By Ann Godwin

In the past, when rivers and lands in Goi, K-Dere and Bodo communities in Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers State were free from oil spill, the environment displayed aquatic splendour.

Fish, periwinkles and other sea animals were healthy and alive in the rivers. Then, pregnant women and children in these communities enjoyed nutritious delicacies that ensured they remained healthy.

Then, the women could put hot water on fire and rush to a nearby muddy river to pick periwinkles to prepare delicious meals.

A rich source of protein, periwinkle is loaded with nutritious amino acid and omega-3 fatty acid.

The story is, however, different today. The continued oil spill in the areas has contaminated the rivers and destroyed the flora and fauna that helped to sustain healthy bodies.

The unabated oil spill activities, which began about four decades ago, are also releasing toxic chemicals into the air, thereby affecting the people’s health, especially pregnant women and children.

While on a tour of these heavily polluted communities, The Guardian saw some pregnant women who could not afford the previously available sea foods, searching for periwinkle and crab in the polluted oily water.

Sadly, after hours of searching, what they caught was less than three cups of tiny periwinkles. Other seafood like water snail, shrimps, prawns, and crayfish had completely disappeared.

Despite obvious health implications of consuming polluted seafood, the people are forced to eat due to hunger and lack of alternatives. But while the people wallow in dereliction, the multinational oil companies and government who benefit majorly from the natural assets in the Niger Delta region are paying lips service to their plight.

The people are predominantly farmers, hunters, palm wine tappers and fishermen and women, but they have lost their sources of livelihood to oil devastation.

Esther Kpakoldii, 30, a pregnant woman was searching for periwinkles at a creek in Goi community. When asked if she knew the health implication of eating periwinkle from polluted water, she said: “It is better for us to die from what we eat than to die of hunger.”

The indigenes in Goi have all relocated to neighbouring villages due to oil spill. Here, there are no trees, and the bushes do not grow beyond grass level.

The only visible building in the area is an empty community hall. Animals, domestic, wild and aquatic life is extinct.

Pregnant Women In Niger Delta Are Endangered

Recent findings on environmental pollution showed that steady consumption of polluted water and vegetables put pregnant women at great risk of maternal malnutrition and sickness, which potentially increases infant mortality.

This vulnerable group is most exposed to pollution, and the effects of oil spill on their health are life threatening, due to harmful chemicals found in crude oil and polluted water.

The chemicals, according to a study undertaken by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2011 in Ogoni land include butane, benzene – a known carcinogen found at levels over 900 times above World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendation.

According to International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), benzene is a group 1 carcinogen, and constant inhalation of minute levels of the chemical causes leukemia and other types of cancers.

Additionally, exposure to spill can result in irregular heartbeats, convulsion, laboured breathing, chemical pneumonia, dizziness, loss of coordination, nausea and coma, among others.

Kpakoldii told The Guardian: “We are in a terrible situation. There is no periwinkle again. I walked for an hour to this riverside in search of periwinkle because I do not have money to buy from the market. After searching for over one hour, what I gathered is less than a cup.”

A traditional ruler in Goi, Chief Eric Dooli, currently living in a neighbouring village, said 75 per cent of miscarriages in Gokana Local Council were as a result of oil pollution.

And though a document titled, “Health Management Information System” obtained during a visit to Bori Hospital and Bodo General Hospital in the areas showed lesser number of miscarriages, the traditional ruler rejected it.

He said: “Our challenge is that journalists that came here have not reported the cardinal issues affecting inhabitants of my community. Goi community has been so polluted that you cannot find birds and animals in the place.

Today, there is nowhere to fish because the mangroves where fishes lived have been devastated by oil. We no longer have bushes, where animals reproduce their young ones.”

Persistent oil spill, according to health experts, poses significant health challenges to pregnant women and children. They said benzene could influence development of embryo and foetus.

According to WHO, the foetus or child is sensitive to even minute concentration of toxic chemicals.

Researches have also shown that crude oil and its components are known teratogens, which cause birth defects, changes in foetal development and decreased foetal survival.

