A $1bn clean-up of one of the world’s most oil-polluted regions was officially launched on Thursday by the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari represented by Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo. But it will be at least 18 months before full remedial work starts in Ogoniland in the Niger delta, and possibly 25 years before all the swamps, creeks, fishing grounds and mangroves are restored after decades of spills by Shell, the national oil firm and other oil companies.
According to agreements signed last year in Abuja, $200m (£139m) will be spent annually for five years to clear up the devastated 1,000 sq mile (about 2,600km2) region in Rivers state near Port Harcourt. More money may be needed to restore the ecosystem fully.
The plan, devised by UN engineers, oil companies and the government, will involve building a factory to process and clean tens of thousands of tonnes of contaminated soil. There will also be a mass replanting of mangroves.
It is expected that many young Ogoni will be offered jobs, with several hundred engineers possibly being trained abroad, middle-level jobs and monitors recruited, and a few thousand jobs for manual workers.
The intention, according to the government and United Nations Environment Programmer (UNEP), is not just to clean up the region, which was the centre of production in the early days of Nigerian oil exploitation, but to create a task force of Ogoni people able to clean up many other devastated areas of the delta. It is hoped this will kick-start development in a region where the youth in many communities resort to sabotaging oil infrastructure and illegally refining diesel.
The clean-up follows a 2006 request to the UN by the government for a scientific investigation into the level of pollution in Ogoniland. This led to a three-year, UNEP report in 2011 which exposed shocking levels of pollution caused by spills in the region. The report identified 41 grossly polluted sites where oil had entered wells and underground water supplies.
The study found contamination, sometimes more than 40 years after oil was spilled; community drinking water with dangerous concentrations of benzene and other pollutants; soil contamination more than five metres deep; and evidence of oil firms dumping contaminated soil in unlined pits.
Shell has been widely blamed for not cleaning up its pollution. But in a briefing note, the company claims to have done much of the work already.
“The 15 Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC) joint venture sites specifically mentioned in the UNEP report have been reassessed, and where further remediation was required due to repollution incidents, such sites have been remediated and certified by regulators,” it said.
The clean-up could be complicated by the dramatic fall in the price of oil, and renewed insurgency against oil companies in the delta. After five years of relative calm, a group called the Niger Delta Avengers has started to attack installations belonging to Agip-Eni and Aiteo.
The 1.5 million Ogonis are among the only people known to have ejected an oil company because of pollution. Led by writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Shell was declared persona non grata by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in 1993, and forced out of the region.
Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were executed in 1995 following a non-violent uprising and a military tribunal. Shell has not been allowed to work in Ogoniland since.
To raise the needed amount, each member of the SPDC joint venture is expected to pay a pro-rata share of the $1bn. Members include the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (55% share), SPDC (30%), Total E&P Nigeria (10%) and Agip (5%).