By Innocent Iwara
On Tuesday, September 11, 2018, civil society organisations (CSOs) in Rivers State converged in Port Harcourt for an engagement meeting that intimated citizens on issues of black soot (fine particles or particulate matter) that has been descending from the sky for more than two years.
Facilitated by the #Stopthesoot campaign, a group canvassing for an end to the downpour, the engagement also offered citizens the opportunity to sign petitions to the Secretary General of the United Nations, the United States, the United Kingdom and Pope Francis.
Some of the CSOs involved were: Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN), Trust Africa, We the People, Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), National Coalition of Gas Flaring and Oil Spills in the Niger Delta (NACGOND), National Association of SeaDogs (NAS), Society for Women and Youth Affairs (SWAYA), Environmental Right Action (ERA) amongst others.
The sighed petitions, according to Eugene Abels, the co-coordinator of #Stopthesoot, are meant to attract the attention of the petitioned organizations and countries so they can prevail on the federal government to respect environmental charters and treaties it is a party to by ending the downpour of black carbon.
“We have left soot as just a matter. We want the UN to respond to what (complaints) we have raised,” Abels said.
However, the petitions being referred to were officially sent in August. Abels said more citizens signing the online-based petitions is to help mount more pressure for the petitioned organizations and countries to see the need for rapid response, especially as the petitions were backed with results of scientific studies showing what citizens are exposed to.
Soot or black carbon is a combination of tiny solid and liquid gaseous particles trapped in the air and are a product of incomplete combustion. In Nigeria, the soot is primarily attributed to legal and illegal oil refining activities.
Because the particles are as tiny as between 10 and 2.5 microns, they can easily slip into the lungs through inhalation, resulting to such ailments as cancer, asthma, cardiovascular (heart) diseases, respiratory infections, bronchitis, amongt others. In China, a 2014 study found soot to be responsible for a sharp uptick in birth defect and low child weight. Already, a recent study by consultant pediatrician, Agnes Fienemika, shows that between 2015 and 2017, respiratory infection among under-five children rose to near 50%.
Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that outdoor pollution, to which soot is a part of, is responsible for the death of 4.5 million people annually. This suggests that Rivers State’s five million population is facing an emergency situation that should be addressed without delay.
Abels said it was because governments at state and federal levels have failed to respond satisfactorily to the deadly haze that the group and CSO’s are upping their game to the United Nations.
“By September (2016), we brought (the soot) problem to the notice of the state government and they promised to do certain things and by April this year, we felt dissatisfied with what has been done, so we came out with a protest and a march to intimate the world of what has been going on here in Rivers State. We then collaborated with government agencies and informational groups like the Nigerian Medical Association.
“By May, we issued a press statement that we were dissatisfied and that there was no action plan. By August, we did a petition to the Secretary General of the United Nations as the leader of the World Health Organization and to Pope Francis and world leaders, European parliaments and all climate groups,” Abels said.
Adding: “The uniqueness of the petition is that we attached four scientific reports to them and those reports clearly authenticated and stated the content of the particulate matter which we breathe.”
Abels said the UN and the petitioned individuals and countries are yet to acknowledge receipt. He is however hopeful that if the world body deploys half of the efforts it exerted in fighting smoking in public places, compelling the Nigerian government to nip the soot at source will be a minor job.
Meanwhile, fishermen at the event said their personal and family economies have taken a backward slope due to excessive pollution of Rivers State waters. They lamented why many years after, state and federal governments have not been able to fine a lasting solution to the issues of pollution primarily attributed to oil spillage (from both legal and illegal sources).
One of the fishermen who also signed the petition said: “For now, nobody will tell you in this axis, from Okrika to Bonny, that there is fish. There is no fish. No more aquatic life. The fishermen are finding it difficult. Our children can no longer be trained in the school. There is no more fish. Before we get fish, I and my uncle would have to go to Oron (in Akwa Ibom state) to buy fish and sell here” (in Port Harcourt), he said.
He blamed the pollution on the current spate of illegal refining, which he said the government can control by putting certain measures in place.
“The current condition of the waters is unbearable. I will love it if you can come to the water and see for yourself what is happening. There is no aquatic life anymore. The crude has taken over our river. The crops are dying. Fishes are dying, the crayfish are dying, the crabs are dying. There is now way we can swim even in the river. Our children cannot even be taught how to swim.
“Some of them (illegal refiners) feel going through the process (of illegal refining) is the only way they can enrich themselves. But if the government can come up with change, employment, opening industries, give our children business opportunities, you will see that it would bring down the kpo fire (illegal refining) issue” he said.