Everything that represents life is dying and stirring a palpable and rippling imbalance. How could these women and their families stay alive in an environment that has searing temperatures, noxious air and heavily tainted waters that result from gas flaring? This process is routinely employed to dispose of natural gas associated with crude oil, which takes place in Port Harcourt, Warri and Kaduna respectively. The reason it occurs there is because it is cheaper to process it at the expense of the host communities that live next door; than to invest in modern level technology that that will turn it into a valuable resource for common good. While the oil explorers and gas flarers are flourishing on their prized proceeds, host communities are lurching in ghettos that lack basic necessities and have shockingly high pollution levels. Women conspicuously epitomize the stark reality!
Women’s stories have the power to stir change, so I took a peek into the lives of indigenous women in the oil producing and refining areas of Nigeria. My first stop was the village of Rido (Kaduna), a densely populated locality with mixed land uses: agricultural, residential, commercial and industrial. It is springtime and I could not ignore the immense but suspiciously thriving greenery around- farmlands, lush grasslands and sparsely distributed mature trees and shrubs. I also saw farmers plowing their green clothed fields. Within the inhabited areas, haphazardly built houses and shops competed for space with crisscrossing footpaths and unpaved narrow roads. Many of the structures were plastered with thin layers of cement that barely masked the mud walls underneath; and they appeared more awkward with their rusted roofs. In contrast, however, the standard and more secluded residence of the district head, an employee of the nearby refinery, displayed affluence.
The local market area was a beehive of activities as people, mostly women and girls, traded their wares; seemingly oblivious of the nearby flares that bellowed clouds of thick smoke into the very heart of, and around their unfortunate village. An elderly woman quickly caught my attention. She was carefully adjusting a set of green metal basins patterned with splashes of white polka dots arranged on two tables that created a brief and constricted aisle in the front of her shop. Each basin contained different types of grains: rice, wheat, beans, millet, and guinea corn.
Her name was Iye. She was illiterate, yet not ignorant of the health and safety hazards posed by the black fumes from the nearby refinery. “Every now and then the fumes spread, and we begin to inhale its repulsive smell as it infiltrates our homes and shops. It causes catarrh (influenza). A few days ago, as the fumes filtered into my shop, I became nauseated, and I felt like I was going to pass out. True to God!” she swore. By this time, three other women who had joined us nodded in agreement. “The obnoxious effect is nastiest whenever it rains” she concluded. Ebony black Grace, 31, also recounted how ‘the smell of the fumes always made her feel ill and left her with a very funny sensation in her stomach, particularly in the mornings and at night time.”
A few shops away, I met Vicky an observably young mother who said that she moved into the neighbourhood five years ago after she got married. She was sitting on a lowly built wooden bench in front of a hair dressing salon beside her own shop - a small spaced and poorly lit shop. It had one tired looking sewing machine and an overcrowded wooden table. Two cut up fabrics also hung over a short string of weak rope nailed across a part of the wall. Apparently stirred by my presence, her little daughter Elizabeth who crouched over the seat behind her suddenly raised her head revealing a frail look and a build-up of thick mucus in her nostrils. Vicky echoed the minds of her peers and also repainted the picture of her daughter when she said “the fumes is really affecting us, especially our children, many of whom are not feeling well. My daughter falls ill a lot and has catarrh all the time. I also experience headaches after inhaling the fumes when it rains or the wind changes direction.”
Indigenous women are the most vulnerable to environmental hazards because the traditional responsibility of providing and managing natural resources required for the sustenance of the family rests on them. For example, they are the primary collectors of water (rain, wells, and rivers) from sources that are usually contaminated by oil spills and wastes, acid rain, mud etc. They harvest rain water through a gutter system or direct roof drips which means collecting water that falls through layers of thick fumes that are suspended in the air, and then runs down corroded soot covered roofs. A group of women complained that the water was usually blackish or contained traces of blackish particles. I was also told that “ordinarily, water sourced from their wells was good for consumption. However, whenever it rained, the taste of the water becomes objectionable, and they have to wait for at least a week before it becomes normal again.”
In March 2013, there was a critical case of furfural (chemical substance that is soluble in water) spill into river Romi from the refinery which got down to Juji Bridge in the close by village and beyond. The runoff turned the normally clear blue river water black. Though the refinery ultimately commissioned an expert to clean the spill up in April, the cost to the community was high; since many of them relied on the water for fishing, irrigating their farms or for doing laundry. Claims are rife that the refinery often discharged its liquid wastes into river Romi at night.
