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Feature The Black Waters of Total

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by French magazine L’Obs in April 2023 and has been translated by the Sana’a Center and edited for clarity.

A strange curse seems to be hanging over Sah district. Cultivable plots, once lush with crops, pastures, limes, watermelons, and onions, have been abandoned. Blackened at the base, twisted and staggering, the trail of date palms stands out in the desolate landscape. On his doorstep sits 36-year-old Mohammed Ali Salem Sourour, listening to the song of the birds, which are increasingly rare in this region. In the darkness of the house, a small child hesitates to step into the light. His 6-year-old son Adam finally reveals a startling birth defect. One eye, larger than the other, seemed to have detached from his left eyebrow, dropping a few centimeters below. “We live in the most poisoned land in Yemen,” says Mohammed, looking at his child’s facial disfigurement.

We’re 70 km south of the town of Seyoun, in Hadramawt governorate in eastern Yemen, where an impressive network of red canyons and valleys stretches out, crisscrossing each other and connected ad infinitum. Water has trickled into the ground for centuries, supplying four gigantic reservoirs that feed the whole of Yemen. However, two decades ago, this water began to turn brown after every monsoon. Locals called it Seyoul al-Aswad – the black floods. They’ve been a constant threat to the villages for many years now. Rainfall from the high plateau is coated in a dark, oily mantle that poisons cultivable soil, contaminates wells, kills lizards, monkeys, and small insects, and makes cancer and other diseases commonplace among the local population.

“Cancer has always been a problem, especially in recent years in Sah and elsewhere, because the water is so polluted,” says Dawud Saleh al-Jaberi, head of the district’s medical center, under a large Yemeni flag decorating his ventilated office. Awatif Hussein ibn Sheikh Abu Bakr, wearing a niqab and black gloves and working for the Hadramawt Cancer Foundation, confirms: “On average, there are 200 new cases of cancer per year in the Sah district.” Little Adam is one of these cases. He was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly after birth. He needed three operations in Egypt to remove the tumor. A solidarity network helped raise the US$10,000 needed for the trip. Adam has since made a miraculous recovery. However, the disease has left an indelible mark on Adam. “This kind of cancer in children has become something ordinary,” says his father. “I’m sure this disease is caused by pollution from oil companies. Total is responsible for it, and I’m furious with them.”

1996. Total began operating in the region that year, as did other foreign firms, in an oil basin known as Masila. Unfortunately, Block 10, which the French group’s Yemeni subsidiary Total E&P Yemen managed until 2015, was not without its share of setbacks. This included a succession of accidents due to archaic installations that failed to meet safety and environmental standards and a lack of rigorous management of the waste generated by oil extraction. The extent of the pollution is difficult to quantify, but the damage is immense and not confined to a few valleys: numerous aquifers throughout Yemen could have been affected. Total has not denied several of the incidents that led to the pollution but asserts that it has implemented appropriate technical measures, and stresses that it has not been involved in that oil field since 2015.

Mohsen Ba Surrah, a local MP since 1997 and an agricultural engineer, was one of the first to speak out against oil pollution in the region. He claims to have received the first complaints from residents living near Total E&P Yemen facilities in the early 2000s. “I wrote a series of reports and brought the matter before parliament on numerous occasions.” His investigations all led to “produced water”. This is water that returns to the surface as wastewater during oil and gas production; its toxic composition includes “small quantities of heavy metals and radioactive materials,” as well as a highly carcinogenic cocktail called “BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene),” explains Paul Hardisty, CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences.

Total E&P Yemen extracted millions of liters of this toxic water every day for years in order to extract oil from Block 10. According to an insightful study, the starting point of this investigation, carried out by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, in 2008 the neighboring Block 14 was producing up to 2 million barrels of produced water per day. The question is, how did they dispose of it? The oil company chose to store it in a hundred or so underground reservoirs equipped with simple plastic sheeting to prevent infiltration into the soil: thus, exposing the produced water to the Sun so that it evaporates. A method as archaic as it is dangerous, according to a French oil engineer who wishes to remain anonymous. “As far as I know, nobody plays this game anymore, apart from small companies with rogue methods. The international standard would be to treat produced water in plants. With the method used here, some of the water escapes into the air, and some seeps into the soil, since the lifespan of a polymer tarpaulin exposed to UV light is short. Once the water has evaporated, all the solid particles are left behind, forming a hydrocarbon-laden sludge with a high concentration of radioactivity, which is highly toxic.” Total, for its part, concedes that it has never drained its reservoirs to avoid damaging their fragile lining, but asserts that a skimming system had been installed to recover the residual oil, which is separated from the produced water and then recycled. However, this did not prevent tons of radioactive and carcinogenic soil from being left to decay. Even today, satellite images of Block 10 recovered by “L’Obs” show certain reservoirs clearly overflowing with this noxious sludge.

