In 2013, Poly-GCL Petroleum Group, a partnership between China Poly and closely held Hong Kong-based Golden Concord Group Ltd., signed five production-sharing agreements with Ethiopia to explore for oil and gas in the country’s Ogaden region. The Chinese company has been involved in the exploration and development project in the Ogaden basin since the end of 2013 and has confirmed new hydrocarbon deposits, which means that Ethiopia could have more oil and gas than previously thought. Unfortunately, this economic boon appears to come at the cost of lives and health of Ethiopians experiencing a wave of mysterious illnesses in the area around the exploration sites.
Poly-GCL has identified other reserves in the Calub deposit alone that were initially thought to be 133 billion cubic meters. However, the quantity could exceed 200 billion cubic meters of gas reserves. Even crude oil could be surprisingly plentiful. The Calub and Hilala reserves were initially discovered by the American company Tenneco in 1972. In the 1980s, the petroleum company of the USSR Petroleum Exploration Expedition that conducted research in the Ogaden basin estimated the gas reserves in the towns of Calub and Hilala to be more than 110 billion cubic meters.
According to what the expert geologists stated to the local newspapers in 2018, the Chinese have developed a new petroleum exploration technology that allowed them to find what the Americans could not. “They did not find a new reserve but rather found petroleum that the Americans and Russians in the 60s, 70s and 80s could not see.”
Earnings from estimated natural gas reserves from the Ogaden basin may be as much as $7 billion a year once it can produce at full capacity, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was cited as saying in 2018 by the state-owned Ethiopian Herald. Ethiopia had planned a natural gas pipeline from the Ogaden to a port complex on the Red Sea in neighboring Djibouti. Abiy said he expected that construction would start in September 2018 and exports would begin in 2021.
Meanwhile, in February 2019, Ethiopia and Djibouti signed a memorandum of understanding for the construction of a $4 billion, 767-km natural gas pipeline from the Hilala and Calub gas fields in the Ogaden region to a new port east of Djibouti City in Djibouti. The pipeline would be built by Poly-GCL, which also is developing the gas fields. The pipeline would transport 12 billion cubic meters per year of gas, of which 10 billion cubic meters would be exported to China. At the time, GCL-Poly also said it expected exports to begin in 2021.
Of course, COVID lockdowns and conflict in Ethiopia threw off the timetable for those ambitious plans, and both Ethiopia and China want to get back on track on this lucrative venture. However, questions concerning the health of people near the production facilities in the Ogaden pose another serious obstacle could derail this energy project.
The Guardian newspaper in 2020 investigated reports of a deadly sickness spreading through villages near the Chinese natural gas project, according to locals and officials who spoke to the newspaper. It is not clear what has caused the sickness, and officials in the federal government in Addis Ababa firmly denied allegations both of a health and environmental crisis in the Ogaden, or of any problems relating to large-scale energy projects there. Poly-GCL officials declined to comment.
Ogaden resident Khadar Abdi Abdullahi told the newspaper that his eyes began turning yellow, and then the palms of his hands did the same. Soon, he said, he was bleeding from his nose and from his mouth, and his body was swelling all over. Eventually, he collapsed with fever. He had been discharged from the hospital after he was taken there; doctors there said there was nothing more they could do for him. He was weak and thin, and his eyes were sinking into their sockets.
He later died, but before his demise, Khadar, like many from the area, told the Guardian reporters of his suspicions that the sickness is caused by hazardous chemical waste that has poisoned the water supply.
“It is the toxins that flow in the rainfall from Calub [gas field] that are responsible for this epidemic,” Khadar told the newspaper, as he sat outdoors in the eastern Ethiopian city of Jigjiga.
Neither the Government of Ethiopia nor Poly-GCL have investigated this phenomenon and continue to either issue denials of any connection of the increasingly widespread illnesses surrounding the gas field or refuse to comment. According to Xuseen Sheekh Siraad, the chairman of Dhoobaweyn district in Ogaden, it is estimated that there have been at least 2,000 deaths since 2014.
“There are new diseases that have never been seen before in this area,” said an adviser to the Somali regional government, speaking to the Guardian on condition of anonymity. “Without any public health protection, it is very clear that Poly-GCL uses chemicals that are detrimental to human health.”
There is no official death toll, and those who live around Calub are predominantly nomadic pastoralists, whose contact with the Ethiopian government and modern health care is limited. Many bury their dead without informing local officials. Moreover, health officials say most people in the affected area do not come to any clinic, and even if they did, local health workers lack the facilities to treat or even diagnose serious cases such as liver failure.
The Guardian found two Poly-GCL employees who offered information on the dangers to populations in the area from this project. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an engineer who worked for the company in Calub for three years, said that there were regular spillages of deadly drilling fluids, including sulphuric acid. Exposure to such chemicals can lead to liver failure and stomach cancer.
Ali Hassan Farah, another former employee, said that “those indigenous to the land die from raw toxins spilled out of sheer carelessness. Operational companies in Calub have forfeited their duty to protect local people.”
Chemical spillages could have been caused by local Ethiopian transport firms, for instance, not Poly-GCL, and it is also possible that environmental damage predates the company’s arrival in the area. At least two environmental impact assessments related to oil and gas development in the Ogaden have been carried out by the government, but the results have not been made public. After the Guardian coverage of this potential health catastrophe, there has been no further reported media inquiries made in the Ogaden about this matter.
Since August 2019, there has been a new government in Somali region, led by acting state president Mustafa Omer, who has been praised for his reforms. An official told the Guardian that the region was trying to repair the damage done under its authoritarian predecessor, including in the management of natural resources.
“We recognise the serious consequences of resource exploration, particularly for those living closest to exploration sites,” Abdikarim Abdirahman, the regional head of energy, mines and petroleum, told the newspaper. “We have established an office for energy, mines and petroleum as well as an office dedicated to the environment … We are seriously dedicated to addressing the decades of marginalisation and abuse that have resulted from oil and gas exploration.” It remains unclear, though, whether this expressed commitment has resulted in any concrete action on behalf of those now suffering in the Ogaden.
Meanwhile, the federal government in Addis Ababa announced a revenue-sharing plan that would grant the host region 50% of any income from oil or gas exploration, 10% of which will go directly to the production area. The rest would be split between the federal government and Ethiopia’s other regions.
Locals are skeptical because of the lack of concern shown by the federal government in the wave of illnesses surrounding the gas fields and the secrecy with which the government has handled the environmental impact statements. To date, neither the Ethiopian government nor Poly-GCL have investigated the mysterious wave of sickness near the gas fields nor have either provided any enhanced medical assistance to residents who are suffering in obscurity.
At some point, the conflict in Ethiopia will abate, and the gas and petroleum projects, with their promise of enormous revenue for China, Ethiopia and Djibouti, will resume in earnest. Without transparent environmental studies, the unexplained upsurge of illnesses in the Ogaden might not only continue, but could also worsen. The health and lives of Ethiopians in the Ogaden evidently will depend on some international authority to demand a proper investigation of this phenomenon, since the governments and company involved apparently only see potential financial gains and not the ongoing welfare of the Ogaden people.