With Attention on the Gulf, Niger Delta Oil Spills Continue

Faith Brown vents her frustration towards the stream of oil lapping at the shores through poetry.

The thick, tarry crude paints a gruesome picture. Forming black swirls in the water, the current carries it. Families working in the local fishing industry watch as the threat to their livelihood slowly drifts closer to home.

Brown describes it in her poetry book, Endless Seasons:

The floating, lifeless, bloated fish
In the now blighted river
He is a poor victim of the black gold.

Since April, the world has watched 4.9 million barrels of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

But Brown lives nowhere near Louisiana. In her setting, there is no underwater webcast. Even if there were, there are efforts to stop the leak.

Brown's landscape is the Niger Delta, the resource-rich wetlands of Nigeria sometimes called the Oil Rivers. Lax environmental standards and poor monitoring have led to kilometers of corroded pipeline. They cause spills amounting to one Exxon Valdez every single year, for the past fifty years.

"The Niger Delta has an enormously rich natural endowment in the form of land, water, forests and fauna. These assets, however, have been subjected to extreme degradation due to oil prospecting," said the United Nations Development Programme in a report. "For many people, this loss has been a direct route into poverty."

The delta is the third-largest wetland in the world. Farmland and fishing should be a source of income for 31 million inhabitants. However, the oil-saturated water has destroyed most crops and fish stock.

Besides no 24-hour news coverage, what distinguishes the Niger Delta from the Gulf is the oil doesn't come from one source. Yearly, an average 1,598 breaks or leaks occur in the pipelines. In the last seven months, there have been four major oil spills.

Amnesty International reported in 1995, the Shell Petroleum Development Company acknowledged its infrastructure resulted in 50 per cent of its Nigerian spills. But, the human rights organization says since then, little work was done to stem the flow.

"Without independent assessment there is no way of confirming the scale and extent of poor pipeline maintenance," it said in Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta. "However, by SPDC's (Shell's) own admission, the situation prior to the 1990s was poor, a pipeline replacement programme was ended ...and the subsequent Pipeline Integrity Management System is under-funded and behind schedule."

That means oil is continually spilling into the delta.

In Bomu, children wade through saturated waters searching for seafood seemingly fit to eat. In Taylor Creek, another spill caused damage to local cassava plants, the staple starch in the diet of locals. Meanwhile, Shell admits it lost 100,000 barrels of the commodity last year alone.

Oil companies maintain 90 percent of the Nigerian spills are caused by saboteurs. While this is a problem, crippling poverty caused by the environmental degradation and loss of income is often its source. People whose farmland or fisheries were destroyed by spills sometimes siphon oil to sell on the black market.

However, the scale of this theft is disputed. While oil companies claim it's the primary cause, investigations by Nigeria's National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency have contradicted many of these claims, citing poor maintenance instead.

Through these disagreements, the delta is inundated by oil. As a relief well is drilled in the Gulf, corroded pipelines leak in Nigeria. As BP makes an initial $3 billion deposit into a compensation fund, the delta's local population struggles to find work, their livelihoods gone.

As Anderson Cooper reports live from Louisiana, the Niger Delta remains a faraway region -- just another developing nation immersed by poverty, corruption and greed.

Today, the Niger Delta needs an advocate. It needs clean-up. It needs to be awarded the same standards as here in North America.