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Oil 'bringing untold damage to Niger delta'

OIL HAS brought little but misery to the people of the Niger delta, an authoritative new report reveals.

The report - which provides heavyweight backing for the protests of the executed writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa - describes in devastating detail how oil production has ruined the area, while leaving the local people poorer and sicker even than other Nigerians.

It also explodes the oil companies' claim - much repeated by Shell in the row that has followed the killing of Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow Ogoni activists in November - that they have improved the lives of the people by investing in local communities. It says the impact of these initiatives has been "minimal".

The report - by World Bank environment specialist David Moffat and Professor Olof Linden of Stockholm University - says that even official statistics suggest that every year the delta is polluted by 2.3 billion cubic metres of oil from some 300 separate spills, almost one a day, but that the true figure may be 10 times higher.

It confirms a report in the Independent on Sunday last month that gas flaring from oil production in the area emits some 35 million tons of carbon dioxide and 12 million tons of methane a year, making it the world's largest single contributor to global warming.

Shell, which produces more than half of Nigeria's oil, has countered condemnation of pollution by pointing out that the delta has many other environmental problems, such as overpopulation and land degradation. But the report - published in Ambio, the magazine of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences - adds that many of these have been made worse by oil production.

It says that population growth, swelled by "large-scale immigration as a result of oil development", is so rapid that food production will have to double in just 20 years if the people are to remain even as poorly fed as they are today. Yet the industry is helping to destroy the natural resources on which agriculture depends.

Building canals and roads, largely to service the industry, "has precipitated some of the most extensive environmental degradation in the region", the report says. "Oil company and government roads block streams and flood plains, creating stagnant ponds of water, killing forests and flooding fields." They also give loggers better access to the area's fast-diminishing forests.

The report adds that income in the area is below the national average, while health is "substantially worse" than in the rest of south-east Nigeria. Tests have found 85 per cent of drinking water samples polluted by sewage, and largely as a result water-related diseases account for four-fifths of all the illness.

Although oil provides more than 80 per cent of Nigeria's foreign exchange, the report says nearly three-quarters of the people of the Delta live in "rural communities characterised by a lack of development, stagnant agricultural productivity, negligible opportunities in urban areas, rapid population growth and tenuous property rights".

It ascribes the social unrest that led to the execution of Ken Saro- Wiwa to "resentment of the marginalisation of the local communities in contrast to the value of the oil resources".

n The Royal Geographical Society has voted to dump Shell as one of its sponsors because of its activities in Nigeria. At its annual conference on Friday, members of the 160-year-old society voted by 157 to 10 to remove Shell as one of its four corporate patrons because of disquiet over the company's environmental and political record.