Nsisioken Ogale: Where drinking water kills

Seven years after shocking UN report shows that the water in Nsisioken Ogale, Rivers State, contains 900 times more benzene, a known carcinogen, than is normal, residents still consume contaminated water, contend with loss of farmlands, insecurity and mass migration as a result of pollution caused by oil exploration



The 2011 UN Environmental Assessment of Ogoni land is a detailed and disturbing report. Even a hardened mind will submit before the power of simple logic and gripping photos in the well-presented text, which reports the presence of benzene in wells located in Nsisioken Ogale, Rivers State. 


Nsisioken Ogale is a part of Ogale and is the most impacted part of the highly contaminated community. 

At the epicentre of this toxicity, a signboard warns people to avoid the highly contaminated area, yet the locals flock there as that is the location of a number of places of worship. It is such places, defined by a loss of hope and monumental decline, that provide the fertile soil for faith to blossom.

But it is not only the area but the water as well. The UN report states: “Of most immediate concern, community members at Nsisioken Ogale are drinking water from wells contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen at levels 900 times above the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline.”

Ebere Bebi Okpabi, King of Ogale, said in an interview with Daily Trust “Diseases like cancer, infant mortality, skin diseases, high rates of death are very common here. Soot is a problem in our community, and it’s more intense in Ogale.” 

The community has a case against Shell which is being heard at the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom.

“Benzene is a very dangerous chemical that causes cancer and other diseases. Benzene is derived from the activities of oil exploration in the area. We know that from the findings of the UN,” the king said. “Benzene here is 900 times above the accepted level for human consumption. It is 900% above the level that human beings should consume. That’s what we have been consuming.” 

The king emphasized that they had no alternative to this water sources despite the inherent risk involved.

“We drink it. Even those with boreholes still have benzene in their water. No matter how deep you dig, there will be traces of benzene. So, people are drinking it. If a man does not have money to buy [treated] water, then he has no alternative but to drink it. The people manage it, and they say if they boil the water, they can use it.” 

The pollution levels have also affected the livelihood of the people.

“There is no fishing here anymore. It’s all gone. The same applies to farming. Eighty per cent of our farming land has been destroyed, and we are just managing the little that is available,” he said.

Going down memory lane, he suggested that Ogale was once a very fertile, highly productive part of the Niger Delta.

“I remember during the farming season, we used to go with our parents and grandparents, and we will stay in the farm from morning to night. The only thing we took to the farm was salt. We produced oil there, yams too, the water we needed, we fetched from the stream. Sometimes, we stayed in the farm for a week. I heard that in the past they would stay in the farming area for six months at a stretch, and return to the community after the farming season. But that beautiful life has gone.”

Everyone in the Nsisioken Ogale has a lamentation or two about the environmental hazard posed by the place they live in.

Mrs Felicia Akarada, a retired teacher who is both hypertensive and diabetic is one of them.

“Every day we buy pure water, or bottled water. Some still drink the poisoned water, and this is because they are poor,” she said. 

Nehemiah Osarollor agrees with her, saying, “We don’t have drinking water in the whole of Ogale community. Water to use either for bathing or for drinking have all been contaminated. But people who have money buy sachet water or bottled water and manage it. Yet many people are falling sick. After a while you hear that somebody has died. We suspect that the ill health comes from all this contaminated water. We have spoken about this, but the government is not responding.”

Mrs Akarada  described the situation further: “We are surrounded by different factories and bodies producing toxic elements. We wake up and breathe in ammonia. Immediately after the rain, you see the collected water in buckets, and you notice a lot of particles there.Our problems are vast.”

On her borehole, she adds that its water is murky, and that this  has turned the toilets and buckets yellow too. She presents a disturbing picture of the farming situation “For three years now, we haven’t harvested maize. When you plant maize, an ant like a maggot will destroy the crop right from the day you plant it. Pollution is linked to food scarcity and poverty, because many crops hardly grow.”

Osarollor points out that even harvested foodstuff pose a risk. 

“The vegetables we plant in our farms are not doing well. If you go and pluck vegetables, you will see black forms on it, and cleaning it to cook, is also dangerous. Nowadays,we don’t consume much of the vegetables, because of the pollution here,” he said.

Speaking on the environment, he said, “The air is poisoned. If you were here yesterday when there was heavy rain, you would have seen some particles. As the rain starts, if you bring the basin out, you will see these black particles at the bottom of the basin.”

John Ngawala, another local, sheds light on the problems affecting farming in the area. “The type of insects affecting the farms these days, we  never saw in our childhood. We plant maize and the insects eat the leaves. The yams don’t produce again, and cassava decays very quickly in the ground. After  about one year, cassava normally  starts to mature, but these days, it’s does not take  up to a year  before it starts to rot. Maize used to grow well here, but the insects don’t allow it to grow anymore. Also, the number of farmers has reduced, because the land is not fertile again.”

Noble Nwolu, PRO to the Centre for Disease Control makes the point that many rich persons have left Ogale, and this has reduced the level of security in neighbourhoods. He reasons that this is because when rich persons provide security for their houses, this rubs off on the other households on the street.

Commenting on this, King Okpabi said, “You migrate, when you can afford to migrate. Those who can afford to leave will do so, but where will they leave to? Meanwhile, the elites don’t stay at home, for obvious reasons.” 

He drew attention to the link between the effects of pollution and insecurity “The modern problem of insecurity, youth restiveness, which we are witnessing in the Niger Delta, cultism and all these things, are as a result of poverty. People have nothing to do. Yet you destroy their land as well as their fishing spots and so they are left with nothing to do.”

Mrs. Akarada makes an unforgettable point. “The air in Nsisioken Ogale is polluted. The government  should come and rebuild the town for us, rebuild everything. Many of us are dying silently. If they will come and give us daily or weekly money for us to eat well and die, then we know that we are preparing to die. I don’t see the life again. Death is there for sure in this environment and so government should come and make our last days happy.” 

It’s a tough life in Nsisioken Ogale where there is no pipe borne water, and water from both boreholes and wells is not only yellow in colour  but  smells of fuel . 

Hopes of an alternative water source have hit a snag as Blessing Ollornwi, the mechanical engineer supervising the Ogale Waterworks, pointed out.

“The problem is majorly that of funding. If funds are available, operations will begin and the distribution of water will start throughout the local government. The people will have a better source of water, for the source of water for the water works is very okay. The laboratory here is well equipped, even if it has not been used for a while.”

But in this ancient, rain-soaked community in Ogoniland where a  former king signed a treaty with Britain in 1897, now awash in murky poisonous water that turns buckets golden brown, the only trade thriving is that of sachet water. But residents hope this will not be the case for long.


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