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How South Sudan’s Oil Industry is Destroying the Environment

South Sudan has seen everything an oil-prolific country potentially could (it stands 5th in Africa’s largest reserve list). The petroleum sector is South Sudan’s most important industry in terms of added value, country revenues, export value, capital investments as well as the main engines of the country’s economy since independence, 9 July 2011.

According to the World Bank, oil accounts for almost all the country’s exports and more than 40% of its gross domestic product. As South Sudan emerges from years of fighting, it is trying to revive its economy by expanding the industry.

To a certain extent, South Sudan did manage to maintain a level of production feasible enough to resolve the quintessential issues of existence, yet failed to pay attention to the nascent state’s teething problems. Protection of the environment turned out to be one of those overlooked topics that suddenly took center stage this summer and might even jeopardize the country’s future prospects. Could South Sudan weather such an environmental storm?

The environment is a human survival right that includes the rights to water, food, and health, as stipulated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966. Environmental experts say there is little incentive for multinational companies to do anything because it is easy to get away with things in impoverished countries like South Sudan.

However, the Ministry of Petroleum’s (MOP) current crisis is a systemic failure in implementation of its human resource policies, agreements with operators such as Petronas of Malaysia, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and ONGC of India, and low institutional capacity and lack of technical capacities are the barriers to the transformation of the sector, extending to Nile Petroleum Corporation and across all the joint operating companies in the country namely, Dar Petroleum Operating Company (DPOC), Greater Pioneer Operating Company (GPOC) and SUUD Petroleum Operating Company (SPOC).

The oil industry in South Sudan has left a landscape pocked with hundreds of open waste pits, the water and soil contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals including mercury, manganese, and arsenic, according to environmental reports seen by NCMP.

Due to the wide variety of pipelines, pipelines are typically routed through complex geological settings. In the use of pipeline transport, there are many uncertainties and risks such as natural factors and human factors. According to estimates, a number of soil corrosions, landslides, floods, fires, mudslides and earthquakes are occurring every year. In addition, human factors such as third-party disruption, incorrect operation and design flaws also endanger the safety of the pipelines. Since pipelines are flammable, leakage of pipelines can cause environmental pollutions and it may perhaps have catastrophic consequences.

The people and government officials face a new pipeline break. The environmental and public safety effects of leaks had huge consequences, two months after the crude oil pipeline broke out in former South Sudan’s Unity state.

Even if the leakage of the pipeline does not hit the residential area, the people can still be exposed to polluted food and polluted water and such diseases are not easily treated. This is particularly problematic as residents of any region might be exposed to oil contamination (when they eat food from the affected area) even if living far from the oil spill site. As in Bentiu, where the pipeline passed through agricultural lands, the impact of the pollution is very huge, high and it can affect agriculture products and livestock as well.

The report, produced by UNICEF in partnership with Pure Earth, a global nonprofit that tackles toxic pollution in poor communities, finds that some 800 million children worldwide have blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter a level considered cause for intervention by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It is shocking that 2.3 million children in South Sudan are lead poisoned states report from UNICEF and Pure Earth. One of the highest rates of lead poisoning in the world due to oil pollution’s wastes reports noted. For instance, a study indicates that in Tharjath (Block 5A) shows Lead (Pb) pollution in surface water exceeds the World Health Organization’s drinking water allowable limit of 0.01 mg/l by 410% and Chromium (Cr) concentration allowable limit in drinking water by 26%.

Similarly, 100,000s of victims of oil pollution in South Sudan urgently need medical treatment for lead and other forms of poisoning and compensation; millions need clean water, food and homes.

Already in South Sudan, communities are being devastated by oil spills and contamination from a Chinese-constructed pipeline in Upper Nile and Unity States. The pipeline, which was constructed at a breakneck speed in the late 1990s during the height of the civil war, is owned and operated by Chinese companies and has since shown signs of major problems.

The spills from the pipeline and the poor management of contaminated waste have led to horrific health conditions among communities living near the oil fields. A report noted that birth deformities in the Ruweng County of Unity State (located at the heart of the oil field) have increased from 19 percent in 2015 to 54 percent in 2017. Premature births in the same county have quadrupled, going from 41 in 2015 to 118 in 2017.

Moreover, according to lab analysis of water samples from the area, the level of mercury and manganese in the water was seven and ten times, respectively, from what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers permissible. In fact, South Sudan’s own ministries of Petroleum and Health have conducted at least two studies (aside from numerous independent reports) that have linked the health effects directly to oil pollution.

Instead of addressing this clear health emergency, the Sudanese government has opted to bury these reports and turn a blind eye to the suffering of its people. Recently, the oil companies along with the National Security Service of South Sudan have placed severe restrictions on disclosure of data in relation to health problems emerging from the oil fields. The only available health facilities in the oil fields are operated by Chinese oil companies themselves.

Passed in 2012, South Sudan’s Petroleum Revenue Management Act established a formula for distributing a portion of petroleum revenues to affected communities for improving local infrastructure and addressing environmental concerns. It also sets a high bar for reporting requirements by the government and oil companies, with the goal of having transparent and accountable management.

Reports noted that South Sudan’s Petroleum Ministry Undersecretary Awow Daniel Chuang struck a deal with AZ Media PR for $280,500, according to a newly disclosed lobbying filing. The contract, for an undisclosed length of time, was effective Sept. 1, 2020. The French-run New York lobbying firm was hired to improve the country’s image and lift US sanctions amid international misgivings over environmental degradation and lingering political instability.

AZ Media will lobby the US government and international institutions such as the World Bank, in addition to providing investor outreach and public relations. The firm says it will seek meetings with Congress, the National Security Council and the State Department as well as US commercial and economic agencies to press for sanction removal, economic aid and greater business ties, according to its lobbying filing.

Meanwhile, recent reports indicate that South Sudanese government has pledged to oversee speedy conservation and infrastructure development efforts and take action against oil companies operating in Melut County, Upper Nile State after residents protested against pollution.

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