A Yemeni engineer who worked for Total E&P Yemen has further revelations to make: “When our reservoirs were all full, we reinjected the water into disposal wells dug at a depth of over 2,500 meters.” The company denies this – “There were no inactive so-called disposal wells used to inject produced water.” This is contested by Lucien Dat, a French former employee who served as Health, Safety, and Environment Supervisor of Block 10 between 2006 and 2010. He asserts that Total did indeed bury toxic water: “Oil companies often do that. When they drill, there are lots of wells, some of which are of no use because there’s no oil in them, so they fill them with more or less polluted water, basically crap, and then they close them up again.” A dangerous technique, according to our expert who wishes to remain anonymous: “I’d never heard of it… Once again, it’s an absolutely non-standard practice. What happens to the toxic water injected into a well? The pipes have to be leakproof, and they have to be constantly checked.” According to Dat, this question has never arisen: “Even if there were a small leak, it wouldn’t have any impact at a depth of 2,000 meters. The only risk is the pollution of a water table.” Total, for its part, asserts that “there were no water injection wells in the aquifers.”

So, who knew about these methods? In 2012, a local lawyer, Sami Jawas, joined geologists, local representatives, and a member of the Ministry of Oil and Minerals on a tour of Block 10 and its “large 30×30-meter reservoirs.” The committee was hosted by Hatem Nuseibeh, one of Total’s leading figures in the Middle East, who passed away in 2020. Discussions were heated. The visitors requested the construction of a produced water treatment plant. “Too expensive,” the managing director of Total E&P Yemen reportedly replied curtly. “They only proposed two solutions,” recalls the lawyer. “Exposing the produced water to the sun, or reinjecting it, but at deeper levels than the main freshwater aquifers. We were worried, so we asked whether, in the long term, this water could contaminate the groundwater used by Yemenis.” Hatem Nuseibeh then turned to the oil ministry representative before insisting that “the Yemeni government was a signatory to these methods!” “I warned them,” Jawas adds, “that in the event of pollution, they would be prosecuted by the Yemeni or French courts.” These comments were corroborated by Hussein Bamakhrama, a member of the local council in Seyoun, who was also present during the visit: “Their arguments weren’t really convincing and didn’t allay our fears at all.”

The residents’ fears did not come from out of the blue. Several serious pollution incidents occurred as early as the 2000s. In June 2008, a report by the governor of Hadramawt even mentioned the destruction of one of the site’s toxic basins. “It had been washed away by rains as far as the Wadi Ben Ali,” the report stated. After visiting the facilities, local officials discovered that several tanks had been built in the wake of the natural flood drainage paths. As they traveled 20 kilometers down the valley, they found numerous black stains, the only visible traces of produced water that had never been 100 percent separated from crude oil. The officials’ report reveals local concern: “The inhabitants of Wadi Ben Ali were worried about the blackish stains that had appeared after the last floods. They asked us how harmful this material could be to their health, their land, and their daily use of water (for drinking, cooking, washing, and irrigation). Some have decided to stop cultivating and plowing their land because they fear that once their plots have been sown, nothing will grow again.” Soil and water samples were taken. Analysis of these samples, attached to the report, revealed cadmium and mercury levels well above World Health Organization (WHO) standards. According to Pierre Courjault-Radé, a pollution specialist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), “mercury may originate from produced water mixed with oil, but it’s not easy to prove that. Much more sophisticated, costly, and time-consuming analyses would be required to figure this out.” The Hadramawt University of Science and Technology didn’t have the technical and financial resources to carry out this analysis. Courjault-Radé adds: “But if we rely on the results and the context of repeated leaks of produced water and oil, this seems an acceptable hypothesis and would explain the origin of cancers in local residents.”

According to the region’s few oncologists, it was precisely in 2008 that cancer cases began to rise again. The worst happened in 2008: the Wadi al-Ghubaira oil spill. Total E&P Yemen’s pipeline, laid above ground for dozens of kilometers, exploded one night in March in unclear circumstances. The French company would not disclose the cause of the leak. The Yemeni government attributed it to a technical problem. But why didn’t Total, which for its recent project in Uganda boasts of having buried its pipeline for hundreds of kilometers, do the same in Yemen, to avoid sabotage and protect itself from bad weather? An umpteenth question of cost. The extent of the leak is clearly visible in unreleased photos sent to L’Obs.

