Oil is South Sudan's biggest export earner. It is also a much needed lifeline for the government of the war-torn nation. German development organization Sign of Hope has warned for years that production comes with a heavy price for the people living in or around the oil fields. New research by Sign of Hope indicates that their number could be even higher than previously thought.
"We are talking about an oil catastrophe in South Sudan that affects more than 600,000 people," the organization's vice chairman Klaus Stieglitz told journalists at a press briefing in Berlin. All these people are living in or around three oil fields in the country's north. "That corresponds to about five percent of the entire population of South Sudan," Stieglitz said.
The organization had already presented a study last year which showed that dangerous substances such as barium and lead had leaked into water sources for people and animals living in and around the Thar Jath oil field. It believes that residents in the other oil fields are affected as well.
"Human beings and animals continue to drink from the contaminated water," microbiologist Bior Bior, who runs the Nile Institute for Environmental Health in South Sudan's capital Juba, said. "It is evident that people and their animals who are exposed to these contaminents are made sick."
Bior, who has conducted research in the Dar Petroleum Operation Company's oil field says that people reported a variety of symptoms including skin problems, diarrheal diseases and sexual dysfunctions.
Government plans to increase oil production
South Sudan's government, which long ignored the effects of the oil production, made a surprise move in December last year when it admitted that the oil production was a threat to local populations.
Nevertheless, it then announced in January that it wanted to more than double oil production to some 290,000 barrels a day. The government depends heavily on proceeds from oil exports to pay its civil servants. It also pours large sums into the country's army, which has been fighting a rebel alliance loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar for the past few years. The conflict has plunged South Sudan — one of the poorest countries in the world — into an economic crisis, with inflation soaring to 800 percent last year and the country's currency, the South Sudanese pound, dramatically losing value.
"The government's response to the crisis has been wanting," Bior said.
Petronas and German carmaker deny any wrongdoing
Sign of Hope is demanding more action from Petronas and German carmaker Daimler Benz. Petronas, a Malaysian-based oil company, holds equity stakes in all three oil fields. It is also the sponsor of Daimler's Formula One racing team.
Sign of Hope officials were "disenchanted" after meeting with representatives of Petronas and Daimler earlier this week. "Looking at the scope of the oil catastrophe in South Sudan, Petronas' willingness to act is insufficient," Stieglitz said. "According to our calculations, it would cost approximately 250 euros ($309) to support one person living in the affected areas with clean drinking water for ten years," the organization's Stieglitz said. That would mean a price tag of 150 million euros to tackle the most urgent need.
Daimler Benz turned down a Deutsche Welle request for an interview.
"Daimler is not the source of the incidents in South Sudan. We are not involved on the ground, neither directly nor indirectly," the company's press department said in a written statement.
"Nonetheless, since learning about the accusations, we have used our influence and have pushed for a solution. In this process, we played the role of a moderator between Petronas and Sign of Hope."
"The objective of the initiated dialog is to maintain direct communication between Petronas and Sign of Hope, and as a result help to reach an amicable solution for everyone involved," the company statement said, without mentioning the findings by Sign of Hope in detail.
In a statement sent to DW after this article was published, Petronas said that it strongly denies the allegations made by Sign of Hope. The statement further said that the company was expecting a proposal from African Water, a specialist in water pumps and wells with a presence in South Sudan. "Petronas will be reviewing the African Water proposal which is focused on rehabilitating much-needed water wells for further technical and feasibility assessments as a continuation of its commitment to community development projects in the area," the statement read.