Using satellites to monitor oil spills in Ecuador’s Amazon

Photo provided to EOSDA by Alejandra Yépez Jácome. Article written by Vera Petryk, Chief Marketing Officer at EOS Data Analytics who explains how oil spills can be monitored more effectively using new technologies.

For centuries, indigenous people have been living at one with nature in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest — a biodiversity-rich place on our planet. These days, its flora and fauna are being damaged due to oil extraction, and indigenous people’s well-being is threatened.

Using satellites to monitor oil spills in Ecuador’s Amazon

In 2020, the country’s largest oil spill in 15 years happened. Almost two years later, the environmental disaster repeated. EOS Data Analytics talked with indigenous people about the 2020 incident and analyzed satellite imagery of one affected zone to assess the spill’s consequences.

Bad April

On April 7, 2020, OCP, SOTE, and Poliducto Shushufindi-Quito pipelines in the upper part of the Coca river burst after a landslide causing a spill of crude oil and fuel in the San Rafael sector, on the border between the Sucumbíos and Napo provinces. The oil soon washed downstream, polluting the Napo River (the Amazon’s tributary) and even reaching the Peruvian town of Cabo Pantoja.

After the spill: dirty water, toxic land

Native Amazonians living nearby the pipelines and using Coca and Napo river waters for daily needs faced the oil spill consequences immediately.

“The smell was very strong, and when we went to see the river, it was covered with oil. At first, we neither knew what to do nor where to go. The Napo river is our last water source; it’s crucial for people living on its banks,” says René Tapuy, trustee of the Río Indillama commune and a member of the Kichwa nationality.

Oil Spills In The Ecuadorian Amazon: A Never-ending Tragedy | Social Case by EOS Data Analytics

Video: EOS Data Analytics

The spill leaves local communities without clean river water for everyday needs. On top of that, oil pollution negatively impacts the region’s biodiversity.

“Before the spill, several species of fish lived in the river. There is a specific month when the female bocachicos go to the lagoons to lay their eggs. That month, the Kichwa people were happy fishing. There were also fish that came down every 2–3 days. The difference is that there aren’t many fish anymore. Now you can only see a few fish, either dead or skinny,” notes Verónica Grefa, leader of the Kichwa community of Toyuca.

Contaminated indigenous lands overlap the Bajo Napo Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) — home to over 580 species of birds and animals, such as jaguars, zigzag herons, tyrant flycatchers, harpy eagles, lowland tapirs, and Amazon river dolphins. These species are already endangered due to deforestation and poaching for the wildlife trade. Oil spills aggravate the situation.

With around 15,800 barrels of oil spilled, the 2020 spill became the largest in the last 15 years. Alexandra Almeida of the environmental organization Acción Ecológica notes that 360 kilometers of rivers were polluted. According to the October 2020 report, water and soil samples taken on the Coca and Napo river banks had contaminants like hydrocarbons and heavy metals (e.g., vanadium, nickel, and lead).

For instance, one sample contained 191 times more lead than the norm. So, indigenous people from affected areas no longer had access to clean water and food even though the cleanup operations took place.

Satellite monitoring of oil extraction and transportation areas

Satellite-based monitoring of territories where oil fields are located and through which petroleum pipelines go allows learning about the state of infrastructure and the area of interest and timely spotting abnormalities. Based on the analytics results, oil companies and authorities can solve an emerging problem or evaluate the scope of damage to nature.

“Specialists can keep track of erosion-prone areas to know about risks to pipelines’ integrity in advance and take needed actions to avoid incidents. For example, shut down a pipeline and strengthen river banks. Or if the spill did happen, satellite imagery can be used to define the affected areas,” explains Aleksey Kryvobok, Chief Science Officer at EOS Data Analytics.

The scientists downloaded high-resolution images of the San Rafael waterfall area near the Coca river to assess the influence of oil contamination on surrounding flora. The NDVI analysis showed the area had seen a 25% vegetation decline after April 7, 2020. The trees, which held the soil on the shores up to that point, couldn’t grow after exposure to oil products. The green zone of the vegetation had become much smaller due to soil erosion.

Vegetation loss near San Rafael after the spill on April 7, 2020. The first image dates back to October 9, 2017, and the second was taken on December 27, 2021. The red color corresponds to bare soil. Images: EOS Data Analytics

Another incident in 2022 and fight for justice

On January 28, 2022, a new spill occurred in the Piedra Fina sector of the Napo province. This time, some 3,600 barrels of oil flowed into Coca and Napo rivers from the damaged OCP pipeline. The accident was triggered due to a rockslide after heavy rains in the previous hours.

The oil company restarted the pipeline in 11 days, on February 7.

Indigenous communities are fighting for justice until the destruction of the Amazon’s nature stops.

On February 4, 2022, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador made a ruling that gave indigenous people the right to decide on mineral and oil extraction projects that may affect their native lands. The event could set a powerful legal precedent for protecting 23 million acres of indigenous territories. Activists expected the ruling would prevent the country’s President Guillermo Lasso from planning to double oil extraction to 800,000 barrels per day in the next five years. It didn’t. As a result, indigenous people took to the streets, demanding the leadership increase fuel subsidies, prohibit new oil and mining projects, and refrain from privatizing state assets. After more than two weeks of protests, indigenous leaders and Ecuador’s government reached an agreement.

EOS Data Analytics stands with indigenous communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon who have been stewards of the rainforests for centuries. No one can be sure that the future of the rainforest and the human rights of people living there won’t be under threat again due to economic and environmental policies. But there is hope for peaceful dialogue between Ecuadorians and authorities. And confidence in the power of space technologies, such as satellite imagery analytics, that can aid in monitoring areas affected by oil extraction.

Author: Vera Petryk, Chief Marketing Officer at EOS Data Analytics

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