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Playing politics with soot and our collective conscience (1), By Dakuku Peterside

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Picture credit: Pius Utomi Ekpei/BBC

… the skies of Rivers State are often covered with thick dark clouds, and soot particles can be seen dropping on cars, clothes, houses, and markets. This anomaly has significant health and economic implications and must be dealt with now. Countries often face dilemma promoting unfettered economic growth, within the frame of resulting public and environmental welfare, which could be of highly deleterious effects. We must not play politics with this issue because of the enormous negative consequences that it portends.

As you read this column, there is a high probability that there is at least a 500 per cent increase in the number of persons who are suffering from respiratory-related ailments in Rivers and Bayelsa States in, comparison to the 2014-2016 rates. An estimated 500,000 persons have had their immune systems compromised and exposed to the extreme of the prevalent viral infection, and another unconfirmed number of persons are suffering from severe kidney, liver, and mental problems. There is most likely a rapid increase in cancer-related cases. In addition to this sad state of health is a 30 per cent spike in morbidity and mortality rates in Rivers and Bayelsa States since 2016. This is the findings of the Professor Precious Ede-led Technical Committee empanelled by Rivers State Government, which did a comparative investigation on the impact of soot pollution, 18 months before August 2016 and 18 months after August 2016, when the problem became noticeable.

This picture reflects what the more significant population of people resident in Rivers and parts of Bayelsa States pass through daily due to the environmental challenge of soot. Also known scientifically as black carbon, soot is a term for ultra-fine particles, PM 2.5, produced by the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons. It is a dark unwanted by-product of burning diesel fuel in vehicles, biomass in stoves for cooking and heating, coal in small industrial operations, and agricultural waste in post-harvest fields.

The primary sources of soot in Nigeria include illegal and legitimate refineries, petrochemical industries, gas flares, the burning of fuels like diesel and petrol used in transportation vehicles or electricity generators, the incineration of vehicle tyres or oil spills by incompetent contractors, or the burning of sundry wastes, and bush. The US Environmental Protection Agency describes soot as one of the deadliest forms of air pollution.

A recent investigation, reported by The Guardian, revealed that artisanal refining, which is the prime cause of soot pollution, is occurring in 14 of the 23 council areas of Rivers State. The activities of the refiners are said to be causing the incomplete combustion of crude, which then releases carbon monoxide and sulphur into the atmosphere. A few years ago, Port Harcourt was rated as the worst polluted city globally, with an air index of 188, followed by Beijing, China, which ranked 182, and Delhi, India at 181.

Following an outcry of citizens facing severe breathing difficulties, the Rivers State Ministry of Environment set up a scientific investigation team of 20 experts from various inter-disciplinary and relevant fields. The report they produced reveals that illegal bunkering and gas flaring are two significant sources of soot in the State, and about 22,077 persons have suffered from respiratory-related ailments in the past four years (2016- 2020). The predictions of many health professionals are that if nothing is done urgently to stop the production of soot, many residents might experience chronic respiratory diseases, heart problems; suffer cancerous and non-cancerous conditions; and thereby increase the mortality rate in the States.

This is becoming real as some persons, who have found it challenging breathing while in Port Harcourt, have left the city. Many people who live in Rivers State and the neighbouring Bayelsa will most likely succumb to COVID-19 due to compromised respiratory systems caused by soot pollution. Studies have found a strong link between municipal soot or air pollution and COVID-19 cases.

Besides the local environmental and health issues, black carbon (soot) fuels global warming in two ways. One, it heats up when exposed to sunlight. Two, like most dark substances, soot absorbs rather than reflects light. When black carbon falls on the ground, usually after a few days the earth’s surface becomes darker, thereby reducing the planet’s reflectivity. This traps far more heat per unit mass than carbon dioxide, making it the second-biggest contributor to global warming.

This deadly air pollution came to light in 2016 when the skyline in several parts of the Port Harcourt city was covered with dark particulate matter. The state government set up a committee that produced a report with the central recommendation to set up modular refineries to solve the problem of soot. However, the lack of political will by the state administration, alongside failure by the Federal Government, its relevant agencies, international health and environmental organisations, to implement the report or swiftly initiate moves to tackle the air plague or put in place regulations that will reduce it, has made the challenge of soot to linger.

As the wave of soot occurrence has however escalated, the air quality index in the State has worsened. Amidst public outcry, the State Government has acted aloof and indifferent, even when there is a degradation of the environment and danger to the health of residents. Paying lips service to this significant problem is a folly taken too far. Lives are at stake, and the State Government must do something now.

A cursory review of the problem of soot will reveal why an urgent and focused synergistic approach is needed to tackle this social, scientific, economic, health and environmental challenge that poses a significant threat. I make bold to say that the effect of soot, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic poses an existential threat to all residents of Rivers State.

