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There’s an invisible cost to Nigeria’s oil spill disasters

Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
A woman paddles a canoe at Swali jetty on the Nun River in Nigeria’s delta region
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Oporoza, Nigeria

Walk along sections of Nigeria’s Escravos River today, and you’ll see almost no aquatic life. Within a few days of an attack on a state-owned oil pipeline in September of this year, dead freshwater crabs, snails and fish were littered along the Niger Delta’s southwestern coastline amidst an oil spill. A little further south, just eight months before, the same thing had happened on the Forcados pipeline, a key oil export line. The militant groups responsible have vowed to keep bombing oil companies’ infrastructure until they cease operations.

Some sources have estimated the economic impact of the Forcados attack to have cost Nigeria a fifth of its oil production, equivalent to roughly 400,000 barrels a day. The hit to the country’s economy is significant, as more than than two-thirds of state budget comes from crude exports. But what do these numbers not show? How this disaster has shrunk the time that many women had to do paid work by increasing their unpaid work load.

“Even if the river were clean, we can’t go back to the same place, there’s no fish.”

The labor that keeps the women in the Niger Delta busy tends to be care work—looking after children, the elderly, the ill—as well as cooking and cleaning. This is work that technically has a market value, but is done for free inside the home, and therefore traditional productivity measures like GDP don’t capture it. But if we did measure it, McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the total output of unpaid care work would equal about $10 trillion, roughly 13% of global GDP. In Nigeria, women spend on average 8.5 hours/day on unpaid care work, according to ActionAid.  And after an environmental disaster, there is even more of it.

AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
The nasty effects of oil spills in the Niger Delta area.

Female farmers, fishers and herbalists of riverine villages relied on fresh water not only for their businesses and livelihoods, but also to perform daily tasks. Take something as simple as doing laundry. Women who previously washed clothes by the river now have to collect rainwater in buckets to do their washing, stretching this task several hours. In other words, instead of spending time doing work that could earn them money or going to school, or participating in a job training program, women now spend the greater part of their day sourcing food, water and tending to sick children and relatives.

Water contamination resulting from the oil spills made this no easier, of course. Elizabeth Ekiyor, a fisherwoman, finds it almost impossible to come across water unmarked by the thick, blackish patches of oil, and has to walk much farther to fish than she used to. “But even if the river [where she used to fish] were clean, we can’t go back to the same place, there’s no fish,” she says. Sara Okolo, a market trader, who depended on the river for her work and daily tasks, and has recently lost her business, says that lack of clean water now puts a strain on her livelihood. “I’m not working now [for pay], it’s not easy to start from nothing,” she says.

Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
Two day jobs.

Although the damage to the Forcados pipeline caused one of the largest spills in recent Nigerian history, multinationals Royal Dutch Shell and ENI have barely helped local residents clean up the mess: They declared force majeure, which means that legally the companies had limited responsibility for the damage as it was caused by a third party. As a result, locals living close to the pipeline such as Moses Yabrade, an environmental activist and community leader, complain bitterly. “We haven’t seen much help yet. This thing has affected so many areas. Even a place like Oporoza, which is a bit away from the site, is still not over it, the people are not over it,” he said. Apart from the initial support with cleaning materials and food relief from Shell, they’ve received little help or compensation from the companies, and very little from the government.

And the impacts on families are dire: Sarah Okolo is doubtful she can raise the startup money for her food stall. On average it takes her twenty minutes to walk to the market, but Okolo worries that her working day would mean her two small children would have to be on their own for too long, and she does not have an arrangement for somebody to watch them for the whole day. This has become an especially important consideration, as she fears her four-year old son has fallen ill from drinking contaminated groundwater. But without much money and limited access to healthcare, she is left as his primary caretaker—a role which limits her ability to do market work.

Part of the reason that women are so hugely impacted is that the pipeline strikes and subsequent military raids searching for the militants responsible have impaired the infrastructure for care in riverside villages like Oporoza. Schools have opened and shut haphazardly, church and community health programs have been intermittently suspended. The chaotic closures affect the educational progress of children and the community’s health. What social structures existed before are now gone.

Ostensibly, Delta State where these attacks take place has enough oil wealth to invest in an infrastructure that would help make it easier for women like Okolo and Ekiyor to balance their domestic and work responsibilities—including investments in child care, schools and hospitals. In fact, many residents advocate for that kind of spending, and activists have historically demanded that a greater share of the oil wealth be invested back into communities.

But this hasn’t happened, although Delta State has a $78.6 million budget for the region’s development. Under-funding, delays in disbursement and corruption have largely affected progress. In addition, in this restive region, the federal government, backed by a $1.3 billion national defense budget, has largely focused on clamping down on rebel activities, fueling further resentment of militant groups.

And yet, the situation for a peaceful solution continues to look dire: A three-month ceasefire was recently broken by the Delta Avengers when they attacked an offshore Escravos platform belonging to the US oil giant, Chevron. There may not be a way right now to prevent future attacks, but as researchers have found in consultations with women in in the Philippines and Ethiopia, state actors could help make communities more resilient in the face of new attacks and subsequent environmental disasters by developing a public support system that, among other things, places greater value on unpaid care work. With the right policies, within this tragedy could be an opportunity to rebuild a community stronger than before.

This story was produced as part of the Global Gender Parity Initiative journalism project at New America, which seeks to elevate stories about under-reported gender equality issues, and is supported by the Hewlett Foundation.

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