Environmental and Public Health Catastrophe in the South Sudan Oilfields: Oil, Wealth, and Health
By Bior K. Bior
“If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”~ Dr. Peter Singer
Like the history of the country itself, the history of oil exploration in South Sudan is littered with contradictions. The first international oil giant to venture into the Sudan in search of oil was an American oil company called Chevron in 1974, just barely two years after the conclusion of the Sudan’s first civil war. After seven years of protracted warfare, which pitted the largely Christian and animist South against an Arab Islamic north, the agreement that was signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1972 granted Southern Sudan a limited autonomy. After ending the war, the Sudanese government began to exploit its natural resources to resuscitate the ailing economy.
The major discoveries of oil in the Sudan came about when Chevron discovered viable oil reserves in what is now block one. In 1982, Chevron made two even larger discoveries: the Heglig and Unity oil fields which today are some of the most productive oilfields in the Sudan and South Sudan respectively. During the next six years, Chevron dug eighty-seven (87) more oil wells at an estimated cost of $880 million. Soon after, the political crisis in the Sudan affected their operations, and they ended up having nothing to show for their mammoth investment; they left the country bitter and disgruntled.
After Chevron’s attempts to extract oil in the Sudan were frustrated by the escalating civil war between the north and the South, the then President of the Sudan, Jafar Nimeiri, attempted to redraw the boundaries of Upper Nile province so that the oil fields discovered by Chevron would be located in the northern territory. This didn’t sit well with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) under the able leadership of Dr. John Garang. As a result, the SPLM/A intensified the war to thwart the North’s attempt to annex South Sudan’s oilfields to its territory.
- Forceful displacement of the civilians and careless oil exploration in Southern Sudan
As the war intensified in the early 1990s between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the Sudanese government of the National Islamic Front (NIF), the military junta of the Sudan also intensified its search for petrodollars to fund the war, which was becoming religious and expensive. As a result, the Sudanese government undertook intense military expeditions into the South, ostensibly to drive out the local populations from most of the oil-rich regions of Southern Sudan to create a space for oil exploration.
Using superior weaponry than the SPLM/A, and with the support of the South Sudanese ethnic militias who leagued up with them, the National Islamic Front (INF) government succeeded in driving the people out of the oil-rich areas of Southern Sudan and began to exploit the oil earnestly. Because the oil companies who were given the oil concessions at the time viewed the land as a “no-man’s land,” they started mining the oil without instituting measures to protect the environment and the people. This “carefree” exploitation of oil in the Southern Sudan region resulted in massive pollution of the areas in which the oil was being extracted.
- Poison and mystery
During the years leading up to South Sudan’s long awaited independence, which eventually materialized in 2011, no appreciable attempt was ever made either by the government of the autonomous Southern Sudan (GOSS), or by the Government of National Unity (GoNU), to address the issue of oil pollution in the South Sudan oilfields. Despite the numerous complaints by the impacted communities and the NGOs working in the oil-rich areas about the unfolding environmental and public health degradation due to careless oil exploration activities, the government of South Sudan, which took over the sole responsibility of all the oilfields within the boundaries of South Sudan after the country gained its independence, and the petroleum operating companies (POCs) continued to downplay the issue; no appreciable action has been taken so far to remedy the bourgeoning oil pollution problem and its associated environmental and public health impacts.
The current oil production in South Sudan is a shared venture among the following crude oil hunting giants: China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), PETRONAS of Malaysia, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) of India, Nilepet of South Sudan, and the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC). Since oil extraction began in South Sudan in the late 1990s, a catastrophic environmental and public health disaster has been unfolding in the South Sudan oil-producing areas. Although overshadowed by famine and the raging war in the country, the catastrophic effects of carefree oil extraction activities are beginning to be felt by the communities that live near/around the oilfields.
All the reports compiled so far on the oil pollution phenomenon in South Sudan are unanimous on their conclusions that environmental contaminants are ubiquitous in all the South Sudan oil-producing environs. These oil-derived environmental contaminants come in various forms. For instance, improperly capped wellheads are continuously bursting, poorly constructed Produced Water (PW) ponds routinely overflow in the rainy season, and plastic containers of expired toxic chemicals are left in the sun to degrade. Unfortunately, locals haven’t been sensitized enough on the dangers posed by the oil-related toxins in their environment on their health and that of their animals. As a result, humans and cattle alike drink crude oil tainted water, thus inadvertently exposing themselves to dangerous hydrocarbons and heavy metals that are evidently beginning to impact their health.
4. Rapidly accelerating Environmental and Public Health Catastrophe
Without any measured pressure from the government, the nascent Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), and the general public, which has essentially been kept in the dark about the unfolding environmental and public catastrophe in the oil-rich regions of South Sudan, the oil companies continue to do business as usual. While the people and the environment writhe agonizingly under the enormous weight of man-made environmental and public health catastrophe, the wealth in form of crude oil continues to flow to the international markets where it fetches an enormous amount of petrodollars that has been lining the pockets of politically well-connected elites.
