Oil production in South Sudan has poisoned the drinking water of some 600,000 people. In April, Malaysian oil and gas giant Petronas promised to take remedial action. What has happened since?
The email was unexpected, its contents too. In mid-April, the Petronas press office had sought contact with DW. Shortly before, the German aid organization Sign of Hope had laid blame for the pollution squarely on Petronas, sponsor of the Formula One Mercedes team.
"As a responsible organization, we place the interests of the local community as paramount," the Kuala Lumpur-based Petronas wrote to DW on April 18, dismissing the allegations by Sign of Hope, which works to protect the rights of people in distress.
"Whilst we deny the allegations made by Sign of Hope, we are considering Sign of Hope's views about improving the situation in South Sudan and we are pleased to have had a positive exchange right at our very first meeting," Petronas said. A concrete proposal was already on the table, it added.
Glimmer of hope
Sign of Hope co-chair Klaus Stieglitz told DW that participants at a meeting between the two parties in Zurich appeared to be seriously interested in finding a solution. It was in 2007 that the organization first encountered evidence of contamination of the water supply in the region. The water was found to contain heavy metals, salts and waste material that originate from oil production.
At the time, Sign of Hope was running several health projects in the region. In the meantime, the organization has presented reports by diverse experts, which it says support the allegations. Among them was an expert from the leading Berlin-based medical research institute Charite who found lead and barium in hair samples. These can have dire health consequences, including anemia, paralysis and renal failure. That is also why Sign of Hope teamed up with Africa Water Ltd. to develop a concept to help the people affected.
"The proposals were put to representatives of Petronas who showed a certain interest and at least some openness," said Stieglitz. DW has a copy of the draft proposal. Africa Water Ltd. wants to restore functionality to 15 boreholes within one year to give people in the region access to uncontaminated water. The cost of the project is estimated at around €123,000 ($138,000) per borehole and around €1.7 million in total.
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir (right) and rebel leader Riek Machar agreed in August 2018 to share power after yeras of civil war
Surprise move by Petronas
But things worked out differently. Responding to a question from DW at the end of October, Petronas said it had launched its own water project.
"The Water for Life project will bring benefits of clean water supply to more than 40,000 people in South Sudan," Petronas spokeswoman Zahariah Abd Rahman told DW in an email.
The project would see the drilling of five new boreholes, the rehabilitation of 15 more and the provision of five 30,000-litre water tanks. More water projects would follow, she said.
What came as a surprise was that the project is not in South Sudan's oil region but in the capital Juba. Residents of Juba certainly need clean drinking water too, says Stieglitz. "But one should not forget that some 450 kilometers to the north there is a population of over 600,000 people suffering due to the practises of Petronas. As far as we know, Petronas has not yet found a solution that ensures clean drinking water for these people."
Oil production to be expanded
The problem could be exacerbated in the coming months, as South Sudan expands oil production. Petronas can now extract oil in more regions. The cash-strapped government needs the revenue urgently in the country ruined by years of civil war.
At the same time, the military expenditure of the government of President Salva Kiir is around €1 billion a year. "For us the protection of the environment is of utmost importance," Oil Minister Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth told local media in late August. That was reflected in the contracts agreed between oil companies and the government, he added. Petronas spokeswoman Zahariah Abd Rahman stressed that the company would abide by local laws.
Klaus Stieglitz of Sign of Hope is skeptical, however: "It must be said that South Sudan is a very corrupt and very weak state, which to our knowledge is not in a position to control the oil industry. It is perhaps a calculation of the oil industry to produce in this country because one can produce cheaply, without adhering to environmental regulations."