Up to 1.5 million tons of oil, 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster, has been spilt in the ecologically precious Niger Delta over the past 50 years, it was revealed yesterday.
A panel of independent experts who travelled to the increasingly tense and lawless region said damage to the fragile mangrove forests over the past 50 years was tantamount to a catastrophic oil spill occurring every 12 months in what is one of the world's most important ecosystems.
As well as threatening rare species including primates, fish, turtles and birds, the pollution is destroying the livelihoods of many of the 20 million people living there, damaging crops and fuelling the upsurge in violence, it was claimed.
The Delta is home to 7,000sq km of the continent's remaining 9,000sq km of mangrove and scientists believe some 60 per cent of West Africa's fish stocks breed in the rivers and swamps along the coast.
The report, compiled by WWF UK, the World Conservation Union and representatives from the federal ministry of Abuja and the Nigeria Conservation Foundation, concluded that the delta was now one of the five most polluted spots on the planet. Far from benefiting local people, rural communities have borne the brunt of the environmental and social costs of development, experts said.
In Oloibori, the first oil village where drilling began in 1958, youth unemployment is now running at 50 per cent.
The cost of the leaking crude, much of it from outdated equipment and pipes, is estimated to be costing Nigeria $10m (£5.3m) a day.
The report concluded that the impact of oil and gas drilling was a "significant contributor to the current violence, sabotage of pipelines/installations and instability in the region."
Yesterday villagers protesting against oil production in the region stormed and seized three Shell oil platforms, forcing the closure of each pumping station. This week, four Scottish oil workers returned to Britain after being seized from an Exxon Mobil compound by local gunmen seeking a £21m ransom.
And earlier this year 17 people were killed when local militants stormed a Royal Dutch Shell facility, prompting the oil giant to pull out hundreds of workers and close down wells.
Shell is one of the biggest players in the region and one of the most heavily criticised. Its role came under the international spotlight following the execution of the playwright turned minority rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 by the then military dictatorship. Last year the company, which boasted profits of $22.94bn (£13.12bn), extracted 900,000 barrels of crude oil a day from its activities in the Niger Delta.
Environmentalists accuse the company of failing to meet promises to replace ageing pipes and swamp flowlines that, it is claimed, are steadily leaking oil into the once pristine waters of the delta. Shell estimates that 95 per cent of discharges over the past five years have been caused by sabotage.
But a spokeswoman for the company insisted that the oil giant was meeting its commitments and continuously monitoring equipment, although continuing violence meant it could not meet all its targets.
"We have a programme in place to replace flowlines and pipelines in swamp areas and on land and we continue to make good progress.
"Unfortunately, we have little or no access to some land areas, such as Ogoni, and therefore are unable so far to complete the programme of replacement in such areas," she said.
The authors found sites at Kidaro Creek and Rivers State where oil products had been buried. Old drilling equipment in other areas, officially thought to have been cleared up, was discovered to be still leaching oil into the environment.
The report accused the oil companies of "double standards" by using technologies not in line with more advanced practices carried out elsewhere in the world.
It called for international action to implement an immediate rescue plan, backed by the oil and gas industries which have exploited the region for up to half a century.