South Sudan: face up to the consequences of oil exploration and exploitation

South Sudan: face up to the consequences of oil exploration and exploitation

by Lueth Reng Lueth, Juba, South Sudan

Lueth Reng Lueth is an environmental journalist. He can be reached at / 0928199973 or follow him on Twitter @luethmalangdit

Key points:

South Sudan’s near absolute reliance on oil is wrecking its economy and environment – and the world’s climate. Also being devastated are its people’s health – and that of their livestock and the country’s wildlife.

The author suggests a variety of measures that would be capable of mitigating many of the above effects – even reversing them in several cases.

For the last 10 years, ever since the independence of South Sudan in 2011 from Sudan, the economy of South Sudan has been largely supported by and relying upon oil. Above all other things, oil is the important natural resource that has been given much attention by the government leaving out agriculture to mention few. It accounts for about 90% of the government’s revenue incomes while the remaining 10% can be broken down to custom taxes, market taxes, road taxes, income taxes and permits. This is an estimation made by the experts and which is consistent with the assumption of the citizens. Oil being the only thing that the government can export, this year its exportation has been met with extreme fall of the prices in the global market and thus worsening the already hilarious and precarious economy. But despite this drastical drop of the oil prices, South Sudan’s government still have the demand to expand its exploration and exploitation of oil in the oil rich areas. This new development was announced by the Ministry of Petroleum. “The government of South Sudan is planning to offer 14 new oil blocks for exploration in the upcoming licensing around to shore up oil production after a sharp decline from 170,000 BPD to now 165,000 BPD,” said Awuou Daniel Chuang, the Undersecretary in the Ministry of Petroleum in the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity. He further said and I quote “It is not easy for us to go back to the previous 300,000 BPD, we can’t do that because of the geological challenges and at the same time,we understand there is a national decline because the oil reserves are limited.” Although oil has sparked and amassed great interest from the government, and which has been described as lucrative and viewed as the upper most ingredient in the economy of South Sudan, its impacts both to the environment and humans can be ominous. However, the exploration of more areas for oil production indicates that the government of South Sudan is prioritizing the drilling of crude oil above all other uses of our public lands.The oil and gas companies are encroaching upon too many of our lands and when the laws and policies that govern their operation are not met, it will end up causing oil pollution. And the consequences could be devastating both to the environment and the health of the people. Therefore, this article attempts to highlight a number of the effects wreaked by the fossil fuels (petroleum). It also details the means to mitigate them.

Firstly, oil companies are among the culprits of air pollution-one of the world’s biggest killers according to the United Nations. When fossil fuels are burnt by power plants, automobiles and industrial facilities, they generate toxic gases. The inhalation of this dirty air can trigger respiratory problems such as asthma, tuberculosis, cardiovascular diseases and even fetus developmental issues. The human health implications of oil extraction are not limited to air pollution. The drilling method of fracking is known for contaminating drinking water sources with dangerous chemicals that lead to birth defects, cancer and liver damage. This controversial method injects a mixture of water and chemicals into rock formations to release oil. As a result, it generates huge volumes of wastewater with chemicals that leak to the surface water sources and underground aquifers. Although the health risks from oil are real and clearly visible to the eyes of those who visit the oilfields for one reason or another, the government continues to push for oil drilling near communities. This is a shocking plan because health is a human right and can’t be compromised. “The enjoyment of the highest attainable heath standards is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political beliefs, economic and social conditions”. These words are embedded in the constitution of World Health Organization,WHO since April 7, 1948. All exposures, no matter how seemingly insignificant, may prove to be consequential. What may seem to be a relatively trivial exposure in a healthy individual may potentially prove to be catastrophic, and the consequences may not only be felt acutely, but from generation to generation.

Secondly, oil development destroys pristine landscapes. The infrastructure that is built for oil extraction can leave behind radical impacts on the lands. Also the construction of the roads, facilities and drilling sites known as wellpads requires the use of heavy machines and this can deliberately destroy big chunks of our primitive wilderness. The damage is often irreversible. Those developments can remove large amounts of rangelands and vegetation. And when the vegetation is removed, soil erosion is increased, which can lead to landslides and flooding. The researchers warned that even if oil companies eventually abandon these sites, it can take very many years (centuries) before the land fully recovers. The problem is that fossil fuel development is always located in semi-arid climate that receives little precipitation. A full recovery would require human intervention and a bundle of resources. So, it would be wise for the government of South Sudan to take actions now without further delay in order to protect and restore our pristine lands before they are ruined. “We need tonic of wilderness…….At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that lands be indefinitely unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature,” said Henry David Thoreau.

