A tale of two deltas

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5 June 2010

So the ‘junk shot’ of golf balls and shredded tyres failed to plug the Deepwater Horizon gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. There was a strange circularity about BP’s idea of fixing this petroleum-fuelled nightmare by clogging it with petroleum-derived products.

But this is a serious disaster that is at least being taken seriously. The economic and social costs of this environmental catastrophe were recognised and reported very soon after the 20 April blowout. And the spotlight has stayed on the livelihoods and industry that are so tightly tied to the natural abundance of this rich slice of the US Deep South, which includes the Mississippi delta.

As the US government launches a criminal investigation into the spill, accountability is very much to the fore.

Delta blues
Thousands of kilometres away in another delta — which happens to be the fifth biggest source of US oil imports — that word might have a hollow ring.

Here, decades of spills have been only intermittently noted by the outside world. As an IIED report on sustainable energy in Nigeria and John Vidal in the UK-based Guardian remind us, this is a serial disaster that has left swathes of land and sea contaminated and communities struggling with loss of livelihoods and health.

Vidal cites two independent investigations in the Niger delta that suggest the amount spilled in and around the region every year equals what’s been lost in the Gulf so far — estimated at 20 million gallons and rising.

Crude costs
Rooting around in the oily sludge of these disasters is important. We need to discover the true cost, as our worldwide love affair with crude shows no sign of fading, and that will make more drilling (and spilling) inevitable.

Globally, we use about some 30 billion barrels or 1.2 trillion gallons of it every year — not far off a cubic mile. Petroleum is embedded in 21st-century life, fuelling everything from a small farmer’s rattletrap truck to the polymer-based industries that produce plastic bottles, space-station frames — and golf balls.

This ubiquity is a global issue that affects developed and developing countries differently, but can effectively hit the poorest in oil-rich Southern nations harder. As Nobel prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz and others have pointed out, that’s because oil wealth can become a ‘resource curse’, preventing diversification into other sectors and creating ‘rich countries with poor people’: below-ground assets are not converted to development above ground.

Recession can slow the fight against poverty. In a country such as Nigeria — dependent on commodity exports and no longer self-sufficient in food — the downturn’s destabilising effect on oil prices will have knock-on effects on the poor.

But fluctuating oil prices won’t stop the drills. And when people and petroleum drilling mix, a volatile and even explosive cocktail can result.

Oil rich or oil ruined?
That’s certainly what has happened in the Niger delta, where 20 million people live in proximity to intensive oil production.

Here, the pollution — from the spills, corroded and leaking pipes, and gas flaring, which often happen very near communities — has harmed wetlands, mangroves and marine life, and contaminated soils and groundwater. Traditional livelihoods unconnected with the oil industry, such as farming and fishing, have suffered.

Vidal reports that oil interests claim that some 98 per cent of the spillage in the Niger delta is down to sabotage, vandalism and illegal oil ‘bunkering’, or siphoning off. Local communities, and organisations including Friends of the Earth International, blame the corroding oil infrastructure. What’s clear is that the vast majority of people on the delta live in a deteriorating environment while failing to benefit from oil profits.

There is crushing poverty despite the flood of petrodollars: the World Bank estimates that 80 per cent of the revenue earned from oil reaches just 1 per cent of Nigerians. In a nation that has earned more than US$400 billion in oil revenues over the last few decades, the UN Development Programme has noted that 92 per cent of the people live on less than US$2 a day.

Add in serious political instability and health impacts from the pollution that range from respiratory problems to cancer, and the effect on communities and on development in general has been severe.

Grassroots to global
Meanwhile, and unsurprisingly, the cost of the Gulf blowout is already being calculated. In Louisiana alone, it has affected an industry that last year generated 27,000 jobs and some US$2.4 billion in revenue. Those figures represent not just the big-business commercial fisheries that ship round the world, but thousands of ‘small fry’ — family-owned shrimping businesses, for instance, that sell their catches to local outlets and restaurants.

So when the US federal government declared a fisheries failure in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on 24 May, it was a grassroots blow as well as an international one.

Yet because of this decision, a small shrimping business that has run aground is at least eligible for government compensation.

It’s to be hoped they do better than the indigenous Alaskans, commercial fishermen and others grappling with lost or diminished livelihoods after the Exxon Valdez spill.

As for most of the marginalised small and subsistence farmers and fishermen in that other delta — as a case last year showed, the challenge can still lie in simply being heard.   

Beyond junk shots
Globally, this is an industry that needs to learn how to deal effectively with worst-case scenarios. The drip-fed disaster in the Niger delta is only periodically forgotten: the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ phenomenon doesn’t always work in our increasingly information-rich, 360 degree global society.

Meanwhile, IIED’s study on opportunities for sustainable energy in Nigeria — by, say, using flared gas as much-needed community energy supplies — shows one pragmatic way forward that taps into the existing realities and aims towards balanced and inclusive development.

The lives and livelihoods of the poor, who often find themselves sitting on the natural resources richer countries are urgently seeking, should not be viewed as obstacles in a treasure hunt.

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