A $1bn clean-up of one of the world’s most oil-polluted regions will be officially launched on Thursday by the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari. But it will be at least 18 months before full remedial work starts in Ogoniland in the Niger delta, and possibly 25 years before all the swamps, creeks, fishing grounds and mangroves are restored after decades of spills by Shell, the national oil firm and other oil companies.
According to agreements signed last year in Abuja, $200m (£139m) will be spent annually for five years to clear up the devastated 1,000 sq mile (about 2,600km2) region in Rivers state near Port Harcourt. More money may be needed to restore the ecosystem fully.
The plan, devised by UN engineers, oil companies and the government, will involve building a factory to process and clean tens of thousands of tonnes of contaminated soil. There will also be a mass replanting of mangroves.
It is expected that many young Ogoni will be offered jobs, with several hundred engineers possibly being trained abroad, middle-level jobs and monitors recruited, and a few thousand jobs for manual workers.
The intention, says the UN Environment Programme (Unep), is not just to clean up the region, which was the centre of production in the early days of Nigerian oil exploitation, but to create a taskforce of Ogoni people able to clean up many other devastated areas of the delta. It is hoped this will kickstart development in a region where the youth in many communities resort to sabotaging oil infrastructure and illegally refining diesel.
Buhari will launch the clean-up in a visit to Bodo in Ogoniland, one of the delta’s worst-affected villages. Successive spills in 2008 from defective Shell pipelines led to major contamination of Bodo’s land and water sources, as well as a court case last year that culminated with Shell paying £55m in compensation.
The clean-up follows a 2006 request to the UN by the government for a scientific investigation into the level of pollution in Ogoniland. This led to a three-year, landmark Unep report in 2011 which exposed shocking levels of pollution caused by spills in the region. The report identified 41 grossly polluted sites where oil had entered wells and underground water supplies.
The study found contamination, sometimes more than 40 years after oil was spilled; community drinking water with dangerous concentrations of benzene and other pollutants; soil contamination more than five metres deep; and evidence of oil firms dumping contaminated soil in unlined pits.
Shell has been widely blamed for not cleaning up its pollution. But in a briefing note, the company claims to have done much of the work already.
“The 15 Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC) joint venture sites specifically mentioned in the Unep report have been reassessed, and where further remediation was required due to repollution incidents, such sites have been remediated and certified by regulators,” it said.
Buhari followed other presidents when he pledged to clean up Ogoniland in last year’s election. But implementing the UN’s recommendations has proved a political, fiscal, legal and administrative challenge to successive government.
The clean-up could be complicated by the dramatic fall in the price of oil, and renewed insurgency against oil companies in the delta. After five years of relative calm, a group called the Niger Delta Avengers has started to attack installations belonging to Agip-Eni and Aiteo.
The 1.5 million Ogonis are among the only people known to have ejected an oil company because of pollution. Led by writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Shell was declared persona non grata by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in 1993, and forced out of the region.
Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were executed in 1995 following a non-violent uprising and a military tribunal. Shell has not been allowed to work in Ogoniland since.
Thousands of impacted sites remain to be properly remediated even when they have been officially certified as clean. Last year, SPDC and the Bodo community in Ogoniland signed a memorandum of understanding to restart the clean-up of the Bodo creeks, but contractors were denied access by the community.
However, the start of the official clean-up was this week welcomed by community leaders, and international and domestic NGOs.
“I am hopeful and excited that at last the polluted environment in Ogoniland will be cleaned up. Ogoni people had to live with the pollution, which is the greatest man-made disaster in this part of the world,” said Mene Michael Porobunu, a Bodo leader.
“The struggle has been long, hard and bloody. It is the start of the realisation of the dream for which Ken Saro-Wiwa and other martyrs laid down their lives. We expect that a solid foundation will be established for the clean-up to not only start but be followed through. It will not be a 100-metre dash; this is the start of a marathon. We are hoping that the oil companies and oil thieves will stop their polluting activities,” said Nnimmo Bassey, director of the Nigerian thinktank Health of Mother Earth foundation and former chair of Friends of the Earth international.
Amnesty International campaigner Joe Westby said: “[The Ogoni] have a right to be sceptical, they have seen clean-ups promised and people paid to do the work in the past, only for little improvements to be delivered. This time the rhetoric must translate into action.”
But some neighbouring communities said they were angry that they would not benefit from the clean-up, despite strong claims that they have been heavily impacted by pollution.
Okrika Ijaws of the Bolo community claimed that about 70% of the riverine territory belongs to them and not the Ogoni. “We have resolved to peacefully demonstrate and resist firmly any attempt to cross into our boundaries,” said community leader and barrister Mela Oforibika.
Each member of the SPDC joint venture is expected to pay a pro-rata share of the $1bn. Members include the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (55% share), SPDC (30%), Total E&P Nigeria (10%) and Agip (5%).
The SPDC said it welcomed the development: “The SPDC joint venture remains committed to contributing its share of the environmental restoration fund as recommended by Unep and will work with all stakeholders to finalise the appropriate governance and funding structures, and play its part in the government-led implementation process.”
It added: “Even though the SPDC joint venture has not produced oil or gas in Ogoniland since 1993, it remains committed to actively participate along with other stakeholders to ensure that the clean-up is embarked on as soon as possible.”