The extent of oil pollution on the environment is least reported on even though the consequences are far-reaching particularly on the African continent where several communities depend on agriculture or farming. Some of the negative effects of oil contamination include the degradation of soil quality and its fertility, poor aeration and the inability of the soil to retain water.
Area of specialisation
Dr Chioma Blaise Chikere has found creative and sustainable ways by which a soil can regain its ecosystem. Dr Chikere is a globally recognised environmental and chief proponent of the nature-based solutions. She specialises in molecular environmental or petroleum microbiology. Her research interest lies in the use of green and nature-based solutions in the bioremediation of crude oil-impacted sites in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria.
Presently, Dr Chikere is attached to Unisa’s department of environmental sciences in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CAES).
She is revered for her contribution to sustainable environmental eco-restoration in the Niger Delta. The area experienced a major oil spill in early 2000 which saw the Nigerian outfit of the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, Shell fined for the disaster. Dr Chikere uses bioremediation to help environment such as these to fully restore biodiversity and ecosystem services. This can also be applied to a barren, oil-polluted site by identifying the complex microbial interactions underpinning petroleum biodegradation.
Lecture on SDGs goals
Last month she delivered a lecture as a visiting African scholar for a day hosted by CAES under the theme: “Nature-based solutions to eco-restoration of oil-impacted soils in line with UN Sustainable Development Goals 15 – Life on Land”. During the lecture she explained that contamination of coastal and terrestrial ecosystems by oil has had severe environmental and economic consequences in the Niger Delta region. She said even though technologies for oil drilling have advanced rapidly in recent decades, strategies for responding to oil spills and assessing environmental impacts of oil contamination have so far proved inadequate.
Oil-degrading microbial groups
Dr Chikere argues that a vital part of directing the management and clean-up of oil-contaminated ecosystems lies in understanding the impacts of oil on indigenous microbial communities and identification of oil-degrading microbial groups using both culture-dependent and molecular approaches.
She uses nature-based solutions to enhance microbial activities in oil-impacted sites to ensure the pollutants are biodegradable and that the ecosystem is fully restored. She employs high-throughput techniques such as next-generation sequencing, bioinformatics and chromatographic procedures to evaluate the effect of long-term exposure to petroleum hydrocarbons on soil microbes.
Dr Chikere also uses these methods to evaluate and monitor the progress of bioremediation at field-scale level. The objective is to establish eco-restoration of biological diversity within the compliance limits enshrined in the guidelines published by the Department of Petroleum Resources.
With the methods and guidelines applied, eco-restoration of crude-oil polluted arable soil and biodiversity recovery at Ngia Ama (one of the sites affected by the oil spill in the Niger Delta) were achieved.
Dr Chikere’s research team has formulated the nature-based green fertiliser and are awaiting the outcome of a patent application. During the site remediation project, her team formulated various types of nature-based, green organic and inorganic slow-release fertilisers from agricultural and industrial waste materials; these fertilisers contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in stoichiometric ratios adequate for the supply of essential nutrients to enhance the microbial activity necessary for the biodegradation of petroleum hydrocarbons.
The field-scale bioremediation of crude oil-polluted soil has set a benchmark for innovation in monitoring pollutant degradation. For instance, metabolomics analysis of the soil metabolome provided deeper insight into the biochemical reactions underpinning biodegradation of complex hydrocarbons. This technology is recommended for use in developing countries where bioremediation can be used to restore impacted ecosystems to their original state. It is simple and eco-friendly, and can be carried out by locals, which greatly aids in its acceptance.
Nature-based approaches for ecosystem restoration present sustainable options that help to halt, reverse and prevent negative impacts of anthropogenically-induced pollution and climate change. Restoring ecosystems means protecting their biodiversity (the spread, distribution, number and variety of species of plants, animals and microbes within a habitat) and helping them deliver benefits for both people and nature.