Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Impacts of Oil Extraction on the People and Environment in Pariang County

Background and General Comments

We are writing to bring to your attention, and that of the Ministry as well as of the Government of South Sudan, the graphic environmental degradation and its existential threats to both human and ecological security in the Ruweng Region of Pariang County. This is not an act of God. It occurs as a result of an odious combination of wilful blindness, recklessness, negligence, apathy and indifference on the part of the companies in charge of oil facilities and operations in the County. This has led to grave and fatal environmental contamination across the County, among which the worst affected areas are Ajalau (Unity Oilfields), Ajach (El Naar), Bokthok (Toma South), Minyang/Wanedanluel (Manga), Yaar and Athoony, among others. The net consequence on the host populations has been an exponential rise in the number of environmental IDPs, besides the obvious ongoing health issues across the County.

As evident in our presentation on July 25th 2015, during a seminar on “A Framework for Social and Environmental Audit of the Gas and Oil Sector in South Sudan” organized by Ebony Centre, it is plainly manifest that oil extraction in the Ruweng Region is totally out of whack with the best corporate  practices. By every practical account, important and critical respect, therefore, the standard of care undertaken by the relevant oil companies has been found to terribly fall below the minimum moral and corporate conscience of a reasonable oil company which has the requisite will to exercise due diligence in the ordinary course of its operations and in compliance with legal requirements. It would be gross an understatement, thus, to say that such defective operations have resulted in massive loss to human life and livestock, besides rendering the environment wholly uninhabitable in nearly every single one of the most affected areas.

As such, it is no small irony that a natural resource which was supposed and expected to improve the wellbeing of the members of the host community has turned out to be the main existential threat to their very survival, their livestock and to the long term sustainability of the environment. Such perilous business practices have also significantly impaired the social and economic structures of both the present and future generations of the host community, considering that such practices are inconsistent with the fundamental objective and the spirit of responsible oil business. 

The current environmental catastrophe in the region and its continuous threats are reminiscent of and, indeed, conjure tragic memories of the pandemic of kala Azar (Visceral Leishmaniasis) which, between 1987 and 1997, claimed nearly 30% of the population which was domiciled in Pariang during the said period. While we are acutely seized of the fact that Visceral leishmaniasis (VL) is not a human made infirmity, the extent of its devastation was entirely preventable. Regrettably, however, it was not, due to a deliberate mischief on the part the SPLA Zonal Military Command/leadership of the time. This plainly establishes that during the civil war between the South and the North, the wellbeing of our community was unconscionably pushed to the back burner by both sides to the conflict (the Sudanese Government and the SPLA).

It follows that, whereas it is easy to blame the current environmental disaster in the region on the ongoing civil strife, it is irrefutable that oil spills started long before this conflict. Furthermore, some of the worst affected areas (such as Athoony/Nyongrial) have not directly been affected by the ongoing conflict. This suggests that, while the current civil unrest may be pleaded as a force majeure defence, no reasonable argument can excuse the neglect of one’s moral responsibility, however extreme and undesirable the circumstances might be. That is why we cannot wait for the end of war to act and rescue the situation, for situations such as this are too graphic to wait for the end of the war. Such situations, in other words, cannot wait, for human life cannot be put on hold. In fact, in contradistinction, we hold the view that the oil companies have been and are still pursuing their profit-making interests on the cheap, and at the expense of our people’s human rights and dignity. That is why we emphasize that, in this specific instance, the cost of doing business or pursuing oil development must be made more expensive than the cost of waiting. It is our pre-ordained right to refuse to be used a bargaining chip by both the Government and oil corporations for the sole intent to maximize the dollar value. The community has endured far too much and for far too long.