After its assessment of Ogoni in 2011, UNEP warned that inhalation of petroleum hydrocarbons and consumption of contaminated fish and polluted water would affect the people’s health.

Bodo, Bori And K-Dere Women And Their Babies Are Dying

Findings at Bodo and Bori Hospitals, as well as a health centre in K-Dere revealed increased miscarriages, maternal and child mortality.

For instance, at Rivers State Zonal Hospital Management Board, Bori, an Out-Patient Register (OPR) shown The Guardian by a top management staff, who requested anonymity, recorded that out of every 10 pregnancies, there are three miscarriages.

At Bodo, investigation showed that an average of three to eight miscarriages are recorded monthly, while death rate stands between 14 and 15 persons per month. Reports from other medical centres in Kpor, Terabor, Kpete, and K-Dere were similar.

K-Dere is home to about 64 oil wells, out of the about 96 scattered all over Ogoni land. Some of the key investigations in the UNEP assessment were done in K-Dere.

Some pregnant women that spoke with The Guardian at different locations said they fetched water from wells, boreholes and rivers. They complained that they lacked fruits and vegetables. They lamented that since their lands got destroyed and sources of livelihood mired, they no longer have money to buy such items.

It was also gathered that most of the women use fertiliser on their crops due to damage on the soil. But experts said such practices are not good for health.

Indeed, some pregnant women at the hospitals had dry skin and rashes.

Sadly, the people’s health keeps deteriorating daily, and there is no medical support in place to assist the women and families heavily impacted by the spill.

A resident, Mrs. Bapakaye Young-Harry, the Head of Eastern Zone, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) disclosed that she gave birth to a baby with a hole in the heart, which doctors attributed to high air pollution. Fortunately, the baby was treated.

A study by American Friends of Tel Aviv University and the World Health Organisation showed that air pollution constitutes a serious health risk, associated with respiratory infections, lung cancer and heart diseases.

Blessing Nadum, Assistant Director of Nursing Services, General Hospital, Bodo, said: “In these areas, you don’t see fruits, vegetables, periwinkle, potable water and fish anymore.

The ones available are very costly. A cup of periwinkle is N400, but we still preach that they take those food items. We continue to tell them the importance of antenatal care.

When pregnant women don’t eat these foods to have sufficient blood, it can lead to anaemia. It may also cause miscarriage, because the baby depends on the mother.”

Interestingly, The Guardian observed that the women prefer to deliver babies in churches, homes and with local birth attendants than go to the hospital, due to lack of money to pay bills, which also contributes to maternal mortality rate.

A Consultant obstetrician, gynaecologist and Executive Director, Mother and Baby Global Foundation, Dr. Eli Sukarime, said: “There is a relationship between oil spillage, pollution and pregnancy. Firstly, oil pollution can prevent women from getting pregnant.

Secondly, it can also cause miscarriage, which in Nigeria occurs, when a pregnancy is under seven months. But WHO defines miscarriage as occurring less than six months.

“Gaseous pollution contains carbon dioxide and other noxious agents that can affect the uterus and a developing baby. As the pregnancy advances, it can also cause some problems, called congenital anomaly to the baby.

The heart can be affected, just like the baby’s skeletal development. And when that happens, the body will reject the developing baby, because it has become like a foreign organism to the woman, leading to a miscarriage.”

Similarly, a consultant paediatrician at Braithwaite Specialist Memorial Hospital, Port Harcourt, Dr. Appollus Josiah, said: “When the chemicals used for exploration activities get into the soil and do not go out, they affect plants. And when people eat those plants, they go directly into the system. It is possible if a pregnant woman.”

The State Commissioner for Health, Professor, Princewill Chike, said part of the studies conducted by the Ministry of Health in Ogoni revealed that oil pollution has led to several miscarriages, unexplained cancers and issues of infertility in men and women.

He explained that the state government had imported cancer-screening equipment to assist in managing the situation.

Report supported by Wole Soyinka Centre for investigative journalism (WSCIJ)