The effect of pipeline leakage and fire incidents in former Unity State (Part II)

Peter Reat Gatkuoth. Photo: File

By Peter Reat Gatkuoth


February 23, 2020 (SSNA) — When pipelines are built, regulated, controlled and maintained as necessary by international and national legislation, they can be safe environmentally according to national and international industry standards and good practices. They can also pose serious health and environmental danger. The most common cause of pipeline accidents in South Sudan is external interference, degradation, and maintenance ineffectiveness. In the past few years, unregulated containment failure, fires or accidents lead to loss of life, unintended water pollution, and major environmental disasters.

While pipelines in South Sudan are being operated with growing caution, the health of construction, operation, and maintenance of pipelines must continually be assured and strengthened where necessary. This should also be seen in the light of the challenges posed by climate change, which could increase the chance that extreme weather events and natural disasters could lead to industrial accidents. In two months, citizens and officials of government are struggling with a major collapse of the pipeline and the effects of public safety and pollution leakage in the once united country, the rural pipeline of southern Sudan.  Lastly, locals claimed that oil was leaking at the Kailoy, some ten miles west of the Unity Oil Field. They said that on December 21, it caught fire and burnt two days in the air carrying dense smoke feathers. The organization belongs and runs by the Chinese Pioneer Operating Company (GPOC). The inhabitants of the region expressed their frustration, the lack of community involvement in decision making by petrol companies and their inability to contain the fires that local charcoal companies probably sparked.


In two months-time, citizens and government officials struggle with a major collapse of the pipeline and the effects of public safety and pollution leakage across a large stretch of the once united country, South Sudan’s rural pipeline. Eventually, in the Kailoy about ten miles west of Unity Oil Field, locals reported that oil leakage is seen in the area. They said that it caught fire on December 21 and burned two days in the air, sending thick feathers of smoke. This is owned and operated by the Chinese Pioneer Operating Company (GPOC). The residents of the area voiced their anger over the fact that the petrol companies did not notice spills and did not succeed in suppressing the fires that local charcoal companies probably ignited (Brinkmann, 2020).

There is widespread awareness and acceptance that a large-scale release of hazardous materials as a result of pipeline failures and explosions that cause environmental degradation of trans frontier watercourses and/or foreign lakes. These emissions and the resulting harm or danger to human health, facilities and environmental resources can have a negative effect on the relationships of neighboring countries. Both pipelines face these threats where some of which operate beyond their service life, are particularly concerned (Brinkmann, 2020). Pipeline failure and accidents will always happen in considerable cost of items such as operational interruption, damage claims, legal and litigation, unplanned termination operations and loss of the company’s share of profit. The cost of injuries thus almost always equals the expenses a business incurred to ensure adequate health and control to avoid these events (Luong,2019).

The operation of the pipeline can last for many decades. In addition, pipeline construction and operation are constantly evolving as the pipeline design, operation, maintenance and regulatory can change, often drastically during the lifespan of a pipeline. Most regional jurisdictions, however, lack the relevant regulations on pipeline development, operation, and maintenance issues. Pipeline operations and construction data should be made available to the public in accordance with the applicable provisions of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) environmental conventions (Luong, 2019). In order to properly evaluate the safeguards to protect the environment and the civilian populations for South Sudan in pipeline explosions and fires, the causes of these accidents must be identified.

Causes of Pipeline Fire Incidents

The first explanation for repeated pipeline fires is the lack of adequate incident reporting systems. The lack of adequate accident knowledge is a major problem facing the oil industry in South Sudan. There are incidents but the management of the company must actively retain information on the events, which makes it difficult to investigate and look at the root causes of the accidents involved. Nonetheless, a number of companies continue to change information and data related to incidents. They do so to avoid legal penalties, compensate the persons involved, pay compensation for damages, incur maintenance costs and avoid being held responsible for environmental clean-up. This problem is now part of the prevalent culture of the dysfunctional safety of the South Sudanese oil industry, making the problem more complex and difficult to solve.

In fact, threat identification and assessment are rampantly ineffective. It should be remembered that petroleum companies must recognize hazards correctly in their pipeline systems, irrespective of whether these dangers are manufactured or natural, and must use appropriate technology to minimize their risks. South Sudanese legislation indirectly requires oil enterprises to comply with international standards such as the API for high impact areas and therefore requires further risk analysis and risk assessment. In his 1994 paper, Tylor James clarified that pipeline danger varies from other plant hazards because it is associated with a line source rather than a range of point risk sources. In addition, a comprehensive pipeline integrity management system is not available, including safe operation, routine monitoring, and preventive and predictive maintenance. In order to detect leakages in the pipeline, potential risks, and to identify areas where the failure would have a great impact, the pipeline needs supervision and inspection during operation. Measures to ensure that repairs/maintenance and upgrades are carried out need to be taken. This will be accompanied in the event of the occurrence by proper emergency management and organizational communication with the public.

