Freshwater and Marine Ecosystems in the the Gulf of Guinea and the Congo Basin face a lot of challenges and this year’s World Oceans Day offers us a good anchor for reflection. The theme of this year’s World Oceans Day is Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean. Innovation resonates readily because it speaks of new ideas, methods and ways of doing or using something. It speaks also of products and exploitation. Like most concepts, innovation is not value neutral. This calls for a careful consideration of what uptakes may arise from innovative ocean use. The theme aligns with SDG 14 – Life Below Water. Targets of this SDG include reducing marine pollution including those from land-based activities. It also targets the management and protection of marine and coastal ecosystems in ways that do not yield negative impacts.
The Atlantic coastline of the Niger Delta and its network of rivers and creeks is notorious for being heavily impacted by oil spills, produced water and chemical wastes. The oceans have become huge sewage dumps for polluting industries. While floating plastic “continents” have caught global attention, oil spills frequently get pushed to the bottom of the sea with fractions evaporating into the atmosphere, avoiding notice until bits float to the coastline or are picked up by fishers struggling to make a living in the polluted seas. Spectacular offshore oil spills here include Shell’s 40,000 barrels Bonga oil spill of 2011 and the one from a Texaco (Chevron) offshore station in 1980 that released 400,000 barrels into the ocean. It is estimated that about 1 million barrels of crude oil are dumped into the Niger Delta environment annually. According to the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) Nigeria has an average of five (5) oil spills daily and has had 1,300 oil spills in the last two years.
Besides oil production, other industries are serious threats to the oceans. The phosphate factory at Kpeme, Togo, pumps industrial waste directly into the Atlantic coast, turning the water green for up to 1.5 kilometres into sea and rendering the area a dead zone for fisheries. Phosphate factories equally pollute the Atlantic Ocean with heavy metals at El Jadida-Safi coastal zone in Morocco.
Our freshwater ecosystems are under threat because of the offhanded manner they are treated. Rivers and lagoons get contaminated by industrial effluent and offshore extractive industries simply load the ocean with wastes and are not accountable to anyone. In sum, it is tragic that our rivers, creeks, lakes and seas are often seen as waste dumps.
The story does not end there. Considering the energy deficit in Africa, energy projects get many excited. Consider the grand Inga hydropower project in Democratic Republic of Congo. While being touted as an infrastructural development that will power and light up Africa, the local people believe the main beneficiaries will be the extractive industries in the region. They believe that there will be major disruptions of the freshwater ecosystem and that they will be left to suffer the negative impacts of such an infrastructural development on the world’s deepest river and the second longest in Africa.
The Inga III Dam to be located at the mouth of the Congo River is attracting finance from China and from the African Development Bank (AfDB). While we like to see the AfDB support and finance energy projects on the continent, they should be circumspect about funding projects that would have huge negative repercussions for Africa’s biodiversity and her peoples, just as they did by withdrawing support for the Coal Power plant at Lamu, Kenya. The decision showed the bank’s consideration for public opinion as well as the adverse climate change realities the power plant would contribute to. The bank cannot do any less with regard to the Inga III Dam project considering the dire impacts it would have as we hear from grassroots activists opposed to the project.
Rather than allow the World Ocean Day to be another opening for talk shops we are determined to make it a day of deep reflections from a people’s perspective on the state of our marine and freshwater ecosystems with a view to outlining concrete steps towards protecting them. One of our key recommendations is that it is time for the creation or expansion of protected Freshwater and Marine Areas in the Gulf of Guinea, the Congo Basin and in other inland lakes and rivers.
Health of Mother Earth Foundation has just issued a Policy Paper calling for the creation of Marine and Freshwater protected areas in Nigeria. The paper is adaptable for other countries in the Gulf of Guinea and Congo Basin. It states “There is need to develop institutional framework and an all-inclusive marine protected areas policy to protect the marine ecosystem against destructive and extinctive practices. Although there are no official gazettes of Freshwater or Marine Protected Areas in Nigeria, community people through cultural and local knowledge have led and managed the creation of protected areas, protection of some aquatic animal species and even scheduling of fishing periods.” The issue of recognizing indigenous knowledge and practices is central to the call. We insist that protected areas must not deprive local populations of access to ecosystem resources. Any such protected areas must have provisions that are gender sensitive and socially inclusive.
We are also concerned that innovation in the oceans may herald the upscaling of plans to implement the Blue Economy concept which we see as an aquatic version of the Green Economy. The concern here is that just as the Green Economy epitomises the commodification of Nature, the literal placing of Nature on the market shelf, the Blue Economy will lead to partitioning and grabbing of our aquatic ecosystems with the attendant rise of extractive activities such as deep sea mining, marine biotechnology and bioprospecting.
It is time to raise the capacity of our fishers to monitor aquatic ecosystems, share knowledge, map threatened and valuable species, network with other fishers within and across borders. Water is life is not a mere slogan. It is declaration that must be fought for. Many see water as a resource that is limitless, conveniently forgetting that only three (3) percent of Earth’s water is freshwater and only 1.2 percent can be used as drinking water while the rest are inaccessible in ice caps, permafrost or way down in the ground. Thinking about that should be sobering.
*Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey at the Freshwater Ecosystem Convergence/webinar on 08 June 2020.