André Lamy, Director of Safety, Environment, Security, and Sustainable Development at Block 10 from September 2005 to January 2009, hasn’t forgotten this event. “It happened at night and we didn’t intervene until the morning. I couldn’t tell you how many liters escaped, but imagine a pipe that’s flowing, that’s thousands of barrels. What’s more, this one wasn’t horizontal, so it emptied.” Lamy says he and his team hauled long pipes to pump out the pools of oil that formed on the sides of the contaminated canyons and had bulldozers build earthen dykes around the cavities infiltrated by the oil, reinforced with absorbent silt socks to counteract the rainwater that would bring it out. “A classic procedure, but without soil decontamination, what’s the point? It would have been necessary to wash the soil down to the polluted depths,” says an oil engineer who wishes to remain anonymous.

Dat also remembers the site: We couldn’t get the vehicles down, so we had to carry the equipment on donkeys. As for the oil pollution on the surface, you leave it as it is, six months later it’s gone because the sun and bacteria will eat all the hydrocarbons.” Not a word, however, about heavy metals. “All that cleaning pissed me off. We mainly did this to keep the media at bay. Total was so afraid [that it would be revealed] that they made us clean every stone, but it’s obvious that there were gaps where we couldn’t go and that all this could surface every rainy season …. In the valley, the unprotected inhabitants were paid US$5 a day by Total to remove the black stains,” says a former Yemeni engineer working for the company, speaking on condition of anonymity. But thousands of liters of oil seeped in and are still coming out during heavy rains, say the residents. Several reports from the governorate also mention black flood water coming out of the mountains. The most recent report dates back to 2017. For its part, Total claims to have put in place “containment equipment” to circumscribe the effects “of the spill” and set up “a water monitoring system in the bed of the Wadi, which has detected no pollution on the surface or underground.”

The clean-up operation took several months. Just to compare, the operations following a pipeline leak in the Plaine de la Crau (Bouches-du-Rhône) in 2009 took more than ten years. 73,000 tons of polluted soil was extracted. Nearly a quarter of the unusable soil was classified as hazardous waste, while the remainder underwent biological treatment. Despite this, hundreds of cubic meters of oil are still believed to be present in the soil at the French site.

The oil slick is causing a mixture of anger and panic among the Yemeni population in the vicinity of Block 10. Reports dated June 2008, drawn up by committees in Hadramawt, mention crisis meetings between Total and local representatives after the incident. According to one of these reports, “Total assured us that they are investing a large amount of money to preserve the environment and the waters. They say they have carried out analyses of Sah’s water table and 120 wells.” “L’Obs” has obtained these analyses, carried out by the Swiss company Geos in June 2008 and financed by Total. The scientific tests on the water samples taken from the wells are even more rudimentary than those carried out by Hadramawt University. And not once is Total’s activity mentioned in the Geos’ conclusions. Not a word about the March 2008 oil spill nor about produced water leaks. The Swiss company even goes so far as to blame the local population: “Parameters measured in the field show anomalies probably due to local pollution points resulting from poor management of wastewater seeping into the wadi bed and polluting the wells.” Total, asked about the Geos report, assures us that “subsequent field visits and analyses carried out with representatives of the authorities and local residents have confirmed the absence of residual oil in the water.”

Misfortune rarely happens in isolation: October 2008 was also the year that terrible floods ravaged parts of Sah district. Some caused water reservoirs to overflow their banks and wash away for hundreds of kilometers. “We were of great help to the inhabitants,” says Lamy plainly. “I remember a discussion at the Total base… Yemeni children had no milk at all, and we had a large stock of it. However, some of the team members were reluctant to give it away because they used to drink it with their morning tea. We finally voted and decided that all the milk would go to the children of Sah.”

Clearly, the donation of milk wasn’t enough. Soon, in the lower wadi, peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins began at the entrance to Block 10, as angry farmers demanded compensation from Total for their polluted land. The highly influential Al-Jaberi tribe formed a committee of twelve local chiefs. Total decided to pay for the pollution caused by its pipeline, fearing terrorist attacks or sabotage. The company, when approached, explains that a compensation committee had been established together with the local authorities, and that “this committee carried out an independent calculation of the annual amount to be paid.” But L’Obs is able to confirm that a small French company, Ideal, was commissioned in April 2010 to measure farmers’ losses. No experts in soil and water pollution were deployed to study the long-term environmental and health consequences. Frédéric Pelat, an anthropologist and agronomist, was left alone to assess the damage. “The Total workers,” he recalls, “had no contact with the local population. They arrived directly at their facilities by plane. They’d stay for a few weeks and then leave, with no idea what was going on down there. I carried out a micro agrarian study to find out how to compensate the farmers, suggesting verbally that Total carry out a soil and water analysis. I don’t know if it was ever done.”

