THE DARK SIDE OF SUDAN’S OIL
THE DARK SIDE OF SUDAN’S OIL
Decades of oil drilling in West Kordofan province was linked to water contamination, environmental changes and health effects for citizens.
The oil story in Sudan is one of controversy, a messy tale of money, conflict and power enmeshed in the country’s decades-long conflict. A new investigation by InfoNile reveals the dark side of the oil industry for local people in Sudan’s West Kordofan state: from increased droughts and dying animals to strange health conditions for the people and animals exposed to oil contamination in the air, on roads and in local waterways.
There are five major oil sites for oil drilling and processing in West Kordofan state, according to the deputy headmaster of local authority for Misearia tribe, Bashir E: “Jake” located about 15-16 km west to the city, “Star Oil” or “Albarasaia” south to Jake fields, “Mitera” south to Albarasaia, “Moga” 45 km south to Alfola, and “Neem” in west Kordofan that is considered an extension of South Kordofan’s Higlieg fields.
Our journalist visited Alfola city in West Kordofan in April 2018 to seek the truth about oil impacts on the villages near the fields.
Obtaining information was very difficult, as getting into the sites was banned, and the Oil Ministry and oil industries refused to meet the journalist in Khartoum. We had to work undercover to reach the villages surrounding the area. Most of the sources in this story who spoke of health and environmental effects asked to remain anonymous as they fear the consequences of them stepping into the light.
We couldn’t approach the companies at their sites, especially after being warned not to keep digging by a relative of Mr. Bashir E who works for the Oil Security. We contacted many suggested engineers and company workers, but only two spoke to us to give us abetter idea about the chemical wastes and their stand on the contamination claims.
We visited many locations in West Kordofan, got as close as possible to Higlieg, one of the largest oil drilling corporations in Sudan, and met the citizens, some members of local authority, and people working for the companies. We saw the waste locations and some cases of health problems; then we met with experts for more information.
Most of Sudan’s oil fields are located in the south, along the border with South Sudan. We investigated the impact of the oil industry in villages near the Higleig oil fields in West Kordofan Province.
In Sudan, the story is no different. Since exploration for oil began in Sudan in 1959, the oil industry has backed the economy of the dry north African state. Oil was also key in the decades-long conflict that embroiled between the Islamic north and the Christian and Animist South, where both sides fought over prime oilfields located strategically along the borderline.
Though Sudan lost most of its oil fields and revenue after the south seceded in 2011, it continues to control the only pipeline for the south to transport its oil to international markets. And in recent months, Sudan and South Sudan have attempted to boost petroleum production, agreeing to soon resume operations at several closed oilfields located near the borderlands.
But while the international politics of oil in Sudan have been extensively studied, the oil industries operate under a great deal of secrecy in their day-to-day operations and interactions with the Sudanese people. Our investigation aimed to shed light on their impacts, to uncover the local consequences of the oil industries on the environment and peoples living around the production sites.
Petroleum in Sudan lays in many places, mainly in Kordofan (south and west), White Nile region, Blue Nile region, Darfur and both Upper Nileand Bahr El Gazal area in addition to the Unity state before the separation of South Sudan.
n interactive map of all oil blocks under production (red) and exploration (purple) in Sudan and South Sudan. Click on the oil block to see company and country shareholders in each block. China, Malaysia and India control the vast majority of the oil being produced in the Sudans. This map was produced with data from OpenOil and the Small Arms Survey by Annika McGinnis of InfoNile and Rogers Mukalele of ITPlus Solutions.
A great deal of Sudan’s oil is drilled in West Kordofan State, located in the southwestern part of the Kordofan region, one of the country’s richest in natural resources.
Oil exploration started in the 1970s by American and French companies, but now is dominated by Asian companies. Fields in the Kurdufan states are operated by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), the 2B Operating Petroleum Company and Petro-Energy. Most of these companies are jointly owned by Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian investors along with the Sudanese state.
This investigation found that the oil industry’s disposal of toxic oil “production water” and radioactive elements contaminated local waterways and wetlands in West Kordofan region and was linked to a slew of environmental and health impacts for the local peoples living around the processing facilities.
