Oil was discovered in what would become South Sudan in 1979. Production commenced in 1993. From the very outset there were concerns about the oil companies’ adherence to the environmental standards imposed on the disposal of the processed water ensuing from their pumping operations. Indigenous people consuming water taken from wells located in the catchment areas of the oil rigs began arriving at local clinics. The peoples’ health complaints ranged from nausea and skin problems to neurological disorders. The villagers also reported that the water in their wells had become salty, that it stank, and that their livestock and plants were ailing, even dying after having consumed it. In the early 2000s, local residents resisted their forced expulsion from their lands by oil companies and their governmental allies. South Sudan was recently ranked as the most dangerous country in the world for humanitarian workers - due to the world's highest rate of fatalities and other grave incidents. This comes with the assassination of a number of journalists who were striving to report on the links between Big Oil and the South Sudanese government.
In 2008, Sign of Hope, a German NGO that supports two clinics in South Sudan, decided to launch an investigation. Conducted by Sign of Hope and associated scientists, this investigation comprised the making of field trips entailing the taking of samples of water in local wells and in catchment pits situated in the Thar Jath oil field. The samples of water and hair were then evaluated by laboratories of unimpeachable reputation. The findings: the water was contaminated with a witches' brew of heavy metals, salts and other noxious substances. The source of these was quite obviously the local oil field. Sign of Hope also delivered the 'smoking gun' proving the link between the desecration of the groundwater in and around the oil fields and the destruction of lives and habitats. This 'smoking gun' took the form of samples of local residents' hair, which international experts found to contain shockingly high concentrations of noxious chemicals. All told, some 180,000 local peoples have been exposed to the effects of this contamination.
Since Thar Jath is only one of the ten oil fields in South Sudan, and since long-term and latitudinal effects have yet to be covered, the actual number of victims could well be in the millions. Perpetrators of this contamination include notably China National Petroleum Corporation, Indian company Videsh and Malaysia’s Petronas.
Sign of Hope has been spearheading a campaign to convince the oil companies and their governmental and corporate allies to desist such practices, to remediate the environment, and to treat local residents’ ailments – and to provide them with compensation for their loss of life and livelihood. Affected by this contamination are the Sudd wetlands (one of the world's greatest sources of biodiversity) and the Nile, which creates and drains them. Needed is a full-scale, country-wide investigation, especially in view of South Sudan's plans to greatly ramp up the pumping of oil.
Forms of mobilization: local residents have organized themselves into self-help groups that strive to make their communities aware - via talks, street theater and works of art - of the dangers of consuming poisoned water. As has been the case with efforts to find alternative sources of water, this self-help has been hampered by the hunger and fear plaguing most of South Sudan. They have caused millions of South Sudanese to flee.