GP Insights

GP Insights # 173, 27 October 2019

Brazil’s mysterious oil spill 
Rashmi Ramesh


What happened?
After a disastrous summer wildfire in the Amazon rainforest, Brazil is in the midst of another environmental catastrophe that has appalled both its citizens as well as the international community. Since early September, barrels of oil has been washing ashore mysteriously. The oil spill that initially affected twelve beaches has spread across 2000 kilometres in 200 beaches of nine coastal states. Around 600 tonnes of oil have washed ashore so far.
 
The scientific community has failed to understand the reason. Samples have been sent to laboratories to determine the source of the oil. Initial results from Brazil’s environmental agency is unable to match the chemical composition of the oil to those available in Brazilian oil fields. The Federal University of Bahia reported the same. The Wood Hole Oceanographic Institute in the United States is also testing the samples to determine the source of the oil spill. 
 
What is the background? 
Oil spills have occurred across different periods in history. Some of the most toxic and most significant oil spills have taken place in oceans, rivers, on land and in forests. The Mingbulak oil spill of 1992 that happened in Uzbekistan is the most significant such accident on land. It caused massive fire, which took around two months to be doused. The Kolva River in the Russian Arctic was much affected by a large-scale oil spill due to leakage in the pipeline. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Persian Gulf War oil spill in West Asia are perhaps the two most significant incidents that caused widespread harm. 
 
What does it mean?
Brazil recently gained attention for its lack of willingness to combat the wildfires in the Amazon. The current oil spill has once again pushed the government in a tight spot. The far-right government has to answer many questions regarding climate change. While Amazon fire was dubbed as an “internal” matter, the oil spill is now being called as a “criminal activity” aimed at jeopardizing an upcoming multi-million dollar auction event for distributing oil prospecting rights. The government also has blamed neighbouring Venezuela. However, Venezuela denied the allegations. 

The blame game and persistent state of denial is a matter of concern. The delay in response to the oil spill has dismayed the environmentalists, scientists and the Brazilians. The international community is criticizing the authorities for lack of appropriate mechanisms to manage incidents of this kind. Due to delayed response, citizens formed a group - Coast Guardians, to clean the beaches physically. Online propagation has helped them garner more funds to procure safety equipment required while cleaning. 

This is not the case with Brazil alone. Developing countries lack mechanisms to control and respond to oil spills. For instance, the oil spill in Nigeria in 2006, led to 47 million gallons of oil leaking into the Niger Delta region. According to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation estimates, it is not uncommon to find hundreds of oil spills each year. Brazil’s neighbour Peru had an oil spill in June 2019, due to a leakage in the pipeline and a large part of the Amazon forest was affected. Indigenous communities depending on the forest and the rivers say that this is a regular occurrence. In 2018, another South American country Colombia had an oil spill into the Magdalena, the main river of the country. It led to the death of more than 2000 animals and severe health issues among the indigenous people. 

These incidents neither gained international traction, nor the assistance required to clean the affected areas. The governments are financially incapable, technologically backward, and there is also a lack of understanding about the seriousness of the issue. The disaster management mechanisms fail to provide safety for the people and animals vulnerable to oil spills and also fail in providing alternatives for livelihood in case of accidents. 

On the other hand, the oil spills in developed countries gain much-required attention and are capable of handling such issues. A classic example is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said to be the worst in the history of the United States. Technologies such as dispersants, bioremediation, solidification and vacuum suction were used to clean the east coast within two months.  The oil spill is also part of disaster management, and there is a clear distinction between the developed and the developing world in this regard. 

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