July 8, 2022

The city of soot: why we should be concerned about Port Harcourt 

In Port Harcourt, the main city of Rivers State in South-South Nigeria, concentrations of fine particulate matter (≤ PM2.5) that blacken the air have become a new defining feature of the garden city’s landscape. On terrible days, the mid-day sky is grey and ominous of disasters of biblical proportions. Then, the black soot rains from the sky, turning everything in their path black – like King Midas’s death touch, only without the gold. 

On better days, residents still follow rules to avoid wearing light-coloured clothing, reduce external ventilation and wear face masks. In reality, there is no escaping cancerous particles smaller than a strand of human hair.

The soot problem of Port Harcourt started around 2016 when illegal oil refining and bunkering activities in the oil-rich region became more frequent. 

For seven years now, experts have debated the exact factors behind the rise in illegal oil refining in the region; some viewpoints link the outcome to socio-economic issues including high unemployment and poverty rates despite the state’s oil resources. Others pin the menace on the lack of legitimate petroleum product alternatives and the government’s clampdown on artisanal refineries by burning posts. What cannot be debated is the environmental degradation and adverse human health effect of the soot problem.

A 2019 investigation led by the state’s erstwhile Commissioner for Environment, Prof. Roseline Konya, investigated 22,077 cases of respiratory diseases related to the presence of soot in the city. Other conditions that have been documented by medical researchers in academic journals include deformation at birth, cancerous growths, miscarriages, and irritations of the eye, nose, throat, and skin. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), while particulate matter (PM) with a diameter of 10 microns or less (≤ PM10) can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs, those with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, (≤ PM2.5) can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system.

Asides from the potential for cancerous and non-cancerous illnesses, the soot problem poses a severe risk to the environment and could result in imbalances in the ecosystem. Firstly, the actions of illegal oil refining and tire burning that create the dark billows of clouds that fall as black soot are due to the incomplete breakdown of hydrocarbon particles. In turn, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the atmosphere and worsens ozone depletion. At the same time, soot can result in acidification of rain and water bodies, reduced availability of potable water, and damage to both soil and crop nutrition.

It is not uncommon, especially during harmattans, for soot to cause haze and lower visibility. In some episodes of soot “rainfall”, residents of Port Harcourt have complained of near-total eclipsing of the sun forcing reduced mobility and a temporary halt of economic activities. Based on empirical studies, the US Department of Transportation asserts that visibility conditions increase crash risk, with over 38,700 vehicle crashes annually in the US during fog.

From being tagged as the “Garden city”, Port Harcourt is becoming unliveable for inhabitants and visitors. For those with the means, health concerns due to air pollution is a major reason for their decision to relocate from the city. The loss of human capital and migration of some businesses is inimical for business and commercial activities. Thus, there is a link between environmental degradation and economic development.

The current situation in Port Harcourt is not a crisis that should concern those within the city walls alone. The soot problem unaddressed holds wider environmental and economic implications for the rest of Nigeria and even the world. The United Nations reports that global temperature is rising faster than at any point in recorded history which poses many risks to human beings and all other forms of

 life on Earth. Climate scientists at the UN predict that even if the global temperature were kept below 2 degrees Celsius, by 2050 around 300 million people would be displaced by global flooding as the sea level rises by nearly 60cm. In Nigeria, the impact of climate change is evident and real. Farming calendars have been disrupted by changes in rainfall patterns, flooding incidents (such as Kebbi’s flooding of around 2 million tons of rice in 2020) have risen, and disappearing vegetations have forced cattle owners to set their sight south.

There is no easy way out of solving the environmental challenges of soot, because of the complicated social and economic factors behind illegal refining activities. Still, a crucial place for the government to commence would be dissuading the activities of artisanal refiners through regular security patrols and by providing economic incentives for residents to be meaningfully engaged. 

In addition, public awareness should be raised to the dangers of environmental pollution through educational campaigns. In the same vein, state authorities can encourage more planting of trees as additional efforts to collaborate with the private sector in balancing the ecosystem in the long run.

Chukwuemeka Idam is social. Follow on Instagram @Mekkha, LinkedIn on @Chukwuemeka Kelvin Idam, and on Twitter @Mekkhanik