The oil contamination in West Kordofan happens in many forms, from leakage of oil in the extraction process and the industrial sources produced when oil is being treated in addition to the human wastes associated with the oil industry.
Worldwide, if proper safety measures are not followed, petroleum industry wastes are among the most dangerous threats to the environment. Spilled oil residues contain toxic substances such as sulfur, lead, hydrogen sulfide, and other dangerous chemicals, which evaporate into the air or decompose into the ground. Such particles pollute air, water and soil.
While few formal studies have been conducted, our investigation revealed a slew of people around the oil fields who complained of strange illnesses, miscarriages, kidney problems and other serious conditions in themselves and their children that have emerged since the industries came.
Locals told of livestock with unusual tumors, chicken without feathers, and cattle with strange bleeding conditions that were exposed to oil industry wastes.
Trenches built around the oil sites have disrupted the area’s natural flow of water, killing trees and destroying wetlands. Locals said such trenches had caused more droughts, disrupting crop cycles for the farmers living around the area.
In the beginning, large numbers of livestock that drank the contaminated water had died. Locals said other wild animal species had been forced to move from the region.
Cows drinking from plastic containers used for storing water at a local house. Citizens often reused plastic containers used by the oil companies, which they did not know contained traces of toxic chemicals.
While some community members said the oil business had helped to develop the area, building schools, water stations, and health centers, others complained that the schools and water stations did not follow proper formal procedures and weren’t linked with the country’s official institutions. Other villagers complained of forced displacement from their homes to a nearby village being constructed by the industry to move them out of the oil locations.
This year, a group of activists called on the government to formally evaluate the environmental repercussions of oil activities and take action to remedy any impacts. Some companies have initiated environmental units seeking to address the concerns.
My first trip was to Neem village. Neem fields are considered to be an extension to Higleig fields; the oil is extracted and produced by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company.
It was the most distant place in the state from Alfola city. I got help to have a private car belonging to an official entity so that we wouldn’t be stopped in every checkpoint along the road, as the guards were familiar with the driver, dressed as a local woman visiting her relative. One of the youth of the area who works at an organization based in Alfola accompanied me for more safety.
After three hours we arrived at Neem market. The market was like all rural markets which are considered to be the heart of the villages in the area, except everywhere I looked there were army men in their uniforms (Oil Security members) who guard the field.
Around Neem village, we passed the oil wells and processing units. Flairs were burning the gas waste extracted from the oil drilling. A resident from the area named Abd Alhamied met me at the market and gave me a tour around.
On my second trip, again with the anonymous sources that facilitated my movement, I visited Jajaia. The village was east of Albarasaia site by 4 km, 10 km from Mitera flair, 25 km south to Jake compound, “In the middle of the action” as the guide said joking. I met Mamoun A, a citizen there who has lived all his life in the village; he took me around many villages in the area where I met people of different ages, stories and points of view.
Jajaia village, surrounded by the oil fields of Albarasaia, Mitera, and Jake.
“Wildlife as well has been affected significantly, as the trees were cut and the increased human activity forced the animals to move. There were monkeys, gazelles, foxes and other animals that don’t exist here anymore; they run away to the south; even the wild grass doesn’t grow anymore.”
West Kurdufan is hot, ranging from a semi-humid climate to a desert with little water.
The majority population in the region are the Misseriyya, a cattle-raising Arab pastoralist tribe that has been living in the area since the end of the 1700s. In 2005, about three-quarters of the about 1.2 million Misseriyya people living in West Kurdufan were rural (convert to Word from PDF).
Most of the Misseriyya people were originally shepherds who lost their cattle during the civil war; “then they tried to settle and practice agriculture,” said the deputy headmaster of Misearia tribe.
But the quantity and quality of crops had declined over the years, he said. In the past, one field could produce up to a dozen varieties of crops; now just one or two, the local resident Mamoun said. There were more droughts now, especially close to the flairs, and the rain rate had dropped considerably.
In Baliela, Albarasaia and the surrounding areas, the change is great and people should move away from those places, away from oil locations, Mamoun said.