The Niger Delta’s Harsh Lessons: Fossil Fuels’ Harm to People and the Planet 
Niger Delta
Oil and gas extraction has poisoned the Niger Delta since the first drilling license was granted by British colonialists in 1958.

SHARM EL SHEIKH, EGYPT – Ken Henshaw’s story of his Niger Delta community’s experience with fossil fuel extraction reads like the fallout from a war zone without the ready presence of international media to document the devastation.

Henshaw lives at ground zero of one of Africa’s earliest and longest-running experiences with oil extraction, a six decade saga that has transformed Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, the vast wetlands that opens to the Atlantic, into one of the most polluted areas on earth.

The situation continues to worsen over time, said the Executive Director of the Port Harcourt-based NGO, We the People, the largest city in the area that has suffered from decades of pollution due to fossil fuels extraction to its rivers, soils and air.

“I was born into a crude oil age, where we saw companies like Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Shell invade our communities, invade our swamps, invade our rivers, invade our wetlands, our farmlands, everything, drilling for crude oil and gas,” said the longtime activist, speaking at a WHO-sponsored event Friday at COP27 on the Health Impacts of Fossil Fuels.

“It’s a place where crude oil has been extracted nonstop for the last 64 years with devastating environmental and health consequences.”

On May 12, 2016, hundreds of people gathered at the first-ever oil well in the Niger Delta demanding a halt to drilling and rehabilitation of the area.

Henshaw spoke in a panel that included leading pollution and health experts, as well as activists from New Delhi, which is currently facing  a perennial air pollution emergency, and representatives of Alberta Canada’s First Nation Cree, where tribal lands have been defiled by repeated oil spills over the past decade, as recently as 2021. 

The Niger Delta’s dense swamps, rivers and wetlands that empty into the Atlantic, and have become the poster child for the devastating impacts oil and gas extraction can have on vulnerable and remote communities.

“There has been an unprecedented penetration of every nook and cranny of the Niger Delta for the last 64 years,” Henshaw said. The first drilling license in the Delta was granted in 1958 by British colonial rulers to the oil and gas company that later became Shell Oil.  The license, as he tells it, “basically gave them permission to go into any farmland, any river, any creek to drill for crude oil.

“Illicit wedlock”, says Ken Henshaw.

“And they have continued that way for 64 years up to today, drilling nonstop for crude oil in our space.

“We live in a community where people have been literally kicked out of their homes for oil to be extracted for the Nigerian state and the oil company partners.

“There is an illicit wedlock cemented in petrol profits, at the detriment of the people of the Niger Delta region.

“In this period, the Niger Delta people have become poorer and oil extraction has happened with the worst form of technology imaginable,” he added.

Routine flaring of methane continues despite 1979 ban

Gas Flare
Burning Gas flare Nembe Creek, Nigeria.

Henshaw described how routine flaring of methane, a practice technically banned by the government in 1979, continues to this day, with actual enforcement delayed over more than four decades.  The flaring of pent-up gas locked in oil wells occurs at hundreds of facilities across the region, contributing to air pollution that harms health and ecosystems by creating acid rain.

Fumes from the methane flaring combine with those of artisanal oil extraction, which is common in a region where locals have no formal access to the oil and gas resources exploited by the multinationals. These also combine at times with emissions from the Port Harcourt refinery to form a heavy soot that periodically blackens the skies of the regional capital, infiltrating homes and surfaces everywhere.

“We woke up one morning and we saw soot everywhere, on windows, our beds,” Henshaw said, describing one recent event including a display of pictures of his soot-blackened hand.

Fossil fuels responsible for about 65% of excess air pollution deaths from avoidable human sources

WHO-organized session at COP27 Friday on the health harms of fossil fuels, with activists from Nigeria, India and Canada, as well as pollution experts.

Globally, air pollution from fine particulate matter generated by both fossil fuels and biomass burning causes about 7 million deaths a year, according to WHO estimates. Other reputable studies have pegged that number even higher, at 8.793 million excess deaths, According to that latter analysis, about 5.55 million excess air pollution deaths a year are from sources created by human activities, 65% of which represent fossil fuels combustion. The other 35% is largely attributable to biomass burning for home cooking and heating, according to the 2018 study by researchers at Germany´s Max Planck Institute, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of California.

