‘Water Everywhere but Not a Drop to Drink’: Nigeria’s Eleme People Cry Out

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Christian Chibuzo Maduka
May 26, 2016

Eleme town is one of the various towns inhabited by the Eleme people of Ogoniland, the indigenous peoples that inhabit the Niger Delta region of Southeast Nigeria.

The Eleme people live in ten village-clusters situated in Eleme Local Government Area (ELGA) of Rivers State, around 20 km East of Port Harcourt. The total territory occupied by the Eleme people expands across approximately 140 square kilometers.

The Elemes are traditionally an agricultural society, with workers travelling out to farms situated around the villages. Crops include yams, cassava, palm-oil fruit, fluted pumpkin and bitter-leaf.

Crops are primarily used to sustain each family, but each family also typically trades their excess crops at one of the town markets. Even where family members are employed outside of agriculture, they still farm their own land as a supplement income. Farm workers are usually women.

Women and Children of Eleme Community fetching Water from the provided outlets
Women and Children of Eleme Community fetching Water from the provided outlets

With the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta in the 1958, the Eleme territory has become home to both Oil Refineries and Fertilizer industries, increasing its role as an industrial economy.

The nearest oil refinery is within a mile of an Eleme village, and around 100 wells are thought to be in use throughout the Ogoni territory. The mining of oil has had notable political and environmental effects on the status of the small towns of Niger Delta, with pollution from petro-chemical industries based on Ogoni-land increasing acid rain and reducing soil, water and air qualities. The Niger delta is Nigeria’s restive oil region massively degraded from decades of environmental pollution by oil producing companies and the activities of other ancillary oil service providers as well as illegal crude oil refiners.

Unsurprisingly, Eleme land and its surrounding towns have become areas of much political interest over the last 40 years since oil exploration is estimated to account for around 65% of Nigerian government budgetary revenue and 95% of all foreign exchange earnings. Consequent high levels of migration into Eleme territory by other ethnic groups in Nigeria have made a sizeable impact on Eleme society.

The environmental impact of oil explorations and siting of petro-chemical industries on Eleme land were so severe that even the United Nation Office has commissioned numerous studies on the area and surrounding oil towns. The ground water in and around Eleme and the whole of Ogoni land were declared unwholesome for both agricultural and human consumption. The environmental effect and the fear of enormous harm the oil activities pose on the people of Niger Delta of Nigeria became source of great global concern.

Niger Delta is a land of numerous creeks, rivers and lagoons emptying into the great Atlantic Ocean in the Rivers State’s capital of Port Harcourt and other oil towns of Patani, Warri, Sapele etc in Delta State. These great sources of water have been polluted greatly by oil related activities. The level of spills and pollutions from legitimate and illegitimate oil refineries, bunkering and explorations has made Niger Delta an environmental emergency zone.

When Professor John Pepper Clarke wrote in his verse 50 years ago concerning Niger Delta, he said there are “Water everywhere but not a drop to drink”. Today Professor Clarke’s poetic prophesy has not only become true but has raised serious concern for good source of clean water for the good people of Rivers State.

The Shell Petroleum Development Corporation as part of its social responsibilities, commissioned an integrated water treatment plant to serve the oil ravaged land of Ogoni. The water treatment plant sited in Eleme town is technology driven but shows high level of sustainability. The plant is currently managed by the Contracting Firm that built it. The plant which harnesses raw underground water and takes it through a high level of purification and treatment, provides daily supply of laboratory certified clean water to Eleme people and the surrounding villages.

Manager of the Eleme Integrated Water Treatment Plant Explaining a point to visitors
Manager of the Eleme Integrated Water Treatment Plant Explaining a point to visitors

Currently the Rivers State Ministry of Water and Rural Development having spent so much on water supply and sanitation is embracing reforms in the sector. With the development of water law Rivers State is on track for the sustaining water services. The Rivers State Water law clearly defined the roles and responsibilities of all the key players in the sector and also established the new agencies that shall drive performance and service delivery in the various segments of the sector.

The vision of the State is to have a water sector that is focused on efficiency of service delivery, customer satisfaction and financial viability through different cost recovery models applicable to the different segments whilst providing a means of regulating the sector to ensure that the interest of all parties – government, service provider and the consumers are protected. Their focus in the State is to strengthen the newly established Rivers State Water Services Regulatory Commission and the Rivers State Small Towns Water Supply and Sanitation Agency as well as the preparation of Water Sector Development Plans for selected Local Government Areas in the State.

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