For Residents of Ogoni in Rivers State, who have been plagued by acute shortage of water for years, regular hand washing, a major preventive measure to contain the spread of coronavirus, is proving to be a mountain too high to climb.
Long before the emergence of COVID-19, residents of Eleme and Bodo in Gokana Local Government areas, as well as several other communities in Ogoni, bought water to drink, cook and bathe. Now, they are left with no choice since the water from the area is said to be highly contaminated.
This is according to a report published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2011. The UNEP report traced this contamination to decades of oil spill by multinational oil firms.
Nine years after UNEP’s warning and recommendations, residents in Eleme, Bodo and other communities in Ogoni still do not have access to clean drinking water. Rather, those who can afford it get water from other sources, while those who can’t continue to use the contaminated water.
A consultant physician and dermatologist at the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, Dr Dasetima Altraide, said water contaminated with chemicals could result in dermatitis and other serious health challenges. He warned that it was unsafe for residents to use contaminated water to wash hands, cook and drink.
Apart from pimples, chemically contaminated water would cause contact dermatitis, but its consumption could cause both renal and respiratory problems, he added.
When The Guardian spoke to some residents in Eleme, various skin diseases were observed. Dr Patience Osaroejiji, who heads the Coalition of Ogoni Women, expressed concerns. She lamented that the Ogoni women begged the government and well-meaning Nigerians to give them water as palliatives, but regretted that nobody had since responded to their call.
However, the Commissioner for Water Resources, Tamunosisi Gogo-Jaja, acknowledged that a lot of residents in the state were using contaminated water, stating that the ministry had opened a compulsory website to enable it monitor the activities of borehole drillers.
He said: “We have opened a website to monitor the activities of borehole drillers, detect quacks in the industry to ensure that the water served to the people of Rivers is of high quality, standard, clean and safe for our people to drink.”
An Ogoni environmental activist, Nbani Friday Barilule, told The Guardian that the warning issued by UNEP’s 2011 report, should have spurred a quick response by the government. He however expressed disappointment, that till date, Ogonis depend on boreholes sunk by rich men, streams and well water.
He regretted that the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) set up by the federal Government to implement emergency measures like water had failed. He said HYPREP only proposed water projects but none had been implemented.
According to him “There is no source of water from the government or any one and the impacts are devastating, people are dying daily and no one knows the cause.”
Also, the President of the National Youth Council of Ogoni People (NYCOP), Dr, Young Nkpah, said “since the UNEP report, there is nothing on ground to indicate provision of water in Ogoni. No government presence at all. Nobody is interested in giving the Ogoni people portable drinking water, even with COVID 19. Washing with contaminated water is still problematic but they feign ignorance. Ogoni people need government’s support and urgent provision of water”.
Meanwhile, the Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action/ Friends of the earth, Nigeria, (ERA/FoEN), Godwin Ojo, has also stressed the need to implement the emergency measures recommended by the UNEP report which includes, provision of water and the overhauling of HYPREP.
These findings therefore indicate that there is urgent need for the Federal Government, HYPREP, oil companies and well-meaning Nigerians to start supplying safe water to the people of Ogoniland, who have been forced to use polluted water over the years.
This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), under its COVID-19 Reality check Project.