The Niger Delta: Soaked in Oil

Like many places around the world the Niger Delta is cursed.  It’s cursed by the vast resources that lay underground in the form of oil.  Since the 1950’s the Nigerian government along with multinational corporations have been extracting oil from this region and devastating the ecosystem and its people.  Today, Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, extracting 2 million barrels of oil a day, leading to oil making up 80% of their national revenue.

So who’s pumping all of this oil (and spilling a lot of it)?  The largest producer of oil in the Niger Delta is The Shell Petroleum Development Company, or just Shell as most people know it, however there are a number of other multinational corporations working in the area.  No matter who it is, there is a lot of oil being spilt in the Niger Delta.

To put it in perspective, according to the Guardian more oil is spilled in the Niger Delta every year than was spilt in the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon (4.9 million barrels).  Let’s take a look at some of the oil spills in the Niger Delta over the years:

A Texaco spill in the 1980’s that spilt an estimated 400,000 barrels of oil and was caused by a blowout on one of their offshore stations.

A spill caused by a tank failure at Shell’s Forcados Terminal which spilt an estimated 580,000 barrels of oil.

In 2010 an ExxonMoble spill which was caused by corrosion leaked nearly 100,000 barrels of oil for a week.

In 2011 Shell spilt into the ocean off Nigeria what it says “likely was less than 40,000 barrels” at the Bonga oilfield.

These are all terrible incidences, but these are the big spills that get reported.  Smaller spills of maybe just a couple hundred barrels of oil happen more frequently and may be the bigger problem.  So what are the causes of these spills?

Photo via

Corrosion of old pipes and tankers account for 50% of oil spills in the Niger Delta.  In my examples above this was the cause for the most part.  21% is due to oil production operations, and 1% is due to a number of things such as inability to control oil wells or failure of machines.  That adds up to 72% of oil spills being directly related to actions of the oil companies.

Between 1976 and 1998 there were 5724 incidents that resulted in the spilling of approximately 2,571,114 barrels of oil.  And let’s not forget that these corporations are very powerful in Nigeria, and the government is fairly weak (something I’m not going to go into in this article) so these numbers could be much lower than the official count.

So you might be asking yourself what the remaining 28% of oil spills is caused by.  The rest is caused by “sabotage”.  People in the area will sometimes tap into the pipelines in order to collect oil and sell it.  This leads to leaks, and sometimes to a blowout of the pipe.  Other times rebels sabotage the pipelines because of grievances that have gone unanswered (Shell has been accused of blaming oil spills on rebels when Shell was actually to blame).  Both of these types of sabotage cause oil spills and are only adding to the problem, but there’s a lot more to it than people just trying to get oil.

$600 billion worth of oil has come out of the Niger Delta since the 1960’s but little of that money has gone back into it.  The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) describes the region as suffering from “administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and services, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, filth and squalor, and endemic conflict.”  So when you talk about “sabotage” of the oil lines you have to think about what these people have had to live through over the past 60 years.  The land that they live off of is for the most part unusable anymore, and while the people get promises from their government and the oil industry, they have seen little come out of them.  How mad would this make you?  What would you do?

Note how the shoreline is black from oil unlike the background. Photo via

The impacts of these oil spills are far felt throughout the region.  Let’s start by looking at water pollution in the region.  Water moves the oil throughout the delta by means of its many tributaries and rivers.  This leads to a number of problems, one of which is drinking water contamination since most people depend on the tributaries and rivers for their drinking water.  Drinking water with oil in it can cause a variety of health problems including headache, inflammation of the eyes and throat, nausea, lower respiratory tract effects, and cancer.  It was found that people near Nisisioken Ogale, which is close to an oil pipeline, were drinking water with 900 times the safe level of benzene, a known carcinogen.  But drinking water contamination is just one issue that comes from the water being contaminated.

Now that your water source is contaminated it leads to almost everything else becoming contaminated.  Contaminated water from the rivers and tributaries get into the groundwater through lateral migration.  One of the sources of food for the people in this area is crops that they grow.  When the water they’re using to grow their crops is contaminated, whether they get it from the groundwater or from a river that means that their food is now contaminated.

Another source of food for the people is fishing.  Once a thriving system with plenty of fish for everyone, the Niger Delta’s fish populations have plummeted due to the oil spills over the past 60 years.  This causes a couple of different problems.  One is that there is not enough food for people to eat, and what they do eat is contaminated which can lead to the same health problems as drinking water with oil in it.  The second is that fishermen now have lost their source of income which has brought down the local economy throughout the delta and helped them to continue to live in poverty.

Livestock also die from drinking the contaminated water and eating contaminated food.  This only adds to these problems.

Photo via

So how do people survive this?  Well in a way they don’t.  Life expectancy is Nigeria is 50 years old which is 20 years younger than the worldwide average.  A resident of the Niger Delta, Tonye Emmanuel Isenah, said that when he was young people would live into their 70’s and 80’s.  Now, “at the age of 45, people are beginning to have strokes.”  This is due to the fact that while their water and food is contaminated the people of the Niger Delta still have to drink water and eat to survive, and so that’s what they do even though they know it’s making them sick.

I’m only talked about the water contamination in this article.  There has been immeasurable environmental damage and pollution to air quality that I could write about forever.  Maybe most importantly there has also been immeasurable damage to the population, both physically and psychologically.  Can you imagine living in this hell on earth?  I couldn’t, and it must have such a huge impact on the moral of people living here.  It’s really sad.

Earlier this year Shell was fined $5 billion dollars for the oil spill I talked about above at the Bonga oilfield.  This is somewhat out of the ordinary for an oil company to have to pay out for a spill in the delta, and hopefully will be a trend that catches on.  Most of the time in the Niger Delta when people bring suit against a big oil company nothing happens.  That’s why groups like The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (“MEND”) a militant group that aim to expose exploitation and oppression of the people exist.  And can you blame them?