Issues and Remedies

It is against the backdrop of the foregoing that our submission should be considered and understood as a cry for help, for so much has already been unconscionably lost or destroyed (much of which was and still is totally preventable). Nevertheless, we are consciously aware that no help is ever too late. Without further ado, therefore, our pleading seeks to highlight the following issues alongside their corresponding remedies:

1.      The first issue pertains to the ongoing oil spills, their toxic effects on human and animal life and on the long term sustainability of the environment. It is self-evident that the current environmental pollution occurred principally because of the negligent, reckless and willfully blind conduct on the part of oil companies which have consistently failed to put in place environmental protection mechanisms to contain, at least, the magnitude of the contamination or damages arising from their defective operations or poor maintenance, especially in the event of oil spills. A compelling evidence of such irreparable injuries to both humans and livestock as well as the destruction of natural habitats is demonstrably established by the graphic images (please see Appendix B on page 7) seen in our presentation on July 25th in Juba. Again, all this took place chiefly because oil companies have failed to live up to their corporate citizenship, an idea which is often expressed—by responsible companies— in the form corporate social responsibility. Such a responsibility does not only require that oil companies operate in a manner that is consistent with corporate norms, legal imperatives and ethical standards but also the idea that a host community is an indispensable stakeholder in such an enterprise. Corporate conscience requires oil companies to go above and beyond the interests of shareholders. This is where the notion of corporate philanthropy becomes an important element of corporate citizenship, along with its inherent (moral) obligations. This involves giving back to the host community through a number of initiatives such as construction of schools, roads, clinics/hospitals and scholarships as well as the need to engage in afforestation or re-afforestation projects. Re-afforestation activities are critical components of corporate citizenship, particularly in view of the importance of land reclamation, in order to restore the land and make it once again inhabitable long after oil has been depleted. Such responsibilities are imperative, hence, should not be viewed as only amounting to acts of charity.

2.      Second issue relates to lack of Government monitoring of the operations of oil companies in the field. For this reason, this letter would like to petition you personally, Hon. Minister, your ministry, the ministries of Environment and Health, to take affirmative steps with the view to ensuring that oil companies in the area are in strict compliance with best business practices, ministerial rules, policies and regulations governing their activities in the oil sector. This is critical, considering that it is lack of adequate monitoring, if any, that has led to this disaster. To wit, the community is of the view that the current oil disaster and its consequential injuries to the environment and the community, could have been avoided had the Government not taken its eye off the ball. That is, had the Government demanded due diligence and exacted accountability in the event of lack of reasonable compliance by oil companies, this environmental debacle would have been kept at bay.

3.      The third issue ties in with the issued identified in (2). That is, the Government’s failure to monitor and hold oil companies accountable has encouraged a “race to the bottom” attitude and rent-seeking behaviour on the part of oil companies. This is because lack of policy and legal frameworks, especially environmental laws, the latter being a mandate of the Ministry of Environment, has significantly contributed to the culture of non-compliance with the required international legal standards for environmental protection. In fact, in the entire history of oil development in Pariang (since 1978), there has exists no evidence on record of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). It is understandable that previous Khartoum governments had no interest to protect our people, since all they cared about were our natural resources which they used as tools for executing the war. However, there is no excuse on the part of the South Sudanese Government not to protect our people. Dovetailed with this urging is our suggestion that the ministries of Mining and Petroleum and Environment should enact a strong legislation that enhances transparency and accountability, in order that oil companies and their directing minds (officials) are made to answer for their conduct in their capacity as corporate entities and individuals respectively.

4.      Forth, while this letter solely intends to bring to your attention issues other than the general matter of compensation which may be dealt with separately on another occasion and in a different forum, the community urges the Government, especially your Ministry, to ensure that oil companies make some reasonable recompense to the community, especially individuals whose lives and economic structures have been shattered as a result of egregious corporate misconduct.  

5.      Fifth, we would like to urge the Government, and in particularly the ministries of Environment and Health, in collaboration with oil companies, to institute environmental protection mechanisms against such disasters. In order to achieve this, it is necessary that there be created a Tripartite Committee, to be composed of representatives from three main stakeholders: the Government, oil companies and the host community. To this committee may be added independent experts. The role of this joint committee would be to ensure that oil companies conduct their activities in complete compliance and harmony with legal, safety and environmental standards. The Committee should be empowered and required to carry out environmental inspections (audits) and publish its reports quarterly (every three months). Any irregularities should immediately be disclosed (including the extent of damages and how it occurred). Steps should immediately be taken to remedy the problem in order to safeguard community’s health and to ensure an overall environmental safety. As well, such a joint committee would be charged with the responsibility to carry out massive awareness campaigns throughout the County, especially among the residents who have situs in proximity with oil facilities and are likely to be most adversely affected. The companies ought to provide resources (human and funds) for such campaigns. Our people’s health should not be compromised on account of corporate profits. Humanity precedes earnings.