I paid a visit to Mr. Gamaliel Stephen, an environmental expert, approached by people from the affected communities, and he told me that “furfural is harmful upon contact with skin, toxic by inhalation and if swallowed, irritating to eyes and respiratory system and has some degree of carcinogenic effect. He also expressed apprehension about the health repercussions on unsuspecting residents who consume or allow themselves to get drenched in the polluted, particularly farmers who rely on the polluted waterways for irrigation during the dry season, and consumers who purchase their produce. “I am directly affected, as more often than not, the water in the river appears black and whenever it overflowed its banks, the crops in the valley area starts drying up”. Laraba Yakubu a resident farmer in Juji village complained. She also mentioned that “Juji was also not out of the danger of fumes from the flares, as their doors and windows cannot keep it out of their homes”.
The human and environmental costs of flaring and other oil wastes in the communities highlighted above, which hosts only one oil refinery with two active flaring points is, however, the tip of the iceberg in comparison to that of communities in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria, where there are more than 1000 gas flaring points that release over 23 billion/m3 of gas per annum. Gas flaring in Nigeria continues to worsen the case of global warming. It "has contributed more greenhouse gas emissions than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined" according to the World Bank. In the Niger Delta, it contributes about 13% to the global temperature rise. The combination of toxic substances emitted in some of these flares for over 40 years, pollute the clouds causing a black rain that poisons water sources; thus affecting livelihoods and exposing inhabitant to increased risks of premature deaths, child respiratory illnesses, asthma and cancer, as well as acid rain.
Conservative assumptions using World Bank information on the adverse effect of particulates, suggests that gas flaring from just one part of the Niger Delta (Bayelsa State) would likely cause annually 49 premature deaths, 4,960 respiratory illnesses among children and 120, asthma attacks. The study, however, did not provide estimates for premature death and miscarriage among pregnant women which are also linked to emissions from flares. The toxic substances expose host communities to health risks and property damage, in violation of their human rights because their right to health and to a safe and healthy environment is not respected. This flouts for example, the fundamental rights to life and to dignity guaranteed in Articles 33 and 34 respectively of the Nigerian Constitution. It also violates the rights guaranteed in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, for example, of every individual to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health (Article 16) and of all peoples to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development (Article 24).
Regional host communities are caught in the web of gas flaring, dumping of toxic wastes and oil spills. The women are being impoverished by the day through the destruction of the creeks, swamps, farmlands and forests that they depend on for their livelihood; and no one seems to care about their plight. The homes inhabited by these women and their families bear no semblance of the worth of the black gold taken from their ancestral lands and water bodies which now lay polluted. They have over and over again bemoaned the looting of resources in their communities and consequent devastation of their once pristine ancestral lands by insatiable oil merchants. The women are crying themselves hoarse in the face of the flagrant abuse of their rights and innumerable hazards faced by their communities. Some of them even went as far as staging nude protests in order to get the attention of the oil companies and the Nigerian Government.
At a recently held meeting of Host Oil and Gas Communities (Hostcom) Women’s Wing, in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria, the National Coordinator Evangelist, Carina Gassidy said: "We women are not satisfied with the conditions of women in the oil producing areas because gas flaring is affecting our women. We are suffering breast cancer and many other diseases. And that is why we are sensitizing our women to take their rightful place in the communities. The woman is a major stakeholder in the family and when we suffer all kinds of disease such as breast cancer due to oil exploration and gas flaring and nobody is doing anything about it, it is certainly unfair. So, we want laws that will protect the health of women in oil producing communities".
For the most part of my childhood, I was intrigued by the sight of the stunning glow that stood out defying the darkness of the sky. It was most enchanting to watch it and fantasize about how it complemented the brilliance of the outlying zillion twinkling stars that decorated the sky with their radiance. By daytime, however, the glow appeared snowed under the brightness of the sun and the accompanying fumes that soared towards the clouds became conspicuous. That was several years ago. I have since learned that the glow is an offspring of a wild fiend known as gas flaring in the ‘crude world’.
Today, as I gazed once again at the blaze from the flares, the now halted dances and euphoric ululations of indigenous women which greeted the discovery of crude oil- black gold in their native soil occupied my mind. In my years of working with grassroots women, I have experienced firsthand and also come across several testimonies that bear witness to the depressing injustice which is happening in the crude oil sector in Nigeria. As a woman, an advocate and concerned global citizen, I am joining in indigenous women’s call for oil producing and or refining countries to enforce stringent environmental regulatory measures on oil companies that still practice gas flaring so as to eradicate gas flaring and the associated problems of crude oil exploration and production before long. I know too well that indigenous women don’t want to just survive; they want to live and thrive!
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Frontline Journals