Feature picture: As the impacted communities cry out in despair for lack of water, the company intensifies its exploration, scooping coal from the mining site to factory sites to power its plants.
Defying cries and pleas of communities spread across four local government areas of Okpokwu, Ohimini, Otukpo and Ado in Benue State, the Dangote Group of Companies continues, with greater ferocity, the strip mining of coal that may have left in its wake thousands of endangered residents; National Record’s Onah L. Iduh and John Ameh report.
A glimpse of Dangote Group’s strip mining exploration at Effeche-Akpalli epitomises a gradual devastation of communities along Okollo Stream, Rivers Umabe and Okpokwu. The joy and happiness of these communities with the arrival of the company in their mist may have come to and end, as indicated by these videos of the pollution, here , here and here. This is because of the obvious possible outcomes – of ill-health and irreversible environmental degradation.
The major pointer to this is the degraded waters of Okollo Stream, rivers Umabe and Okpokwu; which are the main water sources for many communities. Despite several complaints, the water degradation continues apart from rare occasional reprieves when the Dangote Group’s mining exploration goes on break. The affected communities are in four local government areas of Okpokwu, Ohimini, Otukpo and Ado, South of Benue State.
Some of the above scientifically negative consequences that would possibly result from the ongoing strip mining of coal by the Dangote Group of Companies emerged in a telephone conversation with an expert in the field of environmental science.
A university don and professor of fisheries and aquatic pollution, who consults widely on environmental impact assessment, Prof J. A. Adakole, told National Record that the consequences of environmental impairment by mining activities are multi-dimensional. Among these are destruction of aquatic eco-system, aquatic resources, and even the social and economic wellbeing of impacted communities.
It could be noted that the inhabitants of multiple communities in Edumoga in Okpokwu LGA, Ochobo in Ohimini LGA, the city of Otukpo and Akpa community in Otukpo LGA and yet to be ascertained number of communities in Ado LGA, all of which live along and depend on Okollo stream, Umabe and Okpokwu rivers, have been negatively impacted by Dangote’s coal mining operations at Effeche-Akpalli.
When National Record asked Prof Adakole of the specific consequences of Dangote’s mining operations, he responded that such impacts cannot be scientifically and economically quantified or ascertained at the moment. He, however, noted that the impact seems huge based on several secondary information sources at his disposal.
Prof Adakole, who is from one of the affected communities, Ochobo, in Ohimini LGA, said in the attempt to have a holistic assessment of industrial or mining impacts on communities, assessment exercises are no longer strictly done on the environment alone.
“Previously, it used to be just EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] but now it is called ESIA – Environmental and Socio-economic Impact Assessment. This is to ensure that there is a comprehensive reflection of the impact of such activities on social and economic lives of stakeholder communities beyond the physical science terrains,” Prof Adakole noted.
He added that so far, the impact of the mining activities reported by the affected communities has not taken into cognisance the destruction of aquatic biota, ecosystem (immediate aquatic ecosystem, riparian communities), possible artefacts of belief/religion/custom/tradition and most importantly unemployment; since most of the stakeholder communities use the river for fishing or often for irrigation purposes.
He said while the cheapest source of proteins to these communities is fish, they possibly may have been decimated by now as a result of the pollution.
According to Prof Adakole, River Okpokwu, which he said passes right behind his family house, is the major source of drinking water and other domestic uses. He said he first heard of the pollution of the river sometime in February from his father, who resides in Ochobo.
“My father told me that River Okpokwu’s water looked strangely and remarkably muddy, mucky and thick”. I thought it was the consequence of early rains that are accustomed with flood and dirty run-off water; until again I heard about it at an Idoma Forum meeting where I was asked to liaise with the communities affected by the deteriorated water sources and to report back.
“I thought it was a minor deterioration of water source, until I was called from home about five weeks ago and told of the likely cause of River Okpokwu’s very poor water status,” Adakole said.
He added that every community has a right to clean environment, notwithstanding social status. He urged the mining company to adhere to internationally acceptable best practices of mining. “The company being aware of the negative consequences of its mining operations is advised to immediately stop further pollution of the environment and commence remediation of the impacted communities’ ecosystems,” the professor counselled.
Communities with rivers but without drinking Water
As the Dangote Group accelerates its exploration activities at the mining site at Effeche-Akpali, several communities spread across the local government areas are weighed down and in desperate need of potable water. Those not aware of the situation, particularly downstream River Okpokwu in Otukpo and Ado LGAs, may be still be innocently consuming the possible poison, while others though aware are however compelled by social and economic circumstances.