Tiny particles of pollution emitted by both fossil fuels and biomass penetrate deep into the lungs, the blood system and even the brain, and carry with them an array of particularly toxic and cancer-causing chemicals, explained Dr. Poornima Prabhakaran, of the Public Health Foundation of India, and one of the experts at the session.

Not surprisingly, Indians who are exposed to some of the highest levels of air pollution in the world, also have high levels of air pollution linked diseases, such as hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, she said.

Public Health Foundation of India

Pollution pervasive not only in the air, but in water and soils

Henshaw also sees first-hand the high levels of respiratory illness, but also abnormal hormonal changes, birth defects and a reduced life expectancy from fossil fuels pollution that is not only pervasive in the air, but in water sources and soils.

“Assessments indicate that more and more people living in the Niger Delta region are suffering respiratory illnesses. But not only that, there are increasing numbers of children born with deformities on account of black soot. There are women who go into menopause at the age of 25. And while the average life expectancy in Nigeria is low, life expectancy in the Delta region is only about 46 – about ten years less than the national average,” he related.

Pollution from crude oil leaks, including pipeline breaks and sabotage in the Niger Delta region.

Water pollution in the region is particularly severe, he said. Constant ruptures to the several thousand kilometers of oil pipes, some of which date back to the British colonial period, darken the Delta’s waters. Some of the sabotage is committed by people desperate for fuel that they do not otherwise benefit from.

“Pipelines have been buried in the swamps, the creeks and the farmlands of the Niger Delta region,” Henshaw explained.  “And as routine as clockwork, on an almost daily basis, the pipelines rupture.

Spatial distribution of pipeline oil spills in the Niger Delta from 2007-2015

“You don’t know the health impact of an oil spill until you see one,” he added, displaying images of the destruction wreaked. “A few barrels of crude oil spilling into the river sends thousands of fisherfolks into starvation.

“If the spill happens on farm lands, one whole year of crops die instantaneously. If it’s in the forest, these are not just forests, these are also our pharmacies.  When they are destroyed we lose medicines upon which we also depend.

“And there’s never a time when there’s no oil spill in the Niger Delta region. As I speak to you  there is an ongoing oil spill. There are always spills.”

Fossil fuels harm health all along the product lifecycle 

A cascading chain of health impacts from fossil fuels; Lancet’s 2022 Countdown report.

Henshaw’s stories illustrate how the global obsession with fossil fuels causes health threats all along the life cycle chain of production and use, said Jane Burston, executive director of the Clean Air Fund, and moderator of the COP27 session.

“It causes really serious threats to our health, both from the air pollution it causes and the process of extraction, which I think is talked about much less often,” said Burston.

A fossil fuels addiction

Marina Romanello, Executive Director of the Lancet Countdown on Climate and Health.

“We have a fossil fuels addiction,” said  Dr. Marina Romanello, summing up the findings of The Lancet Countdown on Climate and Health. The 2022 report, a collaboration of nearly 100 researchers around the world, was published just as COP27 opened on 6 November.

“It is not only exacerbating the health impacts of climate change, it is reducing our capacity to cope with and to respond to other crises that we’re facing,” said Romanello, executive director of the project that regularly tracks and reports upon 44 indicators at the intersection of health and climate change.

“We’re not only dealing with a climate crisis, we’re also dealing with a war in Ukraine, with a cost of living crisis, with an energy crisis, with a food crisis. And climate change is just acting to exacerbate the impacts of those other effects that we’re seeing on our health.”

And in terms of those indicators, “everything is going upwards and that is no good. Up is bad.”

Four billion more days of heat wave exposure a year

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (2021) projections of increased frequency of extreme events compared to the pre-industrial era for heat waves, droughts and heavy precipitation events, for various global warming scenarios.

Romanello described the Lancet’s findings of increased exposure of vulnerable populations to heat waves; in people over 65 years of age and very young children, heat stress can be a life-threatening risk.

