On the screen in front of us, a middle-aged woman points at the water she’s standing in; her community’s only source of clean water has been contaminated by the adverse effects of coal mining. It looks polluted and completely unsafe for human consumption. “We have to get here before it is too late to collect the clean water. When it is too late, the water is bad,” she says. 

There is a natural spring nearby but by the time the mining company begins its daily
activities, dumping waste water from the mining pit, inadvertently or not, the water making its way to the creek becomes unfit for human consumption. The people in the audience continue to watch closely as the woman on the screen leads them on the path to where her community is now forced to get clean water, several kilometres away from her village in Okobo, Kogi state.

Fossil fuels, including oil, gas and coal, are an important energy source especially in countries like Nigeria. Now, with climate change brought about by burning fossil fuels presenting a real threat to global stability, many governments are looking to renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass. Luckily, Nigeria has these resources in abundance.

In August of 2014, the Nigerian government reported that 30 percent of the country’s electricity should come from coal, but the reasoning behind this decision is questionable. It is particularly important to examine this choice as the immediate and long term adverse effects of mining and burning coal become more apparent in society.

The Okobo community of Kogi State, Nigeria, is currently dealing with both the negative and positive effects of having a coal mining company, the ETA Zuma Group, in its backyard. Another community in the same state, the Itobe settlement, is about to see coal mining operations by the same company commence on its own land. Since 2011, the people of Okobo have had a functioning coal mine on their land, however, the community shows no outward signs of benefiting from the resource extraction since the Zuma group began its operations. Instead of increased prosperity, the Okobo community deals with increased infant mortality rates and new respiratory diseases that have contributed to rising infant mortality figures. 

The nearby people of Itobe worry this may be their fate as well. In an attempt to bring the issues surrounding coal mining and its consequences on surrounding communities to life, an international human rights capacity-building non-governmental organisation known as Global Rights Nigeria, partnered with the Heinrich Böll Foundation to provide a platform for the affected people, coal mining companies and other key stakeholders to engage in dialogue about and drive positive action towards solving the problems caused by coal mining.

On 11, April 2016, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Global Rights Nigeria presented two reports, the Coal Atlas Nigeria and Coal At What Cost? where they highlighted possible adverse environmental effects of coal mining and coal power generation in Nigeria. The forum invited representatives from the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Solid Minerals, the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development and the Ministry of Power to join in the discussion and provide suggestions on alternative paths for power generation in Nigeria.

All players need to take responsibility in taking care of the community” – Abiodun Bayeiwo-Teru, Country Director for Global Rights Nigeria.
According to Christine K, Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Nigeria, “coal is often described as a cheap source of electricity. However, once the cost of health, community resettlement, cleaning up of polluted waters and the reclamation of mining areas are counted, coal is roughly at the same price as solar.” 

Coal is responsible for 40 percent of global electricity. It is also a big reason for greenhouse gas emissions. Nigeria has commercially exploitable deposits of coal scattered across its land, however, do we really want our country to run on an un-renewable source of energy? As the country is still in its early days of coal extraction and use, this report is necessary as it provides a baseline that makes it easier to determine whether or not the situation for communities, such as Okobo and Itobe, improve or worsen over time. The baseline data will allow the government to make better decisions for the future as the country works out the power mix that suits it best.

During the forum, the people of Okobo were finally able to speak directly to the company that has contributed to the degradation of their land. The men spoke passionately about the new illnesses that trouble the community, including respiratory problems exacerbated by the increase in dust pollution around the district. 

The attendees were allowed to speak freely to the company instead of writing letter after letter, hoping that someone would read and respond. The youth leader of the community, Mr. Idris Ibrahim, spoke emotionally about the collective suffering of the people in Okobo. “We welcomed the company because they promised us better lives and said that our economy will grow,” said Idris. He went further to mention that the agreement that was signed originally states that the company will ‘ask the government to build a school and a road,’ absolving them of any real commitment to the people whose land they were about to exploit.

After mining operations ruined their only source of potable water, the company’s site manager began sending a tanker of water to the community once a week — after they had agreed to provide a tanker three times a week. Still, the community members were reportedly grateful for this, even though it wasn’t nearly enough. The women in the community were also given an opportunity to speak — asking questions and giving thanks in their local languages — a progressive improvement in communication that is at the core of what Global Rights and the Heinrich Böll Foundation strive for.

Listening to the predicament of the Okobo people makes one instantly ready to act on the community’s behalf. When the Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Engineer Salaam, addressed the room, he described the ministry as the regulatory body for the solid minerals sector of the Nigerian economy, stating that it also helps with formulating policy and providing information to enhance investment in the sector. Engineer Salaam stated that they encourage the development of the host community by the mining companies and if the host community runs into any problems it must alert the ministry as well. 

The chief representative for the ETA Zuma Group, had a chance to address the stakeholders present as well. He mentioned that the company wants to represent the best practices and implored the representatives of the community to be patient they sorted out issues such as the poor water and lack of access roads. He also stated that the company believes in renewable sources of energy but is unlikely to stop sourcing for coal any time soon. Amongst other things, the forum also provided suggestions for alternative methods of power generation in the country, showing that coal is not the only source the country has at its disposal.

The Coal Atlas Nigeria and Coal At What Cost sum up the importance of bringing the effects of coal mining to the surface of our consciousness as a people. They will also help drive future narratives on power generation and the use of fossil fuels in Nigeria. The knowledge in these reports is structured to inform the people in these host communities and not just the government and traditional leaders who ‘hope’ to make better laws to govern coal mining. “I think that we’ve taken the first step in reviewing what the cost of coal power generation will be for Nigeria. 

I’m hoping it will be a document that will be instructive as Nigeria develops its power mix,” said the Country Director for Global Rights Nigeria, Ms. Abiodun, at the end of the programme. As more people are made aware of theses issues, they will be able to utilise this knowledge and push for policies that are better for the environment and the Nigerian people as well. The power to make a difference is in our hands.

Author: Asari Ndem
Source: Ventures Africa