The 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.
In a memorandum of understanding with the locals, a Chinese oil consortium, in which the government is a shareholder, promised to clean up fuel spills and conserve the environment.
The Dar Petroleum Operating Company (DPOC), the consortium made up of China National Petroleum Corporation, the majority shareholder, State-owned Nilepet, Malaysia’s Petronas, Sinopec, and Tri-Ocean Energy, operates the main oil fields – Block 3 and 7 – in the Melut Basin.
Last week, hundreds of youths in the area, carrying placards, barricaded roads and demanded the suspension of oil operations accusing the companies of violating environmental and safety measures.
The locals, who also stormed DPOC offices in Paloch Town, also blamed the firms and the government for failing to invest in the communities as stipulated in the law.
According to the Petroleum Act, the oil companies are required to improve infrastructure, employ locals, and provide amenities such as safe drinking water among other provisions.
The oil-producing States are also entitled to a three percent share of the net petroleum revenues with the communities receiving two percent.
Following the unrest, the Undersecretary at the Ministry of Petroleum, Daniel Awow, on Friday visited Melut oil fields and met with the locals.
According to Thon Beny, a resident and activist who signed the MoU on behalf of the Greater Melut Civil Society Organisation, which represented the community, the locals had vowed to continue staging protests if the agreement is not implemented in a timely manner.
“We went to the streets again after 10 years, because we have been silent enough and nothing was done. This oil has destroyed our State, yet the locals are not employed, and are not benefiting in terms of service delivery while our environment is polluted every day.
“If the government fails to implement the MoU signed, then we will go back to the streets. Since 2010, more than 300 children have been born with deformities, which we believe is a result of the oil pollution,” he claimed.
As per the MoU dated August 29, 2020, and signed by Mr Awow, a copy which The EastAfrican has seen, the government agreed to terminate the contract of Antipas Pharmacy Co. Ltd, which provides health services in the area, after locals accused it of discriminating locals by providing poor health services.
According to the agreement, a water pipeline system would be installed immediately and hiring of locals prioritised. The oil companies are also required to offer scholarships and repair roads.
The Ministry of Petroleum is also expected to expedite the environmental audit and pressure the Ministry of Finance to release the oil revenues due to the local communities as stipulated in the Petroleum Act, 2012.
DPOC, according to the MoU, is required to implement the setting up of more medical facilities in the area under the close supervision of the Petroleum Ministry and other relevant authorities.
Khorlerino Mayaak, a man in his late 50s from Reweng Administrative Area – an oil-rich area, alleged his family is a victim of oil pollution.
The father of four said his wife gave birth to a baby with a deformed right leg and an abnormal stomach in early June 2019.
“It was the first time I saw such a thing in my life. What happened to my family is unexplainable. This boy of mine is the fourth born and nothing like this has ever happened. It was so heartbreaking.
“I am not a doctor to say what happened was because of pollution but what I believe is that it is linked to contamination because we have been consuming untreated water from the company tanks that I believed is polluted," Mr Mayaak claimed.
He appealed to the oil companies to respect environmental safety measures, saying what happened to his family should not recur.
Last year, the Ministry of Petroleum said it would conduct an environmental audit to inspect the impact of oil pollution on the land and the people.
Then the Minister of Petroleum Mr Awow said fuel spillage was of great concern to the inhabitants around oil wells.
“We will call for proposals and the activity will be carried out by an international company to give us a leeway to correct some of the damages that have occurred in the oil fields. The outcomes will tell us the extent of the damages so that we can recommend remediation,” Mr Awow had said.
However, nothing or little has been done as per the schedule of the ministry.
In an exclusive interview with The EastAfrican a fortnight ago, Tiit Mamer, an environmental activist with Sudd Institute in Juba, called on community leaders on oil-producing areas to address their concerns and demands to the office of the president, saying their representatives were not presenting their views amiably.
His call came after the July crude oil pipeline rupture in Rubkona, Upper Nile State. According to government officials, the spillage lasted two days and covered a four-square kilometre area before the company was informed by the locals.
Rubkona oil fields are run by Greater Pioneer Operating Company (GPOC).
Before the civil wars, South Sudan was drilling over 250,000 barrels of crude oil per day, which has now dropped to 180,000 barrels per day further weighed down by the Covid-19 emergence.
In the past, there have been reports of an outbreak of diseases related to environmental pollution, with stillbirths and deformed newborns as symptoms of conditions in the oil-producing areas.
Last year during the National Dialogue, governors of the Upper Nile Region called for a review of oil contracts that were signed with oil companies before the independence of South Sudan.
They argued that some of the agreements signed under the Sudanese government had not factored in the environment and the welfare of the ordinary South Sudanese living around oil fields.