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NGO blames water pollution in S.Sudan on oil company

Daniel Pelz ew
May 19, 2017

Drinking water around an oil-producing area in South Sudan is heavily polluted. A German NGO puts the blame on Malaysian oil company Petronas. It has also become a subject of embarrassment for carmaker Daimler.

A child collects water from a water point in Juba, South Sudan
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. G. Farran

Klaus Stieglitz came across the problem of drinking water by chance. "In 2007, one of our project partners informed us that the water tasted bad," he said. Stieglitz and his colleagues at the aid organization "Sign of Hope" went ahead to investigate the situation in South Sudan. They collected water samples near the oil fields in Thar Jath in Unity State. The analysis showed that the taste was the smallest problem. Water from some wells had a salt content almost four times higher than allowed.

Now Sign of Hope has presented the results of another study in Berlin. It is based on analysis of 96 hair samples collected in four locations. Toxicologist Fritz Prangst evaluated the results. The professor from the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences at Berlin's Charite Hospital, says the findings represent "a threat to the population."

Traces of lead and barium 

Samples from the areas around the oil fields were full of lead and barium. The worst hit location was Koch, 14 miles away from the oil field. The exposure to lead there was four times higher than the average. On the other hand, In Rumbek, about 137 miles away, it was much lower.

A birds-eye-view of the oil field Thar Jath in Unity State, South Sudan
Oil field Thar Jath in Unity State, South SudanImage: Hoffnungszeichen e.V.

The continuous intake of both metals can lead to dramatic consequences, for example, anemia and kidney failure. Lead poisoning can also affect the nervous system. "It can lead to serious symptoms like intelligence deficiency, paralysis and psychological problems," said toxicologist Prangst. The hair samples, nevertheless, do not prove that people around the oil fields constantly consume both metals. This would require blood tests, Prangst says.

It is clear to him how the heavy metals got into the drinking water and from there into people's bodies. "There has to be a connection to the processes which take place during oil tapping and production," Prangst told DW. Both substances are used during oil production. The aid organization Sign of Hope presented photos showing large holes full of mud from drilling. From there, the poisonous substances were able to seep into the ground and end up in drinking water. "From our point of view, the culprit is the oil industry that does not dispose of its waste in a proper way," Klaus Stieglitz said.

An oil pond at the oil field Thar Jath in South Sudan
NGO Sign of Hope blames oil and gas company PETRONAS for water pollution in South SudanImage: Hoffnungszeichen e.V.

How is Daimler involved?

The oil field in Thar Jath is run by a pool of companies. The main shareholder is the Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas. DW's efforts to contact the company went unanswered. Sign of Hope says it has been in talks with Petronas and the South Sudanese government for years. However, for the population, the situation has not improved, the organization added.

Klaus Stieglitz had put his hopes on Daimler. Petronas sponsors the group's Formula 1 team to the tune of up to 40 million euros, according to press reports. In 2015, representatives of Sign of Hope met with Daimler, the South Sudan government and the oil consortium. During the annual general meeting of Daimler in March, the shareholders' association also called for an end to the cooperation with Petronas. But since then nothing has happened.

The allegations against Petronas are being taken seriously, Daimler told DW. In a written statement Daimler said that Petronas had given it an assurance that it was holding direct talks with the people involved and with those responsible on the ground and that they were working together to clarify the facts of the matter and establish where the responsibility lay and if necessary would introduce ways to improve the situation in South Sudan.

According to Petronas, the process is being hampered by the civil war. Last year the company pulled out its employees after violent clashes.

Nevertheless, Sign of Hope has a clear idea of how Petronas should act in the case of Thar Jath. "We expect Petronas to accept responsibility for what they did there," said Stieglitz. He wants Petronas to provide the people with clean drinking water as well as medical help.