Although the oil companies like to pretend that nothing terrible is happening, reports from the oilfields with respect to the environmental state of affairs are disheartening. For example, in Thar Jath oilfields, a research undertaken by a German NGO, “Sign of Hope (SoH)”, shows that the groundwater aquifers in the area have been terribly polluted by heavy metals and inorganic impurities that aren’t compatible with human physiology. The data shows that the groundwater in the area is almost five (5) times salty than normal. The same study reveals that the level of lead, a heavy metal of public health concern, was found to be 58-59 folds more than what is recommended by the World Health Organization in drinking water. Because no comparable high water salinity has been observed in the other geographically similar areas of South Sudan that are not experiencing oil exploration activities, it is scientifically reasonable to conclude that the abnormal water salinity in Thar Jath area is attributable to oil pollutants in the environment.
In Panriang oilfields, oil pollution has been reported to be negatively impacting the people and animals in the area. For instance, a report compiled by the local authorities in the area in 2015 shows that the member of women giving birth to deformed babies is on the rise, cases of infertility among men and women are also skyrocketing, and livestock and other wild animals are mysteriously dying in unprecedented numbers. In Panriang oilfields, it has been documented that when the animals (cows, goats, and wildlife) graze in crude-soaked pastures and fields, they instantly die, which suggests that the crude is out-rightly poisoning the animals. Also, a survey undertaken by Moro et al. of the University of Juba in 2015 shows that oil exploration in Paloch oil-rich area is negatively impacting the local population as it has torn up agricultural lands and polluted locals streams and rivers.
It was also found that villagers whose ancestral villages have been swallowed by oil extraction activities were moving away from their villages, only to find themselves stranded in the territories of hostile communities. The survey also reveals that the local population’s relationship with the oil companies, who keep paying lips services to the principle of “Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)”, is beginning to get sour. While the oil companies continue to be shielded by the government’s indifference to the plight of the citizens who are being impacted, the land and the environment continue to be assaulted and degraded.
- Oil pollutants are ubiquitous in the oil-rich environs
A field visit to the various South Sudanese oilfields (Paloch, Adar, and Panriang) undertaken by the Nile Initiative for Health and Environment (NIHE) 2016 found that environmental contaminants such Produced Water (PW), spilled crude, gas flares, and abandoned drilling chemicals were ubiquitous in the environment and that no appreciable effort was being exerted by the oil companies operating in the oilfields to cleanup the mess. After the Dec. 15th, 2013 crisis, which triggered the ongoing civil war in South Sudan, some of the oil installations were left unattended. These oil installations are vulnerable to vandalism and wildfires, thus threatening the environment, the people, and the wildlife in the areas in which they have been abandoned.
Sadly, the local villagers aren’t aware of the danger lurking in their environment. For instance, while the NIHE team was recording the environmental abuses in Panriang oilfield, a local woman was pictured fletching water for household use from a Produced Water (PW) pond, obviously oblivious to the fact that Produced Water (PW) is an amalgam of dangerous petrochemicals that aren’t compatible with human physiology. In Paloch oilfields, a similar behavior was recorded when a local villager was seen taking his cows for drinking in the nearby Produced Water (PW) ponds which hadn’t been fenced off properly by the oil company operating in the area. In Adar oilfield, abandoned oil drilling chemicals yards dotted the landscape. Given the flat topography of this area, these chemicals could be carried far and wide when it floods as it habitually does, thus widening the scale of environmental pollution and degradation caused by these abandoned chemicals.
To remedy the oil pollution problem in South Sudan, a number of measures, both long terms and short terms, ought to be expeditiously undertaken before the situation spirals out of control. As short term measures, (1) the oil companies in conjunction with the government and the local communities who have been impacted by the oil pollution ought to urgently conduct environmental health awareness campaigns in the oil-rich areas to sensitize the local populations on the danger of oil contaminants in the environment. If this is properly done, the locals’ exposure to environmental contaminates could be reduced, and the long terms impacts of oil pollutants on the health of the people living in the oilfields could be drastically reduced.
(2) The Produced Water (PW) ponds, which were poorly constructed, need to be decommissioned so that the better ones could be constructed. (3) All the drilling chemicals that have been left decomposing in the environment need to be removed and destroyed. (4) All the Produced Water (PW) ponds need to be fenced off so that the locals’ livestock won’t have access to them.
In the long terms, (1) there is a need for a complete Environmental and Social Audit (ESA) in all the South Sudan oilfields ostensibly to know the extent of environmental damage that has been caused by oil exploration dating back to the times when South Sudan and the Sudan were one country. (2) Environmental and biological samplings need to be undertaken so that the extent of environment pollution and the exposure of the local populations to oil pollutants could be quantified.
These will be serious undertakings, which will have to involve all the stakeholders to bring them to fruition. The government, the oil companies, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), and the local communities ought to work cooperatively to address the issue of oil pollution in the South Sudan oilfields. Instead of trading blames and accusations, these stakeholders ought to bring their resources together to address this issue that acutely threatens the wellbeing of multitudes in a manner that is unprecedented.
As Peter Singer would have it, “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” It is obvious that something terrible is happening in our oilfields, and it is in our power to stop it. We are therefore morally obligated to see to it that the lives of our people and the environment in the oil-rich areas of South Sudan are protected. By doing so, we aren’t losing anything of comparable moral importance and therefore have no reason to procrastinate when the lives of our citizens have been endangered.
About the author
Bior K. Bior holds a PhD in cells and Molecular Biology from the University of Vermont (USA). He is the founder of the Nile Initiative for Health and Environment (NIHE), an environmental and public health research think-tank operating in Juba, South Sudan. At NIHE, Dr. Bior’s research focuses on understanding the impacts of oil pollution on the local communities, and the environment in South Sudan Oilfields. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org