The Niger Delta, the major oil-producing region in Nigeria, is acclaimed as one of the richest wetlands in the world. It hosts numerous plant and animal life, with a vast distribution of water bodies. It is also the second-largest delta in the world at roughly 20,000 square kilometres wide. However, crude oil exploration has affected agricultural communities in this Nigeria’s most oil-rich zone.
The Niger Delta region is home to more than 6.5 million people, and the predominant occupations are farming and fishing. Typically, the environment allows agricultural activities to occur all year round - due to its location in the rainforest and mangrove swamps. There is an abundant supply of water, rainfall and rich soil. The same land harbours vast oil and gas reserves.
A Brief Look at Oil Spillages in Nigeria
Since crude oil was first discovered in Oloibiri, Bayelsa state in 1956, significant revenue has accrued to the Nigerian government and the major oil prospecting companies. That is as far as the positive impact goes. However, the environmental impact of crude oil exploration on the Niger Delta is significant.
Between 1976 and 2015, 16,476 spills were recorded in the Niger Delta, releasing no less than 3 million barrels of crude oil into the environment. Although there was an observed decrease in the volume of oil spillage was observed from 1996 to 2000, the frequency of spills increased. The Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (formerly the Department of Petroleum Resources) reported that 69 percent of these spills happened offshore, 25 percent occurred in the swamps, and 6 percent were inland.
Data supplied by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) estimated the volume of spillage at 2,300 cubic metres - an average of about 300 spills per year from 1975 to 1995. However, World Bank figures are nearly ten times that of NNPC for the same period, suggesting underreporting by the oil company. The World Bank records considered the ‘minor’ spills ignored by the NNPC. And in 2020 and 2021, the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) discovered a total of 822 oil spills and 28,003 barrels of spilt crude oil.
Pipeline vandalization and oil theft contributed to the damage. Today, the Niger Delta region has the inglorious reputation of being one of the five most severely damaged ecosystems globally. The surrounding lands and water bodies have suffered serious degeneration and an imbalanced ecosystem.
The Direct Impact of Oil Spillages on Agriculture
There has also been the loss of livelihoods on a large scale, which has sharply increased the poverty levels in that region. Residents of the Niger Delta have spoken out about the losses they incurred because of crude oil spillage covering the surface soil. Crops die soon after planting, prompting necessary replanting and loss of planting seeds. Reduced size and quality of crop yield are just some of the diminishing returns which they have been experiencing for years.
Crops and fish have been killed, and arable farmlands and freshwater bodies polluted. Farmers and fishermen in that region have been denied most if not all, the economic benefits of their farmlands and surrounding rivers. There has also been an observable decrease in agricultural yield over the years.
Furthermore, farmers whose farms were polluted were psychologically impacted - as they were less willing to undertake farming. A recent survey was carried out involving 296 respondents drawn from 17 (out of 23) local government areas of Rivers State. Observations showed that less than 22% of crop farmers demonstrated 80% efficiency in their use of resources on oil-polluted farmlands. On the other hand, farmers on non-polluted farmlands displayed a higher efficiency of 33%.
Existing and Potential Remedial Actions
In 2021, the Nigerian government signed the Climate Change Act 2021 and the Petroleum Industry Act 2021 into law. These were in the hopes of regulating oil exploration activities and mitigating the environmental damage done in the process. However, the past administration showed a lack of capacity in dealing with environmental mishaps. A cleanup of the Niger Delta was launched in 2016 and led by the then Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo. It was observed that the cleanup exercise went on at an incredibly slow pace; not much recovery was achieved.
There was never a call for a comprehensive environmental audit of the Niger Delta region. This is necessary to check the extent of damage done to the region and its inhabitants. Furthermore, it would provide an opportunity to suggest possible strategies for the recovery and restoration of the region.
A critical environmental assessment and recovery operation is thus highly recommended to turn around the woes of the Niger Delta. It should subsequently ensure preventive measures are out in place in other newly-discovered oil wells across the nation. And finally, it has become a necessity to hold oil prospecting companies - in law and practice - accountable to their host communities and the nation. This will stem any further attempts to damage and ignore the environment in the pursuit of only their selfish gains.