Pelat met several farmers to determine selling prices, potential crop volumes, seed costs, and the extent of the hectares affected. “The impact study commissioned by Total was limited to a very small parcel of land. The pollution was certainly not limited to it, but I was bound by my terms of reference. I overestimated the compensation.” His highly detailed report estimates agricultural losses at US$59,000, to be shared among the 500 inhabitants of the designated land. That was 0.0005 percent of Total’s annual profit, which, boosted by rising oil prices, climbed to 10.3 billion euros in 2010. According to a document dated August 28, 2012, and sent by Total’s director in the region, Hatem Nuseibeh, to the local governor, the company “paid compensation regarding the ‘impacts’ on the lands of the citizens of Wadi al-Ghubaira … [of] 11,400,000 Yemeni rials (US$57,000) for 2008, US$58,000 for 2009, and US$58,000 for 2010.” Strangely enough, only the Arabic translation of the document refers to “harm.” The word “pollution” is never used. Today, Total claims to have also compensated losses for 2011.

This initial compensation did not appease the anger of the locals. Yemeni lawyers gathered in September 2022 in a room of the Hawta Palace, a now-converted hotel not far from the town of Shibam, to discuss another legal action against Total. Taher Ahmed Ba’abad and his colleagues from the Al-Haq (truth) law firm initiated a complaint against the oil giant in March 2015. At the time, they represented five farmers from the Al-Jaberi tribe who, affected by the pipeline explosion, asked the Seyoun court to compel Total to “take full responsibility for this pollution, end their harmful activities in the valley and on the plots, clean the water as well as test its composition, clean every cavity still contaminated and pay new compensation for the farmers.” Could the French company’s replies to the judges have been too long in coming? On March 1, 2016, a note from the president of the Seyoun court to the governor of the region issued an order to seize “funds deposited by Total with PetroMasila,” the Yemeni national oil company that was then taking over its facilities.

What exactly are these funds? Difficult to determine. Financial transactions between Total and PetroMasila were legion from late 1990 until the start of the war in 2015. But a confidential agreement concluded in 2015, confided to L’Obs by a former Total accountant, mentions US$59,722,603 handed over by the French company to the Yemeni firm for “abandonment obligations” on its aging, increasingly unprofitable wells and facilities. According to the agreement, “the Republic of Yemen and the Ministry (of Oil and Minerals) agree that following this payment, the assignor (Total) will be irrevocably released and discharged from all claims.” This is further proof of the oil company’s intentions to protect itself against any legal challenge after fleeing the country in 2015 at the start of the civil war.

One thing is certain: in 2016, the Al-Haq law firm was informed by its clients that the complaint would eventually be withdrawn. The lawyers knew nothing of the financial terms and conditions that had prompted the withdrawal, having been kept out of the negotiations between PetroMasila, Total, and the farmers of Wadi al-Ghubaira. Lawyer Taher Ahmed Ba’abad spoke of US$400,000, without providing any proof. The plaintiffs did not reply to L’Obs when contacted. Total, for its part, denies having “directly or indirectly paid the plaintiffs to withdraw their complaint.” Resentment, however, remains strong. According to one of the lawyers, “the tribal chiefs who were supposed to redistribute the money from the first compensation payments made by Total did not do so fairly.”

Who profited from this sinister affair? How to find out? Sheikh Ghazi al-Jaberi emerges from the Sah Valley escorted by several 4x4s with tinted windows. This imposing leader with gigantic hands is known in the region for his tribes’ activism against the pollution that is eating away the region. He and his followers try to raise funds to help farmers and the sick survive. “I’ve never seen any money from Total. What did I get in compensation? Four sheep,” he complains as he chews qat, a stimulant drug common in Yemen.

Ghazi is not the only local to complain about the failure to receive the three small compensation payments made by Total between 2008 and 2010. “There was no sharing,” says Abdelatif al-Jaberi, another sheikh. “Only the chiefs of the Wadi have received something, while every last bit of greenery is dying, harvests have dwindled, bees have disappeared, and people everywhere are developing cancer. The black marks keep reappearing. I’m ready to go all the way to France to sue Total.”

He is not alone in raising the possibility of further legal action. Farouk al-Jaberi, who grew up in the midst of these misfortunes, has become an active leader in Wadi Ben Ali at the age of 33. He has also carefully preserved all the letters sent to Total by his predecessors, in the event that the case comes back to court. “People are angry,” he says, “but the majority of the population don’t know their rights and don’t know that they can claim reparations for the terrible damage caused by Total. I’ll take their voices to France if I’m asked.” Total may be in for a disappointment if it thought the pollution affair had been buried in the chaos of Yemen’s civil war: the anger unleashed by its black waters has not ended yet.