2022 Madoxx Prize winner, Nigerian scientist Eucharia Nwaichi revives oil-polluted soils

She embarked on a titanic challenge: to try to clean the delta of a river soaked in fuel oil. And by dint of experiments, she succeeds. Eucharia Nwaichi, 44, works in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, one of the most polluted areas in the world. Because, of course, oil pollutes the air when it is burned, but it also pollutes the soil when it is pumped, as soon as it is extracted, because of leaks.

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However, the Niger delta, a fishing haven for its inhabitants, has the misfortune of having a subsoil very rich in hydrocarbons. Derricks have therefore multiplied there over the decades, and with them constant leaks of crude oil. It is this scourge that Eucharia Nwaichi fights and which earned her the Madoxx 2022 prize, a prize awarded by the editions of the prestigious journal Nature. Suffice to say that you don’t get it like that: you have to prove that your method is effective, provide scientific, concrete, measurable evidence, and the experiments carried out by the Nigerian researcher are not lacking in it.

Biochemist at the University of Port-Harcourt, she works on the toxicology of soils, and specifically on the effects of heavy metals, arsenic, mercury, lead, in other words all the poisons released by the refining of hydrocarbons. And his technique to get rid of it is to make the plants work. It’s called bioremediation: where there is a plant, there are micro-organisms, bacteria, fungi, a whole ecosystem that circulates around the roots, which treats pollutants, transforms them, and thus can clean , detox an entire area. Each pollution corresponds to a type of plant, and it is in this that Eucharia Nwaichi shone, since she found the species that are suitable for hydrocarbon pollution in wetlands.

I look for ecological solutions inspired by what nature can do, the goal is not to create new damage.

Eucharia Nwaichi, Madoxx Prize 2022

at the BBC

Plants that she planted with the inhabitants of the delta, local farmers, village chiefs, and for her, this is the key to success: “you have to work in networksshe explained when receiving her award, work by involving everyone on site.“Involving everyone means the inhabitants, but also the oil companies.

So, each time pollution is reported to her, she goes to see those responsible, with supporting samples and evidence, so that they stop the leaks and make them pay for the clean-up. Sometimes it worked. And sometimes she was threatened and the cases had to be taken to court. But between resilience and justice, what Eucharia Nwaichi does goes far beyond the scientific domain and a few days before COP27, we would do well to draw inspiration from it.

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