Opinion: Niger Delta pollution – A tragedy of the commons

by Maximilian O. Obiakor

Bunkering boats

If we do not strive to create a new set of institutions to protect the common- property, then they will continue to be privately explored, exploited and utterly destroyed at the expense of all.

When Garrett Hardin in 1968 was describing how shared environmental resources are overused and eventually depleted on the phrase “tragedy of the commons”, he was not hypothetically referring to the exploration, exploitation and consequently, the pollution of the ecological Niger Delta, when he compared shared resources to a common grazing pasture and herdsmen in old England. The delta cover of 20km2 within wetlands of 70,000km2, home to over 20 million people and 40 different ethnic groups is witnessing a great tragedy of the commons. Our major economic engines exploit public resources, and risk public safety in the auspices of corporate profits. As the usual story of lax regulation, safety short-cuts, and weak clean-up response unfolds in the Niger Delta, it is evident that the corporate system has failed Nigeria. It is also clear that our political system is unable to address the astronomical challenges the nation faces on energy and the environment.

Pollution of the commons (i): whose fault?

Tomislav Vukina argues that environmental concerns sometimes have a low priority in many developing countries, where the obvious priority concerns are those related to meeting the basic needs of the local population. Economic growth is still the primary goal of development planning but the criteria of sustainability need to be taken in to account as well. This implies that economic development needs to be pursued in such a way that economic growth does not seriously impair services and quality of natural resources over time.

Over the years, oil companies, indigenous communities, activists, and government have traded blames over the major polluter of this biodiversity-rich wetland. Apparently, no one wants to take the responsibility since this factor of black liquid production is a shared commons. Suffice to say that Nigeria is one of the few countries that has the best and litany of environmental laws but lacks proper implementation mechanisms.

A UNDP report states that there have been a total of 6,817 oil spills between 1976 and 2001, which account for a loss of three million barrels of oil, of which more than 70% was not recovered. Most of these spills occurred off-shore (69%), a quarter was in swamps and 6% spilled on land. Some spills are caused by sabotage and thieves, however most are due to poor maintenance by oil companies (Shell).To buttress that fact, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation places the quantity of petroleum jettisoned into the environment yearly at 2,300 cubic metres with an average of 300 individual spills annually.However, because this amount does not take into account “minor” spills, the World Bank argues that the true quantity of petroleum spilled into the environment could be as much as ten times the officially claimed amount.

Government laxity was encapsulated by a 1983 report issued by the NNPC:

We witnessed the slow poisoning of the waters of this country and the destruction of vegetation and agricultural land by oil spills which occur during petroleum operations. But since the inception of the oil industry in Nigeria, more than twenty-five years ago, there has been no concerned and effective effort on the part of the government, let alone the oil operators, to control environmental problems associated with the industry’.

On their own part, oil industry has also not fully acknowledged that their carelessness precipitated this situation and often trade blames with the host communities as to the causes of the devastating spills. The communities allege that oil companies keep the volume of oil spilled secret and are often very slow to react to spill incidents. A member of the oil community committee told Reuters after the June 2012 oil spill on Eni’s Nembe-Obama pipeline that “in spite of the huge consequences occasioned by the oil spill, Eni failed to discuss development. They (oil firms) allow oil spills to spread to rivers and mangrove forests before coming for inspection and clean-up”. While the oil host communities blame the spills and pollution on equipment failures, human errors and negligence, oil companies link greater bulk of it to sabotage and bunkering.

In 2012 alone, Shell recorded about 198 cases of oil spills were across the Niger Delta. Of the 201 recent incidents, sabotage and theft accounted for 75.4% of the spills, while operational reasons accounted for just about 20%.

But contrasting information obtained from the Wikipedia website shows that corrosion of pipelines and tankers, account for 50% of all spills in Nigeria, while sabotage and oil production operation account for 28% and 21%, respectively, with 1% of the spills being accounted by inadequate or non-functional production equipment.

The Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, at a presentation in Washington D.C., blamed failure of International Oil Companies (IOCs) to adhere to global environmental standard and Nigeria’s environmental laws and regulations for the decades-long hydrocarbon pollution in Nigeria. The minister, who spoke on “The Strategic Importance of Nigeria’s Oil and Gas Industry to Global Security and World Global Economy” at the Howard University in Washington,  accused successive administrations of failing  to ensure strict compliance with Nigerian environmental laws and policies.

Pollution of the commons (ii): who shares the externalities?

As the pollution of the Niger Delta continues and oil spills on daily basis, lives, livelihoods, natural coastal properties, forest resources, and wildlife are all at stake here. The reality is that our current system produces profit by taking things from nature. We all know that existing in modern system are benefit/cost ratio sides of the economy. The cost is what is globally accepted to be the ‘negative externalities or negative third-party effects (external diseconomies)’ such as poverty, health issues, pollution and insurgency. The concept of externalities as Andy mannlewrites is a good reminder that economic systems operate within larger social and ecological systems. The problem is that while the economic profits are private, the social and ecological illth (negative externalities) is public, a trend Hardin also viewed as a ‘tragedy’.

There is currently struggle between political power and corporate power for years over the petroleum regulations. Profits are prioritized over public safety and right to quality environment resulting in endless cycle jinx of the commons’ tragedy. However, to function effectively, indeed we have a shared responsibility to preserve these endowments for other species and future generations. As Andy Mannlealso wrote back then:

“The modern capitalist system is the most effective motivator the world has ever seen. It is the most efficient system ever designed for transforming natural resources into goods and shipping them around the world, where they are quickly reduced to waste. It is a cycle of constant demand, and it is incredibly successful. Unfortunately, the more successful a flawed system, the more spectacularly t fails. But whereas the wins of the system were private, the losses are now being made public. Because the economy is a commons, in the end, we either all win, or we all lose”.

On the Commons: what do we do?

Though we try to understand that the decentralized voluntary exchange process cannot be free of uncompensated technological external diseconomies but since the negative externalities are shared by all, a functional and effective system should be initiated and sustained. We must develop an economic system that precipitates the three factorial elements of sustainability. The system must protect the ecosystem, present, and future generations.

A typical sustainable development approach to do this is creating legal structures that pay people dividends of the revenues generated by these common-property resources. Government and oil industry have argued of effectively creating such mechanisms by setting up ministry and agencies that pay out dividends to people, but on what basis and rationality? Niger Delta still remains in a deplorable state with significant percentage of the indigenes living below poverty level. A regulated structure should be installed to ensure fairness and all-access to the dividends because the present design still nurtures the affairs of the few that brings the unprecedented tragedy of the commons. The Alaska Permanent Fund is a model and emulative example.

In the 1990’s, the Republican governor of Alaska pushed for a system where 25% of the state’s oil revenue flows into the Alaska Permanent Fund, ‘to be invested on behalf of all Alaskans equally’. Since 1980’s, this fund has grown to over 30 billion US Dollars. Invested in stocks and bonds, it will continue to pay out annual dividends to all Alaskans ever after the oil runs out.

Such approach could be replicated nationally creating institutions that reward all citizens equally for their stake in stewarding natural resources. This would go a long way towards overcoming the political hindrance we face on weaning the country from mono-economy and diversifications. If we do not strive to create a new set of institutions to protect the common- property, then they will continue to be privately explored, exploited and utterly destroyed at the expense of all.

To restore and protect Niger Delta and forestall future disasters, systematically working institutions must be up and running, which address actual share quota of every citizen in the system. The pollution being a symptom of market failure calls for restructuring of economic and political systems of the country to addressing the commons because the current state of the Niger Delta is nothing short of an absolute tragedy of the commons.



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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