A thick cloud of black smoke has hovered over the coastal city of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, since November 2016, causing soot to pile up on every surface. Exasperated and worried for their health, city residents are demanding that the government takes action against a problem they blame on illegal oil refineries in the Niger Delta region.
Even before November 2016, the black smoke and soot was plaguing rural communities in the Niger Delta, according to our Observer, Florence Kayemba, an environmental activist. In recent months, this pollution has also spread over the urban centre of Port Harcourt, which is home to more than a million people. No one has been able to clearly identify the pollution’s origin.
“Every day, I have soot up my nose and on my feet”
Florence Kayemba is the programmes director at the Stakeholder Democracy Network. She has been living in Port Harcourt for the past 12 years.
Since November, I’ve had soot in my nostrils and on my feet every single day. My house gets dirty very quickly and the air feels strange. It’s really uncomfortable and a lot of people have started wearing masks to protect themselves. At the association where I work, we handed out masks to all of our staff. I don’t wear a mask myself but I am careful. For example, I don’t buy fruit and vegetables at the market anymore because they have been exposed to pollution.
Several rural communities in the Niger Delta have been suffering from this problem for decades. These people can no longer fish or grow crops on their land because the earth and the soil are contaminated by hydrocarbons.
The problem is only now getting attention now because it is affecting an urban, densely populated area. People are starting to express their fears about it. Some have launched social media campaigns to raise awareness and call for action. Others have spoken about it live on radio, demanding the government act.
On February 10, 2017, citizens launched a petition calling for the Ministry of the Environment to address the issue. It has already garnered more than 300 signatures. The day after the petition was launched, several dozen people took to the streets of Port Harcourt to protest government inaction in the face of this environmental crisis. Many other people took photos documenting the soot and posted them on social media under the hashtag #StopTheSoot.
The government has recently closed three factories but we still haven’t identified the exact source of the soot. I think that we need someone to come in and conduct an independent scientific investigation to understand exactly where it is coming from. People here don’t trust the government and they don’t think authorities are capable of producing a real answer to the issue. We need international experts.
The authorities decided to shut down an asphalt factory that was at first thought to be responsible for the soot emissions. In a statement published on February 14, the Ministry of the Environment described the environmental crisis in Port Harcourt as an “emergency situation” that had been going on for the past eight weeks.
The statement blames the critical situation on “the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons, burning of waste and vegetation, burning of tyres, asphalt processing and illegal artisanal refinery operations.”
The Nigerian government isn’t the only one pointing a finger at artisanal refining operations– many locals also think that this illegal industry is at the heart of the problem. In some areas in the delta, these operations have been going on for more than a decade. These small refineries are run by local groups who vandalise oil pipelines to steal petrol, before refining it themselves and reselling it.
According to several local activists who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team on February 20 and 21, the air in Port Harcourt has been easier to breathe since the government shut down the asphalt factory. However, the soot has continued to pile up across the city.