Before now, many communities, not aware of the pollution, had thought that the radical alteration in the colour of the water was due to the rains and were therefore using the water.
With the colour of the rivers unchanged for a prolonged period as a result of the contamination, a number of affected communities, especially in Edumoga District of okpokwu LGA following crash communal enlightenment through town criers, are now acquainted with the basic knowledge of the health risks. As a result, the very few who could afford it buy pure water, while the majority now resort to trekking several kilometres to source water from far-off streams, our correspondents gathered.
National Record on June 12 broke the news of the pollution and has followed the development with two updates, on June 26, and July 1, 2020.
In addition to the communities in Okpokwu, Ohimini and Otukpo LGAs, Ado LGA is believed to be casualty of the pollution as it has several communities living downstream that depend on River Okpokwu; such as Igumale, Ulayi, Ijigbanu, among several pockets of settlements.
Otukpo LGA heads to State House of Assembly
When the pollution of River Okpokwu began in February, Honourable George Alli was Caretaker Committee Chairman of Otukpo Local Government Council.
In our report of July 1, 2020 Hon Alli had noted that officials of the Benue State government had visited the Otobi Water Works at Akpa, a town located a few kilometres from the city of Otukpo, the traditional headquarters of Idoma land, to verify claims of the contamination of the river. At that time in February, he was handing over as Caretaker Chairman so as to contest in the then forthcoming Benue State local government election.
Hon Alli, now the elected Chairman of Otukpo LGC, upon being sworn in and finding that the water pollution issue was still ongoing, wrote a memo to the representative of Otukpo/Akpa State Constituency at the Benue State House of Assembly, Honourable Baba Johnson Odeh, intimating him on the situation and requesting that he raise the matter on the floor of the House.
In the memo, entitled: “REPORT OF THE NEGATIVE IMPACT OF DANGOTE COAL EXPLORATION ON OTOBI WATER WORKS,” the Otukpo Council Chairperson implored Hon Odeh to bring the Dangote pollution of River Okpokwu to the attention of the Benue State House of Assembly “for further action to be taken to prevent the looming danger of the pollution to our main source of water supply.”
The memo reads: “I write to formally bring to your notice the negative impact of the ongoing Dangote coal exploration activities at Effeche, a rural community of Akpali in Ugbokolo Council Ward of Okpokwu Local Government on the Otobi Water works.
“The exploration activities of the Dangote Group is said to have commenced in February, 2020 at the above stated location. The process which is known as strip mining of coal poses great threat to lives in Otukpo Community.
“It is observed that the exploration being carried out by the Dangote Group stands to contaminate and pollute River Okpokwu which is the source from which Otobi gets its water that serves the city of Otukpo.
“Therefore as a member representing Otukpo/Akpa State Constituency, am appealing to you to bring this to the notice of the Benue State House of Assembly for further action to be taken to prevent the looming danger of the pollution to our main source of water supply.”
Efforts to speak to Hon Odeh failed as he neither picked several calls to his mobile phone nor call back.
Ohimini LG leadership not properly briefed
While previous efforts to speak to officials of Ohimini Local Government Council failed, this time around, National Record was able to spoke to Hon Adakole Akatu, in a telephone interview.
Hon Akatu, the Ohimini Local Government Chairman of the PDP, who had held several political offices in both the old Otukpo and Ohimini before his current position, told our correspondent that the leadership of Ohimini local government “is not properly briefed on the issue.”
He said this was as a result of the fact that the matter began in the course of the campaigns for local government elections in May. “When this water pollution issue started, we were on electioneering campaign so I think the current chairman has not been properly briefed. I have just been briefed and I intend to brief the Hon chairman as soon as possible,” Hon Akatu said.
According to him, the four local government areas affected by the pollution – Okpokwu, Ohimini, Otukpo and Ado – should work together to see how to salvage the situation. “What I will advise my council chairman is to liaise with Otukpo and Ado and Okpokwu so that together, something can be done.
“I don’t know the extent to which this affects Ado but I do know that Okpokwu River passes through Ado. I also know that Okpokwu started from Ochobo with River Umabe and Ohimini and journeyed through Otobi in Akpa and so on to Ado and beyond,” Hon Akatu stated.
Edumoga Youth Movement on track
Since the crisis of the pollution became public knowledge, the Edumoga Youth Movement (EYM) has remained in the forefront of the struggle for the provision of alternative sources of water to the affected communities in Edumoga District, in addition to other remediation measures.