6.      The sixth point is the issue of lack of adequate disclosure. Both oil companies and the Government have been extracting oil resources in a manner that is shrouded in secrecy, preferring instead, to cover all their tracks. This considerably leaves the community in the dark. For this reason, we urge the Government to take reasonable steps to ensure more transparency by making reasonable disclosure especially as regards the risks and benefits of this enterprise, both to South Sudan and, more importantly, to the community. The goal is to enhance oil companies’ accountability to oil producing communities. The community is not against oil developments. Rather, we are of the view that the Government ought to work hard to maximize efforts for environmental protection for the same amount of growth or development without compromise safety standards and environmental health.

7.      The seventh issue is that of environmental contamination. Whether one wants to rely on circumstantial or direct evidence as to the state of environmental pollution is something that speaks for itself in either case, hence no further adduction of evidence is necessary. That said, we are urging the Government to embark on a thorough environmental clean-up. This includes levelling deformed landscape besides remedying the surface effects of the leakage which feeds into the local water systems, resulting in contamination of both drinking water and aquatic life. It bears emphasizing here that much of the water—from both surface and subsurface sources—has apparently been contaminated. This affords evidence on the ground in relation to cases of infertility which has risen dramatically in recent years. There is also indisputable evidence of children being born with physical deformities (please see Appendix B for physical evidence). Furthermore, symptoms of what appear to be cases of lead-poisoning have been observed. If true, it would mean that the odious prospects of future generations being born with brain damage and/or learning disabilities are within the realms of possibility, not just probability. We are, therefore, appealing to both the ministries of Mining and Petroleum and Environment as well as the entire Government to work side by side with companies and their in-house engineers in liaison with the communities, to improvise ways of supplying clean drinking water and health facilities. Indeed, there is no gainsaying that even drinking milk and eating meat from livestock and other animals which depend on this contaminated resources might, arguably, be very risky. This is partly why we suggest that deep water drilling, besides supply of water hand-pumps, can go a long way to alleviate the magnitudes of such indirect effects, especially on humans. 

8.      The eighth issue is lack of awareness on the part of the community. Many people are unaware that what ails them is the use of contaminated water. This is also why mass campaigns throughout the County are important. These campaigns should include erecting symbols in areas that are suspected or are completely out of limits of safe use, whether temporary or permanently. Such campaigns should unequivocally spell out whether certain areas should not be inhabited at all. As well, these campaigns must include the idea of whether the contaminated water sources and grazing lands in these areas are dangerous or unsafe for human or livestock consumption, or both.

9.      The ninth issue is lack of local knowledge as to the extent of the current health threats emanating from this environmental risks.  Hence, although much of the environmental contamination is visible to the naked eye, we are appealing for an immediate sample medical testing of the soil and water on the suspected spots. The goal is not to confirm contamination (since evidence speaks for itself) but to establish the extent of its current or potential long term consequences. This testing should be carried out by independent medical experts whose weighty advice in respect of the issues raised in point (8) cannot be ignored.

10.  The final issue is that of protecting the animals. To that extent, we urge the Ministry, in conjunction with oil companies, to engage the community in establishing water reservoirs along animal migration routes in order to provide safe drinking water for animals. These reservoirs, we suggest, should be constructed in a way that prevents contaminated water from the nearby oil residue-pools from draining or leaking into them (reservoirs).


In summary, the community supports oil developments for the good of the nation. We, however, hold a strong view that such developments cannot be achieved at the expense of our people. The principle, “do no harm,” cannot be compromised on account of corporate interests.
We are looking forward to your advance response and cooperation.

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