Thirdly, burning of fossil fuels releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the air. This greenhouse gas – like the others – traps unwanted heat from the atmosphere causing global warming. This has given rise to such catastrophic developments as the rises in sea levels, extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, extinction of species and food scarcity. These have joined to worsen the health and deepen the poverty of billions of people worldwide. The industrial revolution ushered in the humans have been burning more and more fossil fuels and this has made the temperatures of the earth to increase by 1°C. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body founded in 1988 for assessing the science related to Climate Change) report of 2018 has found out that emmisions from fossil fuels are the dominant cause of global warming and carbon dioxide emissions alone account for about 89%. The IPCC also warns that fossil fuel emissions must be halved within 11 years if global warming is to be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Unless we successfully combat climate change, the massive wildfires, floods and droughts we have experienced will become more frequent, more severe and more damaging. No more excuses. We need to transform our energy away from fossil fuels now and save the planet. Chinese President, Xi Jingping once said: “Tackling climate change is a shared mission for mankind…..Let us join hands to contribute to the establishment of equitable and effective global mechanisms on climate change, work for global sustainable development at a high level and bring about new international relations featuring win-win cooperation.”

Fourthly, oil spills are known killers of animals. Smaller spills including other substances in the extraction process don’t always make headlines and become a topic of discussion on our national TV and Radios but can also be dangerous. During oil extraction on land, drilling fluids are injected into the well for lubrication. These oil- based fluids are supposed to be captured in lined pits for disposal, but because of inattention of the oil contractors operating in the oilfields, they are often spilled and splashed around the drilling site which can result to environmental pollution. Big and small, oil spills have been steadily increasing in the oil-rich areas but little attention has been given to it by the government. “If you ask the fish and other aquatic animals whether they’d rather have an oil spill or a season of fishing, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d vote for another blowout,” said Carl Safina, an American Ecologist. These spills can have long-term environmental impacts and devastating effects on animals through direct contact, inhalation and ingestion of toxic chemicals. Oil and chemical spills can also damage animals’ livers, kidneys, spleen, brain and other vital organs. Not only that but also, immune system and reproductive failure are caused by oil spills to animals. Oil spills can also trigger long- term ecological changes by damaging animals’ nesting or breeding grounds. Because of high demand for oil, the government of South Sudan is determined to open several marine ecosystems and wilderness lands to drilling. The marine ecosystems in most parts of the world serves as the earth’s aquatic ecosystems and act as rich sources of food and income for humans. Despite the important of marine ecosystems, human activities for example pollution among many others have caused significant demage and serious threats to marine biodiversity.

Fifthly, light pollution that comes from the drilling sites impacts wildlife. The glare from oil and gas sites can be strong that it’s even visible from the space and can affect wild animals in those particular areas. Much of that light is produced by the burning or flaring of natural gas, well pads and strong sites. The far-fetched researches have shown that the bright glow hurts pollinators such as bees. These insects have very important job of moving pollen to generate new fruits and plants. Luminosity disrupts their sleep, feeding and reproductive cycles leading to the dwindling of plants.

Another impact of oil and gas extraction is the fact that it causes menace to wildlife. This is because loud noises, human movements and vehicle traffic from drilling operations can disrupt avain species’ communication, breeding and nesting. The infrastructure built for energy development can also get in the way. In those areas where extraction process takes place, antelopes, gazelles, deer, elephants, leopards, rhinos, lions, giraffes and many other animals are among the species impacted. Wildlife has a wide range of ecological, economic and cultural importance in relations to human existence. The migration of these animals to the neighboring countries because of the extraction will robe South Sudan of many benefits: ecotourism for example. “We’ll lose more species of animals between 2000 and 2065 than we’ve lost it the last 65 million years. If we don’t find answers to these problems, we’re gonna be victims of this extinction event that we’re at fault for,” said Paul Watson, a Canadian-American conversation and Environmental Activist.

In spite of such harms, I still believe that South Sudan can rediscover and find its destiny. A future where all its citizens make sacrifices for the survival of the biosphere— and secure the living conditions for the present and future generations. And the only way for South Sudan to do just that is to implement the Paris Agreement in letter and spirit. South Sudan is a signatory to this agreement. The agreement highlights number of key ways that all member states can use to support the phase out of fossil fuel subside. To meet this pledge, the government of South Sudan has to leave its fossil fuels in the ground and shift to sustainable agriculture. Agriculture plays a major role in our existence— from what we eat, use in our offices, classrooms, what we wear , when we go to sleep at night, what we do at anytime can be linked/associated with agriculture. “Agriculture is the backbone of the country’s economy!”. If we think about this phrase, we admit that agriculture is very important in the economy of the country. But to our shame, we must also admit that through our words and actions, we (youths) always create negative image of agriculture. This is very dangerous, for if we loose one generation that is not interested in agriculture, who is going to produce food, fibre and other essentials that we need to live from? This false perception about agriculture as a career needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Charles Jordan once said: “What people do not understand, they do not value, what they do not value, they do not protect, and what they do not protect, they will loose.” We therefore must creat an understanding of agriculture amongst the youths so that they will value and protect it in order to ensure the prosperous and wealth creating agricultural sector. Agriculture is not limited to farming, as a matter of fact, it reaches beyond the farm gate. Farming forms the foundation of the whole agricultural sector on which secondary agricultural practices and production are done down the whole value chain until the products are used by all the citizens of our country. With no hesitation, South Sudan should substitute fossil fuels(oil) with sustainable agriculture for its growth and development.

