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Last Updated: Monday, 20 February 2006, 12:43 GMT
The Nigerian Delta's troubled waters
By Dan Isaacs
BBC, Delta region, southern Nigeria

Returning from a fishing trip
Fishing is in the blood of the local people
Iko Creek snakes through thick mangrove swamps in the heart of Nigeria's Delta region.

Dugout canoes glide silently through the brackish waters.

On board, chattering women shade themselves from the burning sun with colourful umbrellas, standing out against the thick browns and greens of the tropical vegetation.

Young children stand in the shallows drawing in nets which have ensnared tiny glinting silver fish.

A dozen men emerge from the breaking waves of the ocean, pulling their boat onshore, and women wade out to meet them, helping to bring in the morning's catch.

"Fishing is everything for the people here," says local community worker Sampson Agba as we travel down the river together, "but there are fewer fish and they are getting smaller every year".

Mr Agba points out an abandoned drilling platform and rusting pieces of industrial machinery.

"The impact of pollution has been terrible and invades every aspect of life here. Crude oil has leaked into the creeks, and acid rain from gas-flaring pollutes the drinking water."


There has in fact been no commercial oil production in this area of Eastern Obolo yet.

A boat taxi on Iko Creek. Colourful umbrellas shade passengers from the sun.
Boat taxis are used to get round the creeks

Shell - the largest multi-national operating in Nigeria - has only dug exploratory wells and is still considering the viability of proceeding with full scale production.

But the prospect of Shell drilling for both oil and gas in the area is met with mixed emotion within the local communities, not all of it hostile by any means.

"The people of the area," a Shell spokesman told me later, "have been asking us to go in there, and to bring in the jobs and development assistance they so badly need".

Shell spent around $80m on assistance to the Delta region last year and for communities living in such poverty and hardship, such aid is difficult to ignore.

Troubled help

Unfortunately, such aid has brought more problems than it has solved.

Rarely has it been appropriate to the needs of local people.

Horizontal gas flaring in the Delta
Locals complain that gas-flaring causes acid rain
Abandoned aid projects litter the Delta: an unfinished hospital building here; a fish processing factory that never went into production there; and an artesian well dug then abandoned and which now flows with contaminated water right next to a village desperate for a clean supply.

These are not isolated cases but sadly typical, leaving local communities bitter over the massive waste they see all around them.

In some parts of the Delta, such resentment has boiled over into militant activity, kidnappings of foreign oil workers and attacks on production facilities.

These groups demand greater access to the region's wealth, but in reality few of them really seek to represent the legitimate grievances of the local population.

Their real business is oil theft, breaking into the pipelines that criss-cross the remote and inaccessible region.

Although the oil companies will not or cannot give accurate figures for the amount of oil lost in this way, the volumes are staggering with armed gangs operating fleets of barges and tankers, permitted to go about their business by politicians and businessmen who collude in the plunder.


Caught in the middle are the people of the Delta.

They see the oil companies take their oil away, the armed gangs destabilise the region for profit, and the development assistance they are supposed to receive wasted on poorly conceived projects designed, they argue, not for the benefit of the local communities but to be seen to be doing good for the region.

Basil Omiyi, MD of Shell in Nigeria talking to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on a recent visit to the Niger Delta
Shell's Basil Omiyi (r) believes his company is being unfairly criticised

Oil companies respond robustly to such criticism.

"It's very unfair," says Shell's managing director in Nigeria Basil Omiyi, "to suggest that the oil companies are spending money just to be seen to be doing something".

"Shell is making a significant contribution to the development of the Delta. Offering scholarships and education, for example. That's tangible assistance and that's been a success."

"Ah yes," one local community worker told me afterwards, " but who gets the scholarships?

"They're not reaching the people of the creeks, but rather those with connections to the oil company workers."

In this war of words it is impossible to know where the truth lies, but clearly there are major shortcomings in the way the multinationals have spent their assistance money in the Delta even if now, they are beginning very slowly to listen more to the needs of the local people.

Gliding down Iko creek to the squawk of the river birds and laughter of children washing shrimps in wicker baskets, Sampson Agba says although bitterness remains towards the oil industry "if Shell is ready and willing to work with the people and understand their needs, we will welcome them into our abundant lands and work with them."

That is a big "if".

Elsewhere in the Delta that relationship has repeatedly failed, with tragic consequences.

But in Iko Creek, there is just a chance past mistakes will serve as a lesson in how to both exploit Nigeria's vast natural resources whilst at the same time helping the people of the Delta to improve their own lives.


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