BENTIU, Sudan (AFP) – South Sudan officials are concerned at the environmental damage being caused by the oil industry and are promising a tough new line if the oil-rich region gains independence next year.
Their potentially rich but grossly underdeveloped region is in a quandary. Its desperately poor people, mostly subsistence farmers and cattle grazers, need oil money but officials say livelihoods are being threatened by pollution.
In January, southerners will have a chance to take a step towards redressing that problem, voting in a referendum on whether to separate from the rest of the country and form a new state.
The oil industry will then, at least legally, be under their control, and they might be able to do something.
Taban Deng Gai, governor of the southern state of Unity, puts it this way.
“We shall continue with (the oil industry) but under new terms that shall protect the environment of the area.”
“We know this oil is finishing soon and we don’t want to be left over with polluted environment and soil. We shall work very hard to make the government of south Sudan impose regulation on oil companies.”
Yet the government will have to walk a very fine line. The bulk of Sudan’s estimated six billion barrels in oil reserves is located in the south and oil revenues account for nearly all of the southern government’s income.
“We cannot stop exploiting those resources,” Gai says.
“South Sudan is depending on oil revenue at a rate of ninety-seven to ninety-eight percent of the budget. People need services: they need schools, roads etc.”
But he also says the oil companies “have done a lot of damage to the people, to their cattle.”
Gai’s new environment minister, William Garjang Gieng, recently went to see was happening on his turf, accompanied by experts from NGO Sign of Hope and a team of AFP journalists.
The Germany-based group has spent the past three years denouncing oil pollution in Sudan.
Before heading out into the field to inspect three installations operated by the mostly foreign-owned Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co. (GNPOC), a company executive said “we respect the environment.”
But on site, north of the state capital Bentiu, among vast marshlands and plains, Garjang Gieng was not happy with what he saw.
At Al Nar, discarded containers were leaking oil into an adjacent marsh.
“This is bad practice, my friend. This is what we don’t want,” he said to a supervisor at the site, leading to an embarrassing silence.
Garjang Gieng was also angered over filtration ponds built to separate petroleum from water.
The problem, says Sign of Hope’s Klaus Stieglitz, is that “some of these ponds are heavily contaminated, and the fact that there is no plastic lining” means there is seepage into the ground water layer.
At another installation, Toma South, Garjang Gieng saw a pond containing six containers from which a thick tar-like substance was leaking and oozing into the soil.
He spent a quarter of an hour haranguing a GNPOC engineer about what he had seen.
After the man promised to pass on Gieng’s concerns to GNPOC management, the minister replied curtly: “That’s right. Tell them.”
Last year, Stieglitz visited another part of the south, where White Nile Petroleum Operating Co, jointly owned by Malaysia’s Petronas and Sudan’s Sudapet, had built a processing plant.
He said concentrations of salts and contaminants such as cyanides, lead, nickel, cadmium and arsenic had reached critical levels in the water.
Speaking of one village, he said the “inhabitants do not use the water coming from their boreholes.”
“Locals who drink this kind of water can get diarrhoea and a subsequent dehydration of the body which might lead to death if untreated.”
AFP contacted GNPOC for comment regarding the latest complaints, but received no reply.
The company is 40-percent owned by China National Petroleum Corp, one of the biggest investors in Sudan’s oil industry. Another 30 percent is held by Petronas and 25 percent by India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp.
The remaining five percent is owned by Sudan-based company Sudapet.
Unity Governor Gai, looking ahead to the day when there is no more oil, says “we don’t want to be left over with polluted environment and soil.
“We shall work very hard to make the government of south Sudan impose regulations on oil companies.”
His environment minister is more to the point.
“By whatsoever means, south Sudan is going to be an independent state, so any company that wants to be working with us will have to obey us from now on,” Garjang Gieng said.