite the fact that development indices are expressed on per capita basis; and social equity which has been a major problem in the Niger Delta as well as many other parts of Nigeria, especially, the northeast. Recently, I read about jobs training programme for youth from the Niger Delta. Names were actually listed in the Newspapers. That is a positive move. I am not informed about NDDC programmes. So, I cannot give you any firm answer.
What about the commitment of stakeholders, especially the Federal Government, States and Oil companies to its implementation?
I have to believe that all stakeholders know that it is within their interest to implement effective recovery programmes in the Niger Delta. That should stem violence, reduce human suffering and arrest capital flight from the region. Nigeria still depends on oil and gas that come mostly from there.
Plans may be great but the devil is in its implementation. Frankly, in Nigeria, matters that are inherently technical are spoiled by middle brokers, patronage peddlers and confusionists who puncture wholesome plans, savouring leakages of rationality. Why has it taken 50 years to attempt a wholesome clean-up programme?
How has other nations been able to tackle/manage their environmental issues without much ado?
By favouring systems ahead of personalities. Personalities when they matter are defined by qualifications that are relevant to the issue of focus, not by postures and brand connections. Knowledge and its development will rescue Nigeria, not pomp, pageantry and aggressively. Knowledge has been relegated by the political class in Nigeria public affairs to the detriment of the country. There is too much resistance to rationality in execution of programmes and projects. Leaders at all levels must be held accountable. On the other hand, most complainants seek “their turn”, not improvement of processes.
How many leaders of Nigeria’s environmental Ministries and agencies go out to look for experts who can help them implement programmes? They are likely to postpone such meetings in favour of birthday parties for grown men, and useless travel.
Specifically, can you comment on climate change, nuclear,povertyand population growth as major environmental challenges in the world?
The impacts of climate change on the livelihoods of people around the world will increase profoundly within the next thirty years. In my expeditions to Brazil’s Amazon, Siberian tundra and mining regions of china, I have seen very threatened lifestyles. In Nigeria, the desertification front is running southwards in the north at an estimated speed of about 1.5km per year forcing migrations that will make the Middle Belt the hotbed of intense conflicts in the future if control measures are not implemented.