Gas flaring: Hundreds of Omoku people may go blind

THE PUNCH Newspaper - Ibanga Isine

Uche Omode, a 35-year-old indigene of Omoku in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni Local Government of Rivers State is in serious trouble. With the resources from his pool’s betting business hardly enough to sustain his family of four, the young man runs the risk of losing his sight soon. Even if he mortgages his small house, covered with rusted zinc, it would not pay the bill for his treatment.

“I was born without any problem with my eyes,” he began. “I grew up in Omoku with other children. We had a wonderful time here but the situation has changed now. A lot of people now have difficulty with their sight. They say we have cataract.”

Almost two years after his eyes started giving him problems, Omode is yet to get any treatment. He said, “I went for free medical treatment that was offered here some months ago but I was not given attention. They looked at faces before treating them and I left after waiting for a whole day.”

Frustrated and angry, Omode is waiting for the day the sun would set on his eyes; the day he would no longer be able to hold the faces of his three children and his gorgeous wife. Faced with this threatening reality, tears, like drops of spring water, streamed down his cheek as he sat in front of his small house, which is sandwiched by other makeshift buildings along the entire stretch of Iyasira road in the heart of Omoku.

Hundreds of young and old men in the community have similar problem as confirmed by a medical practitioner in the area.

On a particularly hot afternoon, the steam emanating from behind Omode’s house where his wife has just finished preparing a belated lunch has made the heat unbearable. But the heat of the sun and from hundreds of kitchens in Omoku, do not constitute the issue for the people. Many blame the multinational oil companies for the woes of the community.

Asked what the oil companies had done, Omode pointed to the distant horizon, where huge flames billow in the air and large pillars of black smoke leap like evil spirits escaping from the dungeons of hell. He said, “That is gas being flared by one of the oil companies operating in this community. It has been going on like this for over 40 years.” Omode is not the only one faced with the grim possibility of losing his sight.

A United Kingdom-based lawyer from the community, Mr. John Ebrika, said Omoku had over 100 oil wells, the largest in any single community in Nigeria . Before he travelled abroad, he said the community was peaceful and life expectancy was high. Now, he said people hardly live above 55 years. Ebrika blamed the oil companies for the woes of the community, Ogba Kingdom and the Niger Delta region.

He said, “Agip and Total EPNL have been operating here for the last 40 years and have been flaring gas. I am not a medical doctor to know what the practice has done to the health of our people. But I know that people no longer live beyond 55 years. Besides, the level of poverty and hunger here is worrisome.” Knowing that the community used statistics issued by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and Agip to make demands, the legal practitioner said such records were no longer made public.

Speaking about efforts to get the oil companies to publish the Environmental Impact Assessment report on the gas being flared in the community, he said, “I have been involved in some committees set up to see what could be done to remedy the problems in the community. One of the committees is headed by the Oba of Ogba land and it had asked Agip to give us the EIA of their gas plant in the community. Up till now, they are yet to oblige.” Speaking out of frustration, he said, “When you are dealing with oil companies that have that kind of attitude, then it would be difficult to know the kind of impact their operation is causing to the environment and the economy of the people. Agip has played with us.”

Ebrika said the community has, however, not approached the NNPC for the report. He argued that since the EIA report was a legitimate component of oil operations, the NNPC would have compelled all the companies to obey the law. “There is a law that compels Agip to publish the EIA report. The law requires that people should have access to the report.”

An environmental activist from the area, Mr. Napoleon Adam, insisted that the relationship of the oil majors with the people of Omoku was not different from that with other Niger Delta communities. “They (multi-national oil firms) are involved in divide-and-rule and cause trouble within the oil-bearing communities.”

He said gas flaring had caused a lot of complications to the health of the people and listed some of such ailments to include cataract, asthma, tuberculosis and other upper respiratory tract infections.

He lamented, “The fact is that the average community man or woman does not know what flaring is doing to their lives, but for a few of us who know, we are alarmed. We have eight flare points here. The people see the flare as normal, something that has gone on for a long time. We have been calling on Agip and the government to stop flaring here.”

Perhaps, a vivid picture of what is happening in Omoku and neighbouring areas is captured by the Secretary of the World Environmental Movement for Africa , Dr. Lucky Elenia. In an emotion-laden voice, he said, “This is the story of a people dying gradually without a war being waged; where no gun is shot and no knife is drawn. Our people are going blind and nothing is being done to save them.”

While living in the midst of abundance, he said, the people have no food to eat. “To worsen the situation, gas flaring has led to untimely deaths because the atmosphere here has been so polluted that the oxygen content is less than normal.” With a global oxygen requirement of 21 percent, he said Ogba communities have less than 11.8 percent.

On how he found that the oxygen content of the area has been depleted, Elenia said there was a global admission that the oxygen level in the universe has seriously depleted due to high level of industrial operations.

“We have carried out studies which have shown that the oxygen content of our environment here has been seriously depleted. I can tell you that there is no place where in the midst of plenty, people have remained perpetually subjugated, poor and in penury,” he noted.

For instance, he said majority of Omoku people and other Ogba communities get their drinking water from the rain, polluted creeks and river and attributed the high mortality rate in the area to the poisonous substances discharged into the environment by oil firms. He said, “There are no records of births and deaths in Omoku and in the local government council; but averagely, 10 persons are being buried daily here. All of them die of brief illnesses. I just returned from where a young man had just been buried.”

At the Omoku General Hospital , senior medical personnel, who pleaded anonymity, confirmed that many of those who report to the facility, have been diagnosed with cataract. A doctor said, “We have a lot of people with cataract. I want to find out the immediate and remote causes of cataract in the community because while I was in the medical school, we were told that cataract could only occur among elderly people. But I have come to find out that people in their late 30s have the problem in this community.”

He said majority of those diagnosed with cataract had no idea about their conditions until they visit the hospital. “Normally, they come for other issues or usually complain that there are not seeing well. On examination, you discover that they have cataract.” He said several factors could lead to cataract, such as high blood pressure. “The number of people with hypertension here is so high and a lot of factors could lead to it. Stress, pressure and other environmental conditions can cause it,” he added.

He said that it was difficult for people in the area to sleep properly at night because of excessive heat. “If you go inside the community where houses are built close to one another and with poor ventilation, the situation is worse.”

He said the growing cases of high blood pressure and cataract in the area might have resulted from the prolonged flaring of gas and the discharge of pollutants into the environment.

If gas flaring is responsible for the health problems in Omoku and other Ogba communities, then the people are in serious trouble because the government is still unsure of when it will end. Minister of State in the Petroleum Ministry, Mr. Odein Ojumogobia, said recently that the government was working with major oil firms to determine a workable flare out date. According to him, flaring would not be stopped until the nation was able to utilise the gas produced during exploitation.

But the Minister of Environment, Mr. John Odey, has said the Federal Government has no definite date to enforce zero gas flaring by oil companies operating in the country.

Odey gave the indication in Port Harcourt, recently while inspecting facilities of the National Oil Spill Detection Agency under construction.

He said, however that the government was collaborating with oil companies to end flaring but noted that it would end within President Umaru Yar’Adua tenure.

An Agip official, who did not want to be quoted, said the oil firm had “been supplying power to the Obiafu Community, as par of its many community relations programmes.

“The Obiafu/Obirikom gas plant supplies gas to Eleme, the NLNG plant and Omoku power plant. Agip does not flare gas


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