Most pipelines in South Sudan are over 10 years old and vulnerable to corrosion and leakage. Some of these pipeline networks date back to 2010, with the majority of pipeline projects being limited to a life span of 10 years or less. Many pipelines have not been installed correctly below the surface and can easily be subject to little or no erosion. Some of the coastal pipelines are now vulnerable to erosion and exposure to other hazardous activities on land (Marwa, 2019).  Many pipelines were initially located above ground level and an additional replacement was required and most of these pipelines have been damaged due to aging, aggressive environmental factors, inadequate design, and insufficient protection and maintenance.

Ultimately, with respect to situations, the absence of systems of compliance and monitoring is as good as the lack of a legal framework under which there is no efficient system of enforcement and monitoring. Good regulatory oversight and compliance are important to the effectiveness of any regulatory system and are accompanied by sufficiently robust legislation that is detailed and consistent with a range of regulations that help to implement and maintain good enforcement.

Safeguards and Recommendations for Pipeline Fire incidents

The comprehension of the above causes and more, gives a firm foundation for the understanding of the following safeguarded measures, for, without one, the other would prove to rather be just redundant. The cause pinpoints where the government of South Sudan is failing and shows the measures of safeguarding that can be implemented or even revitalized.

First and foremost, the industry should provide leadership and create the basic administrative framework necessary to facilitate the development of safe and environmentally sound transportation infrastructure including pipelines. This will clarify the activities that should be undertaken by different offices during operations to avoid explosions and any other incidents. The confusion caused by this lack of clarification trickles down to the fundamental systems of management that affect the safety of both the environment and the civil populations. A relevant example here is the confusion between occupational safety and process safety which always resulted in a concentration on occupational health over the process and operational safety. Occupational health is commonly mistaken for process safety and used to supplant the requirements of process safety leading to a lack of proper risk identification and absence of mitigating measures.

Primarily on the issue of safeguarding the involved parties, pipeline operators and/or owners have key responsibility throughout the whole life cycle of its systems for ensuring safety and for taking measures to prevent accidents and limit their consequences for human health and the environment. Furthermore, in case of accidents, all possible measures should be taken to limit such consequences by the pipeline operator and the national competent authorities. In the case of the recent explosion in the Bentiu region, the company is required to implement safety measures and protect both the environment and the surrounding populations. This is by providing fire suppression equipment like fire trucks and fire extinguishers. “They don’t have fire-trucks, they don’t have fire extinguishers and they have nothing to prevent any fire when the accidents happened. They went there but could not do anything to make sure that the fire is contained. It was just left like that, and it continued burning for two days,” one of the locals mentioned.

More to that, pipelines for the transport of hazardous substances have to be designed and operated effectively and safe so as to prevent any uncontrolled release into the environment. This is something that was implemented at the start of South Sudan’s oil regime and has for that reason caused immense risk to various communities where pipelines with hazardous effluents pass. Reports of the recent explosions suggested that the communities near the pipelines were faced with a high risk of lung diseases caused by the heavy soot from the fires. Notably, leaks from any part of a facility or pipeline that contain hazardous substances should be recognized adequately in a quick and reliable way, especially in environmentally sensitive or highly populated areas.

It is vital to note that the oil companies have partially failed miserably on the issue of health and safety measures. Time and time again, oil companies have been alerted for the incidents of leaks in the pipelines but have turned a blind eye and as a result, there have been over five pipeline fires in 2019 only. In October, a previously undetected oil leak from a burst pipeline in the Budang area of former Unity State was discovered by a hungry soldier who was hunting for wild fruits. Onlookers at the Kailoy pipeline fire mentioned that the pipeline had been leaking for days before the bushfire and that authorities had been informed but nothing had been done as most of the officials were in the festive period.

The residents of the nearby villages mentioned that GPOC not only failed to detect the oil leakage soon after it happened but also had failed to extinguish the fires.  “In this case, there is negligence on the side of the oil company that is in the area, because if leakages are happening and are not being detected on time, it shows that the oil company is not doing a good job,” said one of the onlookers at the site of the accidents.

Furthermore, the pipeline operator should implement a management system to ensure and maintain the integrity of the pipelines. The integrity of pipelines should be ensured through adequate design, construction, maintenance, inspection and monitoring and effective sound management. Deterministic and/or probabilistic approaches should be used by the South Sudanese government in evaluating the likelihood of pipeline accidents and their impacts on human health and the environment.