“We are exposed to 4 billion more present days of heat wave exposure in the latest years with respect to a very recent baseline,” she explained.

“We’re seeing that heat exposure is reducing our labor capacity and undermining our livelihood by reducing incomes.  That is affecting people who are also facing a cost of living and price increases, and are struggling to afford their basic energy needs.”

Food insecurity is also on the rise, she added, noting that farm workers are among the most affected by heat stress.

“Labor supply is being lost mostly in the agricultural sector. We’re also seeing extreme weather events affecting our crops, supply chains disrupted, and that the increasing heatwaves are  directly correlated with almost 10 million more people self-reporting that they could not afford the food that they needed last year.”

Extreme weather and wildfires also destroying homes and livelihoods

Expansion of extremely hot regions in a business-as-usual climate scenario. Black and hashed areas represent unliveable zones. Absent migration, that area would be home to 3.5 billion people in 2070.

Extreme weather events are not only on the rise, but also becoming more lethal, Romanello pointed out.

“We’re seeing that exposure to wildfire danger is increasing as a result of the drier temperatures, putting people at acute risk of wildfires that not only affects us through direct burns, but also affects our infrastructure, disrupts the essential services that we need and exposes us to air pollution. That has enormous effects on our health.

“We’re also seeing that infectious diseases are being spread more easily because of the changing weather conditions. We’re seeing malaria in highland areas of Africa previously relatively protected from malaria. We’re seeing vector borne diseases shifting more northwards and southwards across the globe.

“And that means that new populations are being exposed to hazards that they’re not used to dealing with and our health systems are not used to facing.

“This is the result mostly of the continuing burning of fossil fuels,” Romanello concluded, pointedly noting that fossil fuels were referenced as a sector only for the first time at last year’s COP26 outcome document.

Fossil fuels not the only culprit, but a leading one

Shell Oil sign in Accra, Ghana, 1962. Multinational oil companies have been in Africa since the first half of the 20th century.

Fossil fuels are not the only driver of climate change and health effects. Household cooking and heating on biomass stoves also contribute significantly to air pollution and climate change when the wood or material being used is not sustainably harvested.

Land use changes, including deforestation, as well as agriculture and agro-waste burning are other factors affecting climate emissions.

But “by and large the culprit of this is a fossil fuel burning and we should not forget that,” Romanello said.

“Because we’re so addicted, and we were so late in the adoption of renewable energies, we’re still heavily dependent on a fossil fuel market that fluctuates, that is very sensitive to geopolitical conflicts. And [in homes] we’re still using biomass rather than clean energies, which can be made available at point of source.”

“This is what annoys us the most. We’re seeing governments and companies still prioritizing fossil fuels, even though they know this data.  Of the 86 countries that contribute about 90% of all emissions, 50% of them are still subsidizing fossil fuels.

“We’re looking at the fossil fuel companies. If you enter the websites of BP or one of the other fossil fuel giants, they probably look like a renewable energy company.

“But when you look at what they’re doing today, it will only take them until 2040 to exceed the levels of emissions compatible with the Paris agreement by over 103%. Their strategies are incompatible with a healthy future.”

Fossil fuel industry still planning major expansion  

Fossil fuel companies with the highest overshoot of the IEA’s net zero emissions scenario, in planned new oil and gas extraction.

Romanello´s remarks are supported by a raft of new reports on fossil fuel extraction forecasts, globally and in Africa, which were released by civil society researchers over the past several days. They include projections of:

  • Global glut of liquified natural gas production by 2030500 megatones a year oversupply, five times as much gas as the EU imported from Russia last year, if all of the natural gas expansion projects triggered by Europe’s “dash for gas” are realized, according to a new report by Climate tracker.
  • Fossil fuel industry expansion: 95% of the world’s leading companies are planning expansions, pouring $160 billion of capital into new exploration since 2020. Together these will result in 115 billion more tonnes of climate-heating CO2 being pumped out into the atmosphere, equivalent to more than 24 years of US emissions, a new analysis by the German NGO Urgewald. LNG exports would  more than double. The International Energy Agency warns that no new fossil fuel expansion can go ahead if the world is to reach the 1.5 C target.
  • Dire warnings of irreparable damage in Africa´s Congo Basin: the world´s second largest rainforest and the continent´s green lungs. Moreover, many of the areas put up for auction as oil and gas blocks by the Democratic Republic of Congo also overlap with  dense peat bogs, says the Rainforest Foundation. Drilling there risks the release of millions of tons of methane emissions, which have 86 times the warming potential of CO2.
New oil and gas drilling in the Congo Basin, the world´s second largest rainforest, poses a regional and global climate threat.

