First-Hand Accounts, Satellite Imagery Point to Oil’s Dreadful Impacts on Gulf of Guinea
A close look at oil spills near Nigeria’s coast reveals endangered marine life and critical living conditions for locals
The Gulf of Guinea is one of the richest oil regions in the world, holding about 4.5% of the world’s oil reserves. Spanning more than 7,000 kilometers, it encompasses the exclusive economic zones–areas within 200 nautical miles of nations’ coasts where they have specific rights to natural resources–of 16 countries that border the southwest African coast and houses diverse marine species, including endangered sea turtles.
The Gulf of Guinea’s vast fossil fuel reserves spurred dozens of oil and gas fields since the installation of its first oil platforms between 1960 and 1970. Unfortunately, this has led to frequent and devastating spills that continue to wreak havoc on marine life and negatively impact coastal communities.
Growing up in Nigeria, a West African country located along the Gulf of Guinea and a hotspot for chronic oil pollution, fueled my interest in protecting the environment.
After completing college, I served my compulsory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) work in the Niger Delta region of the country. There I saw the detrimental impacts that oil spills can have on the living conditions of locals, such as contamination of water supplies and the disruption of the livelihoods of fishermen. The toxic chemicals released from the oil make the environment unsafe and harm wildlife, disrupting the food chain and affecting the local economy.
As far back as I can remember, there have been several efforts to clean up oil spills in the Niger Delta, but they take years and are costly. Oil cleanup exercises discussed 15 years ago are still discussed today with no significant progress, causing economic and emotional distress to the affected communities.
While the impact of oil spills on the ocean has received widespread coverage, my interest lies in the broader issue of biodiversity loss and critical living conditions of locals in this oil-rich region.
Leaks, Spills and Slicks in the Gulf of Guinea
From 2002–2012, the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) on board the European Space Agency (ESA) Envisat Mission identified more than 18,063 oil spills in the Gulf of Guinea alone. Such chronic oil spilling is a catastrophe that can destroy entire ecosystems and communities. The effects can be both immediate and long-term and may not be fully realized for years. Such is the case with the Gulf of Guinea.
Reading research, viewing the news and continuing my interaction with friends from the Ogoni area in Niger Delta, I have found that the frequent occurrence of oil spills in this region can be attributed to various factors, including the use of substandard production equipment that easily corrodes and leads to oil leakage, as well as acts of sabotage and bunkering.
Since joining SkyTruth, I have delved into the vast amount of resources available on the Gulf of Guinea. It has been an eye-opening experience to discover the extent of SkyTruth’s work in utilizing satellite imagery to monitor oil spills in the region and provide valuable data for intervention efforts.
In January 2012, we detected a chronic slick from a platform leaking oil for over three months off the coast of Nigeria. We have also detected and reported oil pollution in the Gulf of Guinea from bilge dumping. Last August, SkyTruth intern Devin Thigpen used satellite imagery to expose two spills in the Niger Delta and one in Rio Del Rey Basin. The spills were traced back to specific drilling platforms and oil mining licenses, highlighting the ongoing issue of environmental degradation in this oil-rich region.
The Devastating Impact of Oil Spills on Local Ecosystems
After examining the magnitude of oil spills within the area, I further investigated the potential consequences they may have on nearby ecosystems.
Oil spills can have a significant impact on the environment, harming marine life and disrupting the local food chain. They also damage coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves and coral reefs, which provide habitat for various species.
Mangroves are trees and shrubs that thrive in healthy conditions in coastal areas and provide habitat and energy to various organisms such as fish, birds, and other wildlife. People in Nigeria also rely on them as firewood to use for cooking fuel.
Sadly, an estimated 5–10% of Nigeria’s mangrove ecosystems have been destroyed by oil spills, wiping out an estimated 7,400 square kilometers of rainforest, about the size of Delaware. These spills also contaminate underground water, destroying crops and suffocating marine life, and leading to the invasion of non-native plant species and decreased biodiversity.
Unfortunately, oil exploration in the Gulf of Guinea has caused a vicious cycle of discovery, exploration, and spillage with devastating impacts on beautiful marine creatures.