In August of 2011 the UN said that “It could take 25 to 30 years, with an initial investment of 1 billion dollars just for the first five years, to clean up pollution from more than 50 years of oil operations in the Niger Delta, ranging from the “disastrous” impact on mangrove vegetation to the contamination of wells with potentially cancer- causing chemicals…”.   Reading that I know that the pollution is going to continue and the cleanup is going to be slow and caught up in bureaucratic red tape, so will the Niger Delta ever be clean again?

The Niger Delta: Soaked in Oil
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8 thoughts on “The Niger Delta: Soaked in Oil

  • August 15, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Great article shedding some international light on the devastation being caused by companies like Shell in third world countries. The share holders in these companies are equally responsible for the death of entire cultures and ecosystems just so they can get their dividends each year.

  • August 16, 2012 at 7:33 am

    Thanks for bringing attention to such an important ecological crisis. It is unthinkable not to have adequate spill control and containment when accidents are inevitable even under ideal circumstances. Shameful!

    • August 16, 2012 at 12:15 pm

      Hi John,

      I agree with your comment. The problem is that these companies are not going to voluntarily have adequate spill control and containment if no one (the government) is holding them accountable. Hopefully this latest fine of $5 billion is a reflection of the government starting to stand up for its people and hold these companies accountable. However, at this point so many people have been harmed and the crisis is so widespread that it will take a lot more than $5 billion to clean it up.

  • August 20, 2012 at 11:39 am

    My company, Environmental Remediation Consultants, Inc. was contacted several months ago via email from some environmental official in the Nigerian government with the idea that our technology, Bio-Integration, might help mitigate these problems. Not sure about the authenticity of this gentleman, I responded that bacteria were a viable solution and could be injected, spread from low flying aircraft, etc. but I would need a lot more information before being totally sure and a visit would be mandatory. I never received a response, but, based on your description and pictures, I would think this approach is worthy of more attention. .

    • August 20, 2012 at 3:48 pm

      Hi Don, your Bio-Integration technology sounds very interesting and I plan to read up on it some more. If you think about it please let me know if the environmental official ever gets back to you. I’d be curious to hear what they have to say. Are there any limits to your technology such as size of area to clean, type of environment (desert, swamp, mangroves, etc)?

  • August 22, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    To everyone who is against drilling for oil or fracking for gas/oil in the US, wake up. We have the best and toughest regulations and oversight any where in the world. Might there be an accident here and there? Of course. But if we continue this group-think mentality to shut out production in the US, this is what you will get!! We demand a country with zero risk and countries like Nigeria pay for it. Do you think the economies of China or India care about the Niger delta?

    Oh, did I mention fracking? When was the last time you saw any environmental damage even close to what is described in the article from drilling for or transporting natural gas? Never. There is no green energy. They are even taking down the dams in the NW to save the salmon. I heard some knucklehead on the radio the other day complaining about the Power Station at Niagara Falls. Not all the water goes over the falls. Oh, sorry. Some is diverted to make “clean” power? Has anyone been to the falls lately and not seen enough water? Think about all this next time you “power up” your computer.

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    • August 28, 2012 at 5:35 pm

      Thanks for the comment. You’re talking about drilling in the US, however the article (and all associated comments) is talking about Nigeria. You MAY be correct in saying we have the toughest regulations and oversight anywhere in the world (I’m not sure), but even with those we have oil spills more often than anyone thinks. Nigeria has no regulations or oversight and so companies like Shell go there and exploit the country to feed their insatiable greed. There’s really no comparing the industry in the US to what’s in Nigeria. I’m not really sure who your comments are aimed at because most of what you’re saying has nothing to do with the article. I’m sure there are plenty of “I Hate the Environment” and “I Like to try and Convince People that the Oil Industry Isn’t Harming Anything” forums that your comments may be better suited for.

      If you’d ever like to post a comment that pertains to something that I wrote please come back anytime.

      And when I “powered up” (not sure why we’re putting that in quotes either) my computer I thought about your comments, and then I thought about the solar panels on my roof that were providing the energy. Thinking about getting all that free and clean energy from the sun made me smile so thanks for reminding me to do that.

      Thanks again for the comment,

  • May 27, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    I’d like to be able to suggest a number of options for getting both land & water areas cleaned up. But the reality of this situations is, that ANY efforts are likely to lead to serious exposure of those involved; even if only in a “humanitarian aid” relationship.
    The government’s abject failures in this region – particularly in not devoting any significant amounts of all that $600/BILLION in crude oil revenues to are development & socio-economic needs – has obviously created a “flashpoint” atmosphere, which has now deteriorated to a “no holds barred” situation. Besides which, obtaining essential central government bureaucratic approvals/permits for virtually ANY services, is a long, hard & costly effort.
    Several years ago, I tried working via Shell Oil’s “Community Development” initiative (since totally abandoned!), to offer some skills & techniques I had to offer, for getting at least some of the worst of the pollution out of the larger water bodies. They were, quietly, even then trying to extract themselves from any strong presence in the area, beyond protecting their investments.
    The key issue here – at least from my long African experience perspective – is that the local indigenous populations have become so totally alienated by their crude treatment & indifference (& by ALL the players in this scenario!) that it would take a “180” change of practices to get them now essentially involved in remediation. And I surely wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they “hold their breath”, waiting for that to happen! But IF, by some miracle the atmosphere here does change, my door is open. I’ve eliminated pollution as bad as “heavy metals” from large water bodies, using only natural & “renewable resource” products to do so; so I’m certain that a lot could be done to restore the environmental integrity of this area, in a dramatically changed atmosphere.


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