It has been decades since the residents of Port Harcourt in particular, and Rivers State in general first started experiencing the soot phenomenon. It is one of the numerous externalities of oil exploration here. And as much as we would love to wish it away, crude being the life jacket of the millions of voyagers of this murky water called Nigeria has made our wishes remain what they are, wishes. On the other hand, it has been almost three years since the soot took a deadly dimension; suffocating our previously manageable clouds with dense hydrocarbons of the carcinogen type, and filling our hearts with a palpable fear of the looming lethal consequences, now, and in the not so distant future.
The first set of complaints about the soot first began to appear on my social media timeline towards the end of 2015. I had left Port Harcourt then to begin my National Youth Service Corps programme just before it escalated. Although I felt I understood what the situation on the ground was, nothing could prepare me for the magnitude of the problem till I completed my service and moved back to the city. There was an obvious difference between the sky in Port Harcourt and the one in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. The sky over Port Harcourt had a dark grey tinge to it compared with the white and blue sky of Uyo. There was also that denseness in the air that could be felt as one drew one’s breath. It was not long till I started feeling and seeing the effects of this. I began to constantly sneeze and have a runny nose. The phlegm from my nostrils contained dark particles. The soles of my feet became dark with just a few minutes of walking inside of the house barefooted. The water from my body after a bath was black. The rain water collected in buckets was pitch black, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to go outside wearing light coloured clothing. An opportunity sprung up for the business and capitalist-inclined people, and nose mask and air purifiers gradually began to appear on the streets of Port Harcourt, most especially at the entrance.
Last but not the least, I began to fall ill. It was after I fell ill, that I decided to be sure of what I was feeling. I travelled back to Akwa Ibom for the sole reason of having a feel of the sky and air there, and just as I thought, everything was real.
Debates have been going on and continue to go on on the source of the soot bedevilling Port Harcourt and a host of probable sources have been identified by individuals. There is the widely held school of thought that the activities of the military around the creeks surrounding Port Harcourt in response to the illegal refining of crude play a major role. There also exists the claim that there has been an increase in the activities of illegal oil refineries in many communities and creeks surrounding Port Harcourt. And also the heating of asphalt for road construction. All these are plausible explanations for the soot, and I can attest to the first two. In one particular weekend in December 2017, a thick and suffocating cloud of smoke began to billow from the creek very close to my house. So thick it was that it completely blotted out the sun and made it look like it was going to rain. I moved to investigate while making a live Facebook video. On getting there, it was found out that three bunkering boats had just been burnt by men of the Nigerian military. It was a very callous move on their part, bearing in mind that it was in a densely populated area with many children of varying ages. I doubt they understood the effects of their actions, as they drove fast and recklessly in a commando manner while leaving the scene. Not long had they left, than it began to rain black liquid. In March this year, a colleague and I were to travel for a research in the outskirts of Rivers State, and as our car began to move, it was obvious how bad the situation was. Visibility all around Port Harcourt was so low that one could not see past 400 meters ahead. The lady beside me said, “This is why cancer is now rampant in the state.” On getting home, and as the day gradually drew to a close, the choking smell of crude permeated the air around me. The night sky was too dark for a normal night, while there was bright orange glow in the sky that appeared to be far away. The illegal refining of crude was now in full force. It was a job only done at night, and they had resumed for the night.
Speaking with a friend who was a part of a team set up by oil firms to monitor the air quality for their expatriate staff, and I was informed that since the monitoring of the air began over two years ago, despite having days where the air was good enough for the expatriate workers to get to work, cumulatively, most of the days have had abnormally high readings that prevented them from getting to work. I must add here, that since unfortunately the vast majority of Rivers people do not have access to these readings, even if the air is rock solid from soot particles, they continue to go out, day in and day out, to make ends meet so as to survive. Ironically, it is a mere death rush.
According to the World Health Organisation, 4.2 million premature deaths were recorded worldwide in 2016 as a result of air pollution, with 91 per cent of the deaths occurring in low and middle income countries. Rivers State and Nigeria fall comfortably into this category. Some weeks back, Mr. Tekena (not real name) sent me a message. His two years and four months’ old son was ill and had been admitted at one of the hospitals in Port Harcourt. He was diagnosed with chronic respiratory issues with unrelenting cough and difficulty in breathing. His son was only admitted for four days, and by the time they left, they had amassed a bill of over N300,000. He could afford it, but very few persons can. A lawyer friend of mine who just recently left Abuja to work with his father’s firm in Port Harcourt sent me a message on WhatsApp on April 26: “I don dey sick for this town already”, he said. “Pele. You’ll get used to it,” I retorted blandly, tired of having to talk about this every single day without the government taking adequate steps to stop it. “Or die” he concluded.
This piece was written on Wednesday, March 2, 2018, and the Air Quality Index for today in Port Harcourt is put at 165. I put a final call across to my contact who carries out AQI readings for a multinational oil company, and he refused to give me the specific figure of the highest readings they have ever recorded as it is against the company’s policy. But he had this to say: “We have recorded the highest on the WHO scale in a day.” The AQI scale has six levels. With the 165 reading for today being Level 5 which is rightly tagged “Unhealthy.” The highest is Level 6 which ranges between 250.5 and above and is tagged “Hazardous.”
Nothing buttresses the supine and apathetic outlook of governance in Nigeria, than with the most half-hearted response that the numerous vociferous pleas of Rivers people and the sympathisers of Rivers people have been given. As I conclude this, the people of Rivers State have put out several online petitions that have garnered thousands of signatures; embarked upon protests that have involved cumulatively thousands of persons; written articles containing thousands of words; and last but not the least, even international news organisations like the US based CNN, the Middle Eastern Al Jazeera, and the BBC have at one point or the other formulated programmes, articles and news about the precarious nature of the soot problem and the difficult position the people of Rivers State have found themselves in. The government—our own government—response remains lukewarm in all of these. We are still alive, please send help.
Nubari, a data analyst and rights activist from Rivers State, can be reached via email@example.com
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