There is the temptation to think that this environmental pollution challenge of “soot” is a problem for residents of Rivers State and the neighbouring Bayelsa State alone. Science has proven otherwise. Environmental challenges in any part of the world, as you have in Rivers State, are intertwined with and interlinked to those occuring in other parts of Nigeria and the world. The problem of soot that has been reccurent in Rivers State in the past four to five years is a problem for all Nigerians and the global community. An environmental issue in one part of the globe contributes to environmental pressure in other regions. Specifically, air pollution linked to carbon processing contributes to global warming, ozone layer depletion, acid rain pollution and ocean acidification.

The spate of environmental pollution nationwide, which no one takes full responsibility for tackling, is expressed in Rivers State. And, the neglect of soot in the State by the government at all levels and the international community sends a strong message that these state, national, and supranational agencies no longer seem to care about the lives of six million Nigerians, who face the threat of extermination daily.

Being inundated with petitions for over five years, the relevant Federal Government agencies have failed to rise to the responsibility of discharging their statutory roles, which means our government seems to no longer prioritise the health of citizens. In every sense, the problem of soot in Rivers and Bayelsa States is a national problem denting our collective conscience. A state and federal government that ignore the threat of extermination of six to 10 million of its citizens cannot be said to have their welfare at heart.

The Rivers State Government, which has a moral responsibility to protect the lives of people in its jurisdiction, has done little or nothing tangible to mitigate this problem. The soot report completed in the past three years, has been gathering dust in the statehouse, and none of its recommendations has been adequately implemented. Even the actions of the State Government have been inimical to any tangible progress in protecting the environment, since they neglect or jettison the environmental impact assessment of some of the projects carried out in the State to reduce pollution.

By commission or omission, the state government, security agencies, and other regulatory bodies have allowed illegal refining activities to carry on unabated in the States. Even citizens know where unlawful petroleum refining activities occur and where the products are bought and sold. It is an open secret, and government at all levels have not done much to cut off the supply side of this illegal economic activity.

Several times, the Rivers State Government has touted the establishment of modular refineries in 2021 as the panacea to the soot problem. It claims that “the modular refinery is the main thing to curb it (soot}”. As the wave of soot occurrence has however escalated, the air quality index in the State has worsened. Amidst public outcry, the State Government has acted aloof and indifferent, even when there is a degradation of the environment and danger to the health of residents. Paying lips service to this significant problem is a folly taken too far. Lives are at stake, and the State Government must do something now.

I note with utmost dismay that a joint mission of the UN/UNEP and WHO has investigated the soot in the area and met with affected groups in Port Harcourt. However, nothing came out of it, and neither has any meaningful actions emanated from these organisations to improve the air quality in Rivers State.

There are several federal agencies, such as the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), Nigeria Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NRC), as well as the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESRA), saddled with the responsibility of regulating the environmental aspect of the petroleum value chain in Nigeria. These agencies are yet to wake up to the reality of tackling the menace of illegal mining and refining of oil in Rivers State. This abdication of responsibility of combating the menace of soot by both the respective environmental and security agencies can be equated to enabling ecological terrorism.

I must acknowledge that illegal mining and refining of petroleum products seem to be the mainstay of economic activities in some villages and towns in Rivers and Bayelsa States, and they provide income, while being the sources of livelihoods of many in the involved areas. Inadvertently, one can argue that these illegal activities have helped to stem the restiveness of the youths in communities where the illegal activities are going on.

However, I must say that we cannot solve illegality with illegality. Government should provide an enabling environment for legitimate economic activities in these communities, instead of using the allowance of the criminal activities of illegal refining of petroleum to placate angry and unemployed youths in these areas. It is counter-intuitive to do that, given that the little economic gains from these illegal activities will be far outweighed by the soot’s damaging impact and health implications.

Irked by the surging menace of soot, residents of Port Harcourt had taken specific actions to draw the government’s attention ot this — they mobilised themselves, staged a peaceful protest, and launched a campaign on social media platforms to raise the alarm continually. They used radio and television to mobilise and inspire actions by the government and relevant stakeholders. In a determined spirit of bringing the menace to an end, a civil society group, the Extra Step Initiative (ESI), in August 2019, sued the Federal Government for the continuous pollution of the environment in the State.

The ESI carried out further studies and compiled a petition of about 300 pages, sent it to the United Nations, and copied the World Health Organisation, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and all the organs concerned, including world leaders. The British Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May, acknowledged receipt of the report, but Britain has done nothing about soot pollution in the areas affected till date.

I note with utmost dismay that a joint mission of the UN/UNEP and WHO has investigated the soot in the area and met with affected groups in Port Harcourt. However, nothing came out of it, and neither has any meaningful actions emanated from these organisations to improve the air quality in Rivers State.

In conclusion, the skies of Rivers State are often covered with thick dark clouds, and soot particles can be seen dropping on cars, clothes, houses, and markets. This anomaly has significant health and economic implications and must be dealt with now. Countries often face dilemma promoting unfettered economic growth, within the frame of resulting public and environmental welfare, which could be of highly deleterious effects. We must not play politics with this issue because of the enormous negative consequences that it portends.

Dakuku Peterside is a policy and leadership expert. 

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