While European leaders have showcased their deals with countries like South Africa and Egypt for model projects to develop green hydrogen and other renewables, their response so far at COP27 to criticism of the EU’s large strategic oil and gas expansion plans in Africa has been weak.

Jacob Werksman, head of the European Commission’s COP27 delegation.

“The dash for gas is a very sensitive issue,” said Jacob Werksman, the European Commission’s lead at COP27, in a press conference on Wednesday. “Obviously, the EU has responsibilities to ensure that we have access to the energy supplies that are necessary for our population.

“And we have to do so in a context where we cut off supplies from Russia; this is requiring us to go out into the world and find the supplies and the partners that we haven’t reached out to before.  And some of them are in Africa. We will do this in a way that is as environmentally and socially responsible as we would in any circumstances.

Oil and gas projects in Africa are set to quadruple; projects in the Congo Basin, the world´s second largest rainforest, pose a major risk to regional and global climate stability.

“But in this circumstance, in particular, we feel an obligation to ensure that as we enter into any kind of relationship with a country that is making a choice between doubling down on investment in fossil fuel, that we are offering them and encouraging them to take an alternative as well.

He said the EU was working with the African countries with which it would sign deals to “see how, whatever continued sales of fossil fuels they might engage in, they are, at the same time planning for a transition away from fossil fuels towards renewables. We will look at ways in which we can strike that balance.”

What needs to change ?

The natural beauty of the Niger River on display at its confluence with the Forçados River at Bomadi Local Government, Delta State, Nigeria.

Data can and should make a difference, but it is the human drama that can often be more persuasive, observed Burston at Friday’s WHO panel.

Yet from Canada’s First Nation tribes to Africa and Latin America, the impacts of oil exploitation in developing countries and on indigenous groups often occur in remote regions, and far from the media cameras.

It is in those same vulnerable rural communities where the environmental impacts and human rights violations that accompany oil exploitation may be far more acute, and kept under wraps by governments with poor environmental and human rights records, panelists observed.

See related Health Policy Watch story on lead poisoning of indigenous communities from oil extraction in the Amazon:

Lead Poisoning Still Causes 900,000 Deaths Per Year

“Over the past 64 years I’d say things have gotten worse,” observed Henshaw, referring to the cycle of local opposition and repression that has wracked the area for years.  “The power dynamics led by the oil companies still exists. In fact, it has even gotten even stronger.

“There is the same level of repression, human rights abuses, suppression of dissent and all the rest. In 2019 alone, my organization documented three cases where the military working for oil companies invaded and bombed Niger Delta communities.

“In May 2019, one community was bombed by air, land and sea, a tiny unarmed community, just to allow crude oil flow.  So nothing has changed, what needs to change. What needs to change is [inclusion] in this kind of forum right? We need global and international support, working closely with frontline communities sending one message: leave the oil in the ground.

“Some 65 years of oil extraction has bled our environment, our health systems, everything. Nigerians have become poorer because of it. The Niger Delta is worse for it.

“If you do not bring the oil out, then you will not burn it. You will not mess up the planet. Then you will not destroy our lives.  Leave it in the ground. That’s what needs to change.”

Stefan Anderson contributed reporting form Brussels. 

Image Credits: SU, E. Fletcher/Health Policy Watch , Sara Leigh Lewis, Dr. Poornima Prabhakaran, Public Health Foundation of India, Ucheke, Environment international 2018: Quantifying the exposure of humans and the environment to oil pollution in the Niger Delta , PNAS, ASC Leiden, Rainforest Foundation , Rainforest Foundation and Earth Insight, 2022, Jay Jay Agbor.

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