WARRI, Nigeria— When he was a child, Tonye Emmanuel Isenah saw men in the Niger Delta who were 70 and even 80 years old. But these days, he said, people just don’t live that long.
Isenah is now the deputy leader of the state assembly in Bayelsa State, part of Nigeria’s oil rich Niger Delta region — a land that for decades has suffered annual devastating oil spills. Experts say the yearly spills are each comparable to the Exxon Valdez spill. And the environmental degradation is causing the local people to become ill and die at earlier ages.
“At the age of 45, people are beginning to have strokes,” he said. “I used to see people that lived up to 70 years and beyond.”
Life expectancy in Nigeria now hovers above 50 years, nearly 20 years below the world average, but Isenah says that in the Niger Delta, the life span is shorter. Isenah’s assertion that pollution in the Niger Delta is weakening the people, is as obvious to any observer as the oil that coats the mangrove roots in the creeks.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, exporting about 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, almost entirely from the Niger Delta. It is the United States’ fifth largest oil supplier and the proceeds from sales of crude oil made up 80 percent of Nigeria’s national revenue and nearly all its foreign currency earnings.
But on the banks of the Niger Delta's waterways, locals say the oil has brought them nothing but suffering and things are getting worse. Last year, Royal Dutch Shell in Nigeria, the country’s largest oil company recorded twice as much spilled oil than the year before, with 6,000 tons of oil dumped into the delta due to operational failures, up from 2,900 tons the year before. This figure doesn't include spills from other major oil companies, like Chevron, Exxon-Mobile and Total, or from oil theft and illegal refineries.
Oil floats on the delta’s waterways killing and contaminating the plants and animals in one of Africa’s most bio-diverse regions. Along the banks of the creeks, muddy fishing villages are slick with oil that washes ashore. Villagers say they drink and bathe in the oily waters and as a result, children are dying of diseases.
The pollution and lack of attention to it is fueling anger among the people of the Niger Delta. Militant rebels charge that their grievances have not been addressed since the 2009 amnesty deal and some are threatening to fight again if the government does not clean up the area and make it place where people can live safely.
Last year, the United Nations Environment Program conducted a study of an oil spill in the Niger Delta and found some water with 900 times more carcinogens than what is safe. With almost no hospitals in the creeks and wooden dugout canoes being the common mode of transport, parents say sick children often cannot live long enough to get help.
Like the rest of her family, Decent Victor fishes for a living and dries the fish into flakes to sell. She said it can take five to six hours to paddle to the nearest hospital.
“If you see a 10-year-old child getting a sickness, you carry the boy to the hospital,” she said. “But before getting to Warri the child dies.”
Fishing is almost the sole economic activity for many villages in the Niger Delta and locals say they now catch six to eight times less fish than they did a few years ago — barely enough to sell. Officials and oil companies do not deny that people are suffering from the oil drenching their land, but responsibility for cleaning up is elusive. Officials say they are currently conducting studies and will order companies to compensate people in villages devastated by spills, if they can prove the oil in the village came from the company in question.
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A week doesn’t go by without a report of an oil spill, said Warri head of the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, Benjamin Olubunmi Akindele. He said his office does not have the means or the mandate to clean them all up.
“It is the job of the polluter to clean up the spills, not the agency,” he said. Oil companies, however, lay blame on the government, saying insecurity in the region makes clean-ups difficult.
The companies also blame many of the oil spills on attacks on their pipelines by local oil thieves. Shell says more than 75 percent of all oil spills in the delta between 2006 and 2010 were caused by illegal refining and sabotage.
Village leaders say if the dangers in the water were not enough, the air is also increasingly dangerous to breathe. Gas flaring — a process in which natural gas associated with crude oil pumping is burned — has been declared illegal by many Nigerian lawmakers over the years, but the fires still burn every day, all day and all night.
Oil companies say they are working to reduce continuous flaring, with Shell reporting a 60 percent decrease over the past nine years. The company said it is currently implementing a $5 billion program to reduce flaring and gather more of the natural gas for power.
Felix Fawei, a community leader, said fumes from the flares sicken locals, forcing many to flee from their villages into the cities. “Sometimes you’ll see that the water is very bright even though this area is very dark,” he said. “This in an environment that is not safe to live.”
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