Oil spills can decimate species populations, some of which are endangered, such as manatees and pygmy hippopotamuses. Sea turtles are especially precious inhabitants of the Gulf of Guinea islands, with four species living there: green, hawksbill, olive ridley, and leatherback. Bioko is the most important island for nesting, where green turtles are the most abundant, whereas Hawksbill turtles are most common on Príncipe and São Tomé.
Sadly, when sea turtles get covered in oil, it restricts their movements, makes them vulnerable to predators, and exposes them to harsh temperatures. This can be catastrophic for their survival, so it’s important to take steps to prevent oil spills from happening in the first place.
People Are at Risk, Too
Communities near and along the Gulf of Guinea sometimes suffer the worst consequences of oil pollution. Spills make it hard for people to find clean water to drink and bathe in. During my NYSC service in the Niger Delta area, I would see women and young children walk for miles just to find clean water—then they would have to walk back another set of miles with buckets of water on their heads—just to survive. It was a constant reminder of the region’s problem with oil pollution.
When water is contaminated with crude oil, it poses a severe risk to human health and can lead to various diseases depending on the kind and level of exposure. Short-term effects include memory loss, headache, nausea, chest pain, fatigue, and confusion, as well as skin and eye irritation.
Long-term exposure can lead to even worse problems. A study conducted on cleanup workers during and seven years after an oil spill revealed that the workers had ongoing symptoms, such as low platelet counts, low hemoglobin levels, breathing problems, liver problems, lung problems, and heart issues. Other long-term health effects included increased cancer risk, reproductive problems, and weakened immune systems.
Beyond affecting individual human health, oil pollution can also significantly affect local communities’ day-to-day life. A study of four affected communities in the Niger Delta region showed that frequent oil spills there have forced many locals in host communities to migrate from their homes to find fresh water where they can fish.
In December 2011, SkyTruth observed the impacts of a Shell oil spill that caused up to 40,000 barrels (1.7 million gallons) of oil to spill into the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Nigeria. The spill has had a significant impact on fish stocks in deeper ocean waters, which are critical to the region’s food resources. Nigerian coastal communities rely on fishing for up to 80% of their animal protein, and shocks to fish populations can upend people’s lives.
I spoke to a former fisherman while living in Port Harcourt in 2017, and he explained how oil spills have caused a significant decrease in the fish population, leaving people without a reliable source of food and causing them to go hungry. People can no longer plant crops because the oil spill has reduced soil fertility. This has made food expensive and unaffordable for many people in the region. As an indication of its effect on the economy, the former fisherman now works as a security guard because of the drop in fish population.
Many impoverished people in the area earn their livings in the fishing industry, and dwindling fish stocks have swept their livelihoods out from under their feet. Those unable to find a new path sometimes resort to oil bunkering and pipeline vandalism for survival, creating a cycle of destruction from oil production activities.
SkyTruth Can Help
Fortunately, technology is playing a critical role in the fight against oil spills in the Gulf of Guinea.
For decades, SkyTruth has used satellite imagery to monitor and track oil spills and other environmental threats across the planet. With our powerful observation tools like Cerulean—an artificial intelligence model capable of detecting oil spills at sea—and SkyTruth Alerts, we are able to provide real-time information on the location and extent of oil spills. These tools can help local authorities respond quickly and effectively in a crisis. The data we create inspire others to hold companies and other polluters responsible for the harm they inflict on our planet.
Satellite imagery wields immense power in swaying industry, governments, and the public into action. If people see with their own eyes the ugly dangers of oil exploration and extraction to ecosystems, plants, wildlife, and human beings, they will insist on change. We believe that increased transparency and accountability around oil spill incidents will help lead to better prevention and response efforts in the future.
Personally, I’m proud to raise awareness on the issue and provide our users with information and tools they need to take action. For example, as a communications intern at SkyTruth, I have designed graphics promoting our conservation tools and detected oil pollution near Lima, Peru, using Sentinel-1 data. I have relished the chance to refine my communications skills while using technology to build awareness about environmental issues.
My experiences in the Niger Delta have highlighted the critical nature of our work at SkyTruth. When we detect an oil spill, it is not just a spill or slick. Rather, we are actively safeguarding communities, protecting sources of livelihood, and preserving delicate ecosystems from irreversible damage. Our efforts have a profound impact on the world around us, and I am honored to be a part of such meaningful work.