Although National Record learnt that the leadership of EYM has been under tremendous pressure from some political heavyweights to douse its activism and mobilisation to confront the corporate behemoth that Dangote Group is, it has, for now, remained consistent with the drive to achieve its aim of engaging the powerful multinational corporation to provide the required remedies for the havoc that it has caused to the once simple communal existence in the clusters of communities whose survival revolved around the rivers as there is zero government presence in terms of water supply and health facilities.
Speaking with National Record on the pollution, a key member of the EYM, who asked not to be named because of his involvement in an ongoing talks with the company over the remediation measures said it is appallingly shameful that the state government has not deemed it necessary to make a definitive intervention six months into the pollution of key rivers on which roughly about half a million or more people depend on.
Initially we thought the pollution affected only over a dozen communities in Edumoga. Now we know that several communities Ohimini, Otukpo – the entire city of Otukpo – and Ado local governments are affected. Perhaps due to IGR [Internally Generated Revenue], the government is dithering. Clearly, the government has chosen IGR over the live and welfare of its citizens,” the EYM official stated.
He added: “Our people really need the intervention of not just the state government but also the federal government to either provide alternative sources of water for them or compel Dangote Group of Companies whose activities have damaged the river.”
The ad hoc committee report, recommendations
One of the accomplishments of the EYM is the setting up of an ad hoc committee on the pollution after mediatory efforts from one of the traditional rulers in Edumoga District, Chief Ochechema Ojoh.
The committee, which had completed work and submitted its report, was composed of six members from EYM, two members representing Dangote Group and one person representing the traditional ruler.
Apart from the host community, Effeche-Akpali, and its closest neighbours, Effa Village, which were exempted from the list of communities adversely affected by water pollution on the ground that there was already an agreement to provide water/boreholes for them, the committee identified a total of 15 villages whose economies depend on the hitherto uncontaminated River Umabe for their day-to-day consumption and other purposes.
The villages include Akpali, Ondo, Umabe-Ehaje (Aokpe), Ai’kogu, Ijege, Ogwudoja, Oduda and Otobi. Others are Opidlo, Ogene, Ogbodo, Ogblega, Aokpasu, Omokwu, Jericho, Ekenobi and Aokete.
The committee, among other findings, noted that River Umabe is seriously polluted and as a result has brought on the people “untold hardship.
“The committee discovered that the river, which is the only source of water for drinking, domestic and other commercial uses, is badly contaminated by the coal mining activities of Dangote Group of Companies. This, the committee discovered, has caused untold hardship and challenges to the inhabitants of the affected communities.
“As at the time of this report, the affected communities do not have any other source of water for either drinking or domestic use. It is only those who have the financial muscle that have been able to overcome the challenge of getting drinking water by travelling several kilometres to Ugbokolo Town to buy sachet water popularly called ‘pure water’ while those without means nor alternative continue to consume the contaminated water,” the report stated in graphic terms.
As a remedial measure, the committee stated: “After the visits, identification and findings, the committee, after due deliberation, recommends that Dangote Group of Companies should as an interim remedial measure urgently provide three (3) water tankers; one (1) to be stationed in each of the three (3) council wards; Ugbokolo, Amejo and Ekeh for daily supply of water from other sources to all the affected communities…
“The committee recommends that Dangote Group of Companies, depending on the population, extent and largeness of the affected communities, should drill at least three (3) motorised industrial water boreholes in each of the fifteen (15) affected communities…
“The committee recommends that three standard health clinics be built in strategic and accessible communities and equipped with medical equipment and drugs.
“It is further recommended that a clinic should be located in each of the three (3) council wards as follows: a) The one for Ugbokolo Ward should be sited at Aokpe Community, b) The one for Amejo Ward should be sited at Ogene Community, and, c) The one for Ekeh Ward to be sited at Aokpasu Community.
“The rationale for the recommendation to build the health clinics is predicated on the fact that they will serve or stand as ‘insurance’ or ‘guarantee’ for the safety and emergency measure for the inhabitants of these communities in the likely event of any outbreak of epidemic such as cholera or any water-borne diseases or any other long term health challenges that the contaminated water, which many of them had taken and are still consuming, may have posed.”
On issues which border on economic damages for a broad section of the inhabitants of the affected communities, the ad hoc committee noted thus: “The committee noted that some of the affected communities are fishermen who depend on River Umabe to fish and earn a living. Some affected communities, hitherto sell this water to water tankers that supply water to other parts of Benue State such as Otukpo, Adoka, Ugboju, Otukpa, Orokam, etc. and earn income for their wellbeing and general development of their communities. This business venture has now winded-up as a result of the contamination of the river.
