By Philip Ayuen Dot
OPINION – The call to audit oil operations in South Sudan has become a repeated song with barely any results. Each year begins with the president promising audits and an international audit firm was even chosen, but all these years end with no reports from the audits, and even more environmental pollution from the oil fields.
The latest call has been from the Minister of Environment and forestry, Josephine Napwon, calling for the Oil Companies to either adhere to sustainable environmental practices or risk being sued. This comes as a result of the severe environmental damage being done on the environment as well as the health effects facing people who live near oil fields or even those who work there.
In February, 2020, the Associated Press (AP) ran a story concerning the health issues brought about by oil pollution in the country. They range from deformities where birth defects in children born to areas where oil is drilled that had more than doubled from 19% to 54%, to stillbirths with some women even being unable to become pregnant, to unknown illnesses that caused the death of some people to people drowning in the open oil ponds left strewn all over the land.
But it’s not just the direct health effects that should get everyone’s attention, but also the environmental effects that will last for many decades after the oil companies close their doors. And one of the most pressing effects is the haphazard way that toxic chemicals are handled and their containers left for people to use. Containers that previously used to contain the toxic chemical, Phasetreat, were being used by citizens of South Sudan to collect and store drinking water. This caused a myriad of illnesses as these are the sort of chemicals that should never be in contact with human beings and in fact, should be disposed of well after use.
Soil and water tests that have been done in the country show that they contain mercury, lead and arsenic, chemicals that are harmful to both humans and animals. This follows the fires from oil fields that destroy grazing land as well as the deforestation that is done to pave way for oil operations. The air pollution that results from unsustainable oil operations also leads to large amounts of toxins in the air that travel thousands of kilometers away affecting people who are not even involved in the oil operations.
Even soldiers who are stationed in oil fields or near the oil operations have been found to have large amounts of mercury and other chemicals in their bodies that will cause them a myriad of illnesses. In simple terms, no one is safe as long as the oil operations in South Sudan continue to be done in total disregard for the environment. This issues don’t just affect the people near these oil wells but even those in faraway lands.
So the question remains, why aren’t these oil companies following the law of the land that dictates that they take health and environmental caution? For how long will people’s health continue to be affected? And when the environment is fully polluted and these oil companies leave, who shall clean up this mess?
It is all these questions that are causing the Minister of Environment and forestry to take such a strong stand against the oil industries. It is also for such reasons that organizations such as South Sudan Environmental Advocates (SSEA) came into being, to bring such issues to light and help increase the pressure on these oil companies to do better.
But what is the solution? Audits are just the first step. Environmental audits will start the conversation by bringing to light what has been happening, where the pollution has happened, and to what extent. This shall be followed by recommendations on what should be done, which includes ways of ensuring that the people whose health has been affected get medical assistance, and that the environment is also cleaned up where possible. The other thing is to see to it that health and environmental safeguards are put in place for all oil operations in the country.
Oil pollution is a problem that will not go away if we just silence anyone who calls attention to it. Yes the country is getting a lot of money from oil exploration, but as the minister of environment and forestry asked, at what expense? It should also be put in mind that anything that threatens human life, is a direct human right violation, meaning that the victims of oil pollution, even many years down the line, can take these companies to international courts for going against their human rights. But that will not be necessary if all stakeholders, ranging from the government that benefits from oil revenue, to the oil companies that make so much money from these operation, to the community, that bears the negative effects of oil pollution, sit down and work together as how to they will lessen the harm to people and the environment.
South Sudan Environmental Advocates (SSEA) offers to spearhead these discussions with other local and international partners that are interested in ending the menace that is oil pollution. Furthermore, the organization can carry out environmental audits and take part in restoration programs if attached to international Audit firms which are currently carrying out Environmental Audit, this should be possible when recommend by government of South Sudan through the Ministry of Environment and Forestry together with Ministry of Petroleum. South Sudan’s Oil operations have been described as the worst in the world when the environmental pollution is taken into consideration. It does not have to be this way. It is time for change.
The author is the Founder and Executive director of South Sudan environmental Advocates (SSEA) and can be reach via his email: Philipdot57@gmail.com or Tell: +211922104999 Web: www.sseasouthsudan.org.
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