The environment has long been a factor in violent conflict in South Sudan, especially with respect to control over oil. The first oil was discovered in 1999, and by 2007, hydrocarbons accounted for over 95 percent of Sudan’s income. South Sudan became independent in 2011 after years of war with the Sudanese government in Khartoum, intensified by local conflicts over access to oil-rich border areas. But beyond conflict, South Sudanese communities have also been ringing the alarm bell about pollution and health hazards caused by the oil industry. PAX’s Wim Zwijnenburg asks whether tackling the health and environmental risks from South Sudan’s oil industry could help boost the legitimacy of a unity government.
Weak or completely absent regulations affected environmental conditions prior to independence. Waste water was not processed and drilling chemicals were disposed of in unprotected areas. Indirect environmental effects such as deforestation, poaching, and looting added to the misery. Though the full findings of their research have yet to be published, a report in March by the German NGO, Sign of Hope, estimated that 180,000 people face life-threatening risks from oil-related water pollution. Heavy metals, from leaking pipelines and refineries and damage from fighting, have leaked into the groundwater.
An ungoverned space
The warning signs were not new. The first report on the site profiled by Sign of Hope was published seven years ago and concerns have been raised numerous times by UN agencies and NGOs, including PAX.
In 2007, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) undertook a nationwide Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment in Sudan, which outlined the breadth of environmental problems, including desertification, mining, population displacement, deforestation, waste management, and poor governance. Though Sudan’s oil industry was relatively small at the time, UNEP issued a warning on the implications of its growth and the conflict potential of pollution specifically. “Recent tensions in north-south border regions have highlighted several environmental issues that constitute potential flashpoints for renewed conflict,” the authors wrote, “including the environmental impacts of the oil industry and the management of the country’s water resources.”
After South Sudan won its independence in 2011, fighting did indeed take place around pivotal oil regions along the border, mainly in Abyei, killing over a dozen people and displacing 110,000 civilians. After these skirmishes, various initiatives were undertaken to address environmental concerns, including restoration of affected areas in the oil-rich Upper Nile and Unity States. These included Transitional Agreements signed by oil companies and the government of South Sudan, and the Petroleum Act from July 2012.
The civil war that broke out in South Sudan in December 2013 – partially fuelled by the desire to control oil rich areas – blunted hope of substantial change, leading to further deterioration of oil facilities. Many fields seem to have been affected, as recent estimations of oil production are around 150,000 barrels a day, down from 350,000 prior to the conflict. Though no comprehensive study of the environmental impact has been conducted, a report by the South Sudan-based Sudd Institute notes that “the war has worsened environmental conditions as some oil fields have been abandoned without cleaning up of leakages and spills…The conflict has made it difficult to prioritize environmental protection as the focus has been on military and political efforts related to the war.”
A 2014 report by the Dutch NGO Cordaid found there are strong indications that toxic waste water, drilling muds, oils spills, and chemicals have seriously polluted the environment. Communities living near oil fields have flagged concerns over health problems such as infertility, miscarriages, and eye and skin problems. According to medical staff in some of these oil-rich areas, “communities are not made fully aware of hazards associated with the production of oil.”
The beleaguered government is unable, and perhaps unwilling, to hold oil companies accountable or provide the security and capacity to repair environmental hotspots. Foreign companies have been unhelpful, to say the least, as PAX demonstrated in a report that documented forced displacement in oil-rich territories taking place before 2011 with the help of private militias. After independence, the oil industry continued rigging, building infrastructure, and soil excavations, with detrimental environmental effects. Though the 2012 Petroleum Act requires companies to set up funds to repair environmental damage and pay reparations to affected communities, there is little evidence of such activity to date, according to the Sudd Institute and PAX.
Repairing a destructive legacy
All too often, environmental concerns tend to be neglected during conflict, and even during post-conflict development and peacebuilding are often considered a “soft” subject. The case of South Sudan is an example of what can happen if the environment does not become part of the peace process and neither the government nor oil companies are held accountable for their policies and practices.
Severe damage to ecosystems that communities depend on for their basic needs can have social effects that echo for years. Moreover, environmental pollution and subsequent degradation can further increase local grievances and fuel conflict, as noted in a November 2015 report by the Small Arms Survey.
Renegotiating the oil-sharing agreement between Sudan and South Sudan, which has led to relatively high levels of international cooperation over the last three years, will be an important task for any unity government when it expires at the end this year. But the conflict legacy of oil also extends to these environmental health problems, which require a concerted effort from the government before more lives are lost. Indeed, addressing environmental health risks is an important way for the government to demonstrate its legitimacy to civilians and improve livelihoods.
The 2013 PAX report, Repairing the Oil Legacy, underscores why social and environmental impact assessments are key to preventing a downwards spiral towards conflict and outlines key elements of strong social and environmental audits – required under the Petroleum Act and Transitional Agreements – ensuring that all relevant standards are implemented by the government, communities are compensated, and environmental damage is repaired.
Effectively tackling these concerns also requires sufficient data on where environmental problems have occurred. Yet, as often proves the case, expertise and capacity is often lacking in post-conflict settings, and environmental data collection is difficult and/or a low priority.
Post-conflict humanitarian responses, and long-term development and peacebuilding work, should have a wider focus on environmental factors, including natural resources and conflict-related environmental damage. Recognition of the detrimental impacts of environmental damage on health and development, as well as the opportunities to promote peace around it, are key to producing better data and more effective interventions.
Such an approach could include, but is not limited to, mainstreaming the environment in humanitarian responses and building in accountability mechanisms to environmental governance structures, especially for industries involved in natural resource extraction. These considerations are fortunately on the agenda of the United Nations Environmental Assembly in May 2016, where the impact of conflict on the environment and consequences for peacebuilding are part of the proposed discussions and resolutions. More importantly, the voices of affected communities should be at the forefront of stakeholder discussions when rebuilding war-torn societies. Understanding their grievances and concerns is key to building back healthier and more peaceful societies.
Wim Zwijnenburg is the project leader for humanitarian disarmament at PAX, a Netherlands-based NGO focused on promoting peace. He would like to thank his colleagues Kathelijne Schenkel, program manager for South Sudan, and Egbert Wesselink, a senior advisor at PAX, for their comments. For more information, please visit www.ecosonline.org. This blog was first published by the Wilson Centre’s New Security Beat.