“Similarly, small scale entrepreneurs in these communities engaged in palm oil processing who site their palm oil-mills at the banks of River Umabe have also been thrown out of their businesses. Others who relied on the river for their dry-cleaning and laundry businesses face similar fate.
“The above mentioned means of survival/businesses and many other activities which depend directly on the river have all come to a halt due to the contamination of the river.
“Therefore, the committee recommend that Dangote Group of Companies, in consultation with the affected communities, should hire or consultant or experts or professionals in the field of valuing or quantifying such damage to recommend financial cost/compensation to be paid to each of the affected communities by Dangote Group.”
The committee, among other things reflected on the need for corporate social responsibility and timeframe within which to resolve these issues against the backdrop of the fact that majority of the people are already under intense physical and psychological stress.
Dangote still not willing to speak on pollution
Since the pollution came to limelight, Dangote Group of Companies, through its Corporate Communications department, has consistently evaded inquiries from the National Record on the matter.
While the department eventually opened conversation with National Record, it soon became clear that it was only interested in persuading the publication from following the pollution with updates on the pollution.
Mr Anthony Chiejina, the Head of Corporate Communications, had a couple of weeks ago, in tones that clearly, but paradoxically, conveyed pleas and threats, asked that this update which National Record was then working on be stopped as he gave the impression that Dangote Group was ready to resolve the contentious issues the communities in Edumoga were requesting.
A couple of days later, the company, again through its Abuja office, reached out to National Record requesting that since it broke the story and knows the details of communities involved, it should list the affected villages in Okpokwu and forward same to the office to be transmitted to the Lagos Head Office of Dangote Group. Since then, efforts through calls and messages to Mr Chiejina to find out the progress made towards the agenda have not been responded to.
The manager of the mining site at Effeche-Akpali, Engr Nuhu Eluja, has also not been willing to speak either on the exploration or the pollution. He stated that he can only do so after clearance from his headquarters. Efforts to have him speak on the ad hoc committee report also failed as he referred this reporter to Chief Ochechema Ojoh who mediated between the company and the Edumoga Youth Movement.
A dithering Benue State Government
Although the Benue State government continues to give the impression that it is concerned about the ongoing travails of the impacted communities, but its actions or inactions and language clearly suggest the contrary.
The utterances of Engr. Oando Dondo Ahire, the Commissioner for Water Resources and Environment, remain the most graphic indicator of the state’s insensitivity to the plight of affected communities.
While the commissioner had on June 26, 2020 boldly told National Record that he was billed to meet with the Benue State House of Assembly, it turned out that there was no such schedule with the lawmakers.
When reminded in the course of this update on his assurances for the meeting with the House of Assembly over Dangote Group’s mining in Effeche and the resultant pollution, Engr Ahire said it was an ongoing process. “Well, everything is ongoing. It’s an ongoing process. I’m in touch with the Benue State House of Assembly, but the House is not sitting at the moment, due to the coronavirus pandemic. They [lawmakers] are actually on recess. So, my discussion with the House concerning the mining activities by the Dangote Group is ongoing.”
Asked if he had met with the House and what was the outcome of the meeting; the commissioner stated: “No, we have not met yet. I went there but they didn’t sit. After that, they adjourned. I was there but the sitting couldn’t hold.
“We were to have an Executive Session and have a discussion after which we might have a plenary or not, but the sitting didn’t hold; they didn’t form a quorum to sit.”
The brief conversation continues thus:
National Record: What is the state government doing in the interim to ameliorate the plight of the affected communities?
Engr Ahire: No, it should be what is the Dangote Group doing to ameliorate the suffering of the people? Dangote is providing water in the interim. We have caused them to be bringing water more frequently than they were before now.
Has there been any measure on the part of the state government to put a stop to the hazardous mining operation by the Dangote Group pending when the water pollution crisis is resolved?
No, we have not asked them to stop yet; the communities were okay with the mitigating measures that were going on, and we wanted to see the extent of the pollution whether it was a temporary thing and what not, because Dangote was making efforts to contain their runoff water; to recycle the water. So, we are actually concerned. Immediately I heard about it, I sent an investigative team down to go and investigate and come back.
In the face of the dithering by Dangote Group vis-à-vis the desperate situation of the affected communities as well as the obviously uncaring disposition of the government, the months to come are pregnant with many possibilities of what will happen. The question is, will the people remain quiet and drink the ‘poison’ that Rivers Umabe and Okpokwu have become?