Another thing the government of South Sudan can do is to allow the local communities to discuss the problems they face with oil and gas companies ( the discussion should involve the experts and technocrats of those communities so that the problems facing locals are correctly presented ). The discussion can also serve as a tool to allow them hold oil and gas companies accountable for their onus to the environment and health of those living around the oil rich areas. If the dialogue between the oil companies and local communities is done with no hidden agenda, the farmers whose livelihoods have been eroded due to oil related environmental degradation can be provided with financial support to help them develop alternative income sources.

In addition to the open dialogue between oil companies and the communities whose lands are gifted with crude oils and who are at the same time impacted by the activities of crude oil drilling, lifting in of the locals for job opportunities by the oil companies could help them improve their economic situation since the lands they use for agriculture are devastated by the activities of oil companies ( this is well stipulated in the Mining Act and Petroleum Act of 2012 but has remained as a concept rather than a reality ). Also the way of recruiting educated local residents by the oil companies into their work force could help them earn the money the that can help improve their health and living conditions. If this is honestly done, the indigenes who are employed will enforce environmental laws and policies enshrined in the Petroleum and Mining Act of 2012 to safeguard the health of the locals. The bad thing is that Environmental laws and policies remain as words in the Constitution, but this shouldn’t be like this,they are to be used for the benefits of the people and the environment.

The oil companies in partnership with the government and the local communities who are inflicted by oil pollutions should garner several environmental campaign awarenesses in the oil rich areas in order to sensitize the local populations on the negative catastrophes of crude oil pollution on humans and the environment. If this is done in good faith, the exposure of the people to the environmental contaminants could be lowered and the long term impacts of oil pollutions on the health of people living in oil fields can be reduced to a drastic degree.

All the pools, ponds and streams that are noticed to have been polluted by crude oil should be guarded off with fence from the children and animals so that they wouldn’t have access to them. By so doing, the animals would be safe from drinking the water that is contaminated. Humans are likely to be affected through food chain if they consume the meats of animals that are inflicted by crude oil pollution. Also by fencing off the ponds and pools from children, the chances of children getting skin cancers through their contact with the polluted water would be reduced. Another important thing the government of South Sudan should do is to conduct both Environmental and Social Audit in all the oilfields. The purposes of environmental and social audit are but not limited to (1) know the extent to which the damage is caused by the oil pollution (2) help to improve the production safety, and to prevent and reduce the chemical wastes of the industrial sector ( 3) provide performance reviews of industrial working facilities and its possible impacts on the surroundings (4) social audit is meant to evaluate, report on, and improve an organization’s performance and behaviour, and for measuring its effects on society (social auditing can be used to produce a measure of social responsibility of an organization). If government cares about the health of its citizens, the environmental and social audit should be done in the oilfields starting from the time when country was still United Sudan. “An independent organization will now be appointed to conduct the audit, mandated to suggest best practices for the new exploration as well as the ways to repair historical damage in the country,” said Awuou Daniel Chiang, the then Minister of Petroleum and now the Undersecretary in the Ministry of Petroleum in the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity. This plan hasn’t been realized yet.

Further more, the facility for treating waste water has to be built so that waste water that is just splashed around in a careless manner is first subjected to the series of treatments. It has to undergo primary, Secondary and advanced treatments before it’s discharged to the environment. These are some of the processes that the oil consortia operating in the oilfields should do without being reminded of them ( government and the oil companies should first agree on this thing before the contract is fully awarded). And if this is not done, I say the government through its two ministries I.e Ministry of Petroleum and Ministry of Environment and Forestry have the prerogative to take any measures against such oil consortia. Monitoring the activities of the oil companies remains largely the work of the government that awards contracts and if the government is unsuccessful to take the responsibility and at its watch allow its citizens to suffer, then it’s upto the inhabitants or anybody to take the government to court. The failure of the government to monitor the day and night activities of the oil companies could be number one reason as to why the government of South Sudan was sued by Hope for Humanity to the East African Court of justice in April this year. “If the government still over look the consequences of oil pollution and turn a blind eye on the deteriorating health of the inhabitants of the oil rich areas, then the locals living in those areas should flee by their own to safe places . Most of the kids are born without limbs and some people have become infertile, agricultural farms are devastated, evacuating the areas is the only way out for their scrupulous health,” said one of the inhabitants of the oil rich areas who chose to remain anonymous. These are words of the person who has become hopeless and frustrated and who sees no good in the future. South Sudan had in the past overcome some of the terrible odds and challenges, the civil war that took 21 years for example let alone oil pollution that doesn’t require any political approach to solve it. In order to win the fight against the oil pollution, South Sudan’s leaders and corporations need to unit behind the science and start treating the pollution with existential emergency it is. The suggestions that I have given in this article can be anyone’s opinions—-anyone who is troubled and who sees the environment as the facet of life that requires utmost attention. “The relationship between man (human beings) and the environment is one that is reciprocal in a sense that man can not live without the environment and the environment needs a man to adhere to its conditions so as to have a sustainable environment to live in,” (Goodland, 2006).