BusinessDay
NigeriaDecides2023

The disturbing impact of soot on public health and economy of Port Harcourt

Two major causes of the soot: the activities of illegal oil thieves and the inappropriate burning of these illegal refineries by security operatives

At a time when world economies are brainstorming and finding sustainable solutions to the challenges of climate change, most notably at the just concluded COP26, in Glasgow Scotland in the UK, with President Muhammadu Buhari, assuring and making firm commitment in addressing issues pertaining to climate change in Nigeria.

There has been a worrying trend on various social media platforms about soot in Port Harcourt, the oil and gas hub of Nigeria. In the fourth quarter of 2016, residents of Port Harcourt, mostly from Obio/Akpor, Port Harcourt City, Eleme, and Oyigbo LGAs, experienced a “Black Dust” or soot on the sky, their cars, roof tops, and cloths exposed outside. It began to raise worry and concerns for residents and experts what exactly could that be, the likely cause(s), and its potential effect.

While this gained social media and government’s attention, in early 2017, the Rivers State government constituted a committee led by the then commissioner for Environment, Professor Roseline Konya, to conduct an expert analysis and a fact-finding report to decipher the likely cause(s) of the soot that gradually spread to other parts of Rivers state.

There were suspicion prior to the Professor Konya committee formation, that the Port Harcourt refinery in Eleme, a Chinese Bitumen manufacturing firm, indiscriminate burning of tyres by scavengers, mechanic workshops, and the activities of illegal oil refineries by unscrupulous and notorious oil criminals, commonly known as “Kpo fire” might have been responsible for the soot.

However, after the committee concluded the investigation and submitted its report to the state government, the findings from the report were not far from initial suspicion. The report revealed that there were two major causes of the soot; the activities of illegal oil thieves who employ crude and primitive techniques and the inappropriate burning of these illegal refineries by security operatives during their trail and raid on the criminals.

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The committee further advised the security agents to go after these oil thieves to end this illegal oil theft and ensure that the security operatives devise other means of dealing with the oil thieves when they are caught rather than burning their illegal facilities to further avoid the spread of the soot.

In spite of the Rivers State government, federal ministry of petroleum resources, and ministry of environment promises in addressing this environmental hazard, citizens and the economy of Rivers state continue to suffer from the harmful effect of soot. Environmental and health experts have warned that the soot in Rivers state is capable of leading to respiratory diseases, skin cancer, and kidney and liver damages. It could also damage the human eyes and nostrils.

The soot also presents a threat to air quality as a result of pollution. This could lead to full-blown health crisis and reduce life expectancy rate of residents. Again, the acidic nature of the environment can affect farming activities as the acid rainfall could potentially impact on crop yield and harvest. The rivers and streams, which is a source of water supply for most households within the jetties, and slumps in some parts of the state have been exposed to unclean water, poor sanitation, and hygiene for its users.

The soot also poses a great threat to animals and aquatic life, especially fishing, which is a major occupation for most communities in Rivers state. The rooftops of most buildings in Port Harcourt is expected to witness premature rusting and damages over time. In a nutshell, these harmful effects will lead to loss of human lives.

The impact of soot caused by the activities of oil theft is a major revenue loss to the Rivers and Nigerian economy. Taxation from business activities in these sectors are lost. According to Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), Nigeria has lost $42 billion to activities of oil theft within nine years. Although, the Nigerian security agencies have been indicted severally of supporting these illegal activities.

With the in December 2021. alleging that some of its senior officers are involved in aiding oil theft. The environment, farmlands, and rivers have been polluted by the activities of illegal oil thieves and criminals. The soot could affect foreign and domestic investment into Rivers state and could lead to a transfer of investment to neighbouring state if the government fails to address the challenges of the soot.

There is a need for the federal government to collaborate and assist the Rivers state government in finding a lasting solution to these issues. To the residents of Port Harcourt, it affects their health and economic livelihood, and to the government, a huge revenue loss. It is everyone’s business and requires a collective and inclusive solution as quickly as possible.

Victor Alikor is a development & health economist

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