Appropriate measures should be taken in case of accidents. Emergency plans should be established by pipeline operators (internal emergency plans) and by competent authorities (external emergency plans) and should be tested and regularly updated. These plans should include descriptions of the measures necessary to control accidents and limit their consequences for human health and the environment. As far as this recent occurrence is concerned, viral videos show that residents had recorded for hours before any real emergency response was seen. This could have possibly aggravated the casualty rate of the accident.

Another strong safety consideration and especially for South Sudan is land-use planning considerations and the fact that this should be taken into account both in planning the route for new pipelines for example to limit proximity to populated areas and water catchment areas to the extent possible and in decisions concerning proposals for new developments/construction in the vicinity of existing pipelines. Pipeline operators and the authorities responsible for pipelines should review and, if necessary, develop and implement systems to reduce third-party interference, which is one of the main causes of accidents, including their transboundary effects.

Information on the safety of pipelines, the geographic position of pipelines, safety measures and the required behaviors in the event of an accident should be supplied to persons likely to be involved in case of a pipeline accident. General information should be made available to the public. Regular exchange of information between pipeline operators and authorities regarding good practices, improvement of pipeline safety and past accidents and near-miss cases should be considered. One of the residents of the nearby town mentioned that oil exploration companies should educate local residents about the dangers of making charcoal near oil facilities. He continued and said, “they are not aware; these are people who are doing their normal activities but accidentally the crude oil caught fire. It is not something done intentionally, and even the local residents know the crude oil is very dangerous when it catches fire.”

Recommendation and way forward

In terms of recommendation, South Sudan national legislation, for example, in the development and implementation of emergency plans, should be transparent, enforceable and compatible between the different countries to promote regional cooperation on the protection of pipelines. In addition, South Sudan should set up a system of permits and procedures for land use with public involvement in order to ensure that pipelines are safely planned, constructed, built and operated. We should also ensure adequate surveillance and control.

On the other hand, competent authorities should ensure that in their land-use policies, in particular in relation to protection distance and/or other relevant policies, the aims of avoiding and minimizing the consequences of accidents are taken into account. Such authorities will develop effective consultation processes to promote the implementation of existing policies. The protocols should be designed to ensure that technical information on human security and environmental protection is available, individually or generically, when decisions are taken. Competent authorities should also ensure that their opinions are expressed by the public.

As for pipelines operators, it should be emphasized that pipelines for the transport of hazardous substances should be built, installed, controlled, maintained and monitored to prevent accidents and minimize their consequences. At least in accordance with accepted national and international codes, standards and guidelines, and internationally accepted company specifications, they should design, build and operate pipelines. Operators should also take into account various aspects that could affect the security of a pipeline, such as design and stress, material quality, wall thickness, burial depth, external impact protection, corrosion, signage, path selection, and monitoring. Operators should also consider different aspects. We have to perform risk/risk assessments and choose between various options and to determine unusual circumstances.



The South and North Sudanese petroleum industry have built a doubtful image as a result of repeated violations of health that have caused resource and human damage. A review of available data and research has shown that numerous accidents have replicated the same events and effects, suggesting an inability to learn from past mistakes. The analysis revealed greater frustration because the repeated incidents suggest that safety management systems in South Sudan’s pipeline industry have not been properly implemented and are inadequately applied. The oil companies in Southern Sudan have to conform to internationally accepted requirements such as international API standards. Pipeline Integrity and Management Standards, especially High Impact API Standards, which require more risk analysis and assessment, and API Area Susceptible for Damages by Third Party (vandalism, terrorist attacks, illegal bunkering, robbery, etc.) are the main examples of safety and environmental standards to be followed.

With the assistance of the government of South Sudan, political, cultural and organizational factors that influence an effective security management system in the pipeline industries in South Sudan should be properly addressed since it is a waste of resources if it is not achieved in a coordinated and effective manner. The Government of South Sudan will directly resolve these risks by disciplinary measures and by measuring performance to clearly identifiable benchmarks. More critically, a robust regulatory framework needs to be properly established and enforced with effective regulation and monitoring systems which can help maintain proper safety management systems that are crucial for the future of the entire South Sudanese sector and the oil and gas industries in particular.


Brinkmann, R. (2020). Interconnections in Environmental Sustainability: Water and Energy. In Environmental Sustainability in a Time of Change (pp. 195-216). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Luong, P. V. (2019). Pipeline: The Worst Transportation Method of Oil, Except for All the Rest. Except for All the Rest (August 10, 2019).

El-Dalatony, M. M., Jeon, B. H., Salama, E. S., Eraky, M., Kim, W. B., Wang, J., & Ahn, T. (2019). Occurrence and Characterization of Paraffin Wax Formed in Developing Wells and Pipelines. Energies12(6), 967.

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