In search of sustainable energy solutions, Uganda faces environmental threats
A flurry of oil and gas discoveries along Uganda’s western border has lured dozens of investors seeking to develop sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil discovery in decades. However, renewed interest in the once-neglected Lake Albertine rift basin is also creating new problems—tilting the region’s energy needs towards fossil fuels, channeled through the world’s longest heated pipeline the East African Crude Oil Pipeline EACOP, which campaigners say is a big threat to the environment.
Multinational companies led by French oil giant Total SA are continuing with plans to build a $3.5 billion pipeline, drawing the ire of environmentalists. A group of at least 30 international and local campaign groups say that the pipeline, which will cross vast marshland and rivers, poses unacceptable risks to water and biodiversity.
The pipeline, which is expected to carry some 200,000 barrels-a-day of crude oil to the Tanzanian port of Tanga will require heating to 50 degrees Celsius because the oil is low in sulfur and will otherwise solidify in the pipe.
It will cross Lake Victoria, one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes, where an oil spill could prove disastrous for over 30 million people that rely on the lake’s watershed for drinking water and food production.
“Although Uganda has relatively low historical greenhouse gas emissions, for many reasons, no new fossil fuel project is justifiable,” said Deborah Ramalope, Head of climate policy at Climate Analytics a non-profit science and policy institute based in Germany. “Investments in fossil fuel have a high risk of locking it in emissions for many years”.
Uganda has attracted some of the largest investments in its oil industry over the past decade, with companies including Total, Tullow Oil and China’s Cnooc Ltd investing more than $ 4 billion in exploration activities that have resulted in the discovery of around 6 billion barrels of crude.
However, local authorities are struggling to contain mounting anger among local campaign groups, who accuse the Government of favoring international investors at the expense of residents, who have for generations inhabited the region.
Local campaigners have launched an online petition with 350.org Don’t finance the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline – 350 and through Bank Track called on international financing institutions to avoid financing the project BankTrack – East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).
Despite promises of compensation and employment, local communities have also expressed their concerns regarding the impact the project will have on their lives as detailed in the recently published Environmental and Social Impact Assessment for Ugandan side of the EACOP. Communities raised numerous concerns over land acquisition and compensation for loss of land, livelihoods, and properties.
Communities affected by the pipeline are already suffering as the project developers placed a cut-off date on their property in 2019, they stopped people from utilizing their land for new developments such as growing of perennial crops, setting up of houses and others. The developers’ actions resulted in the abuse of communities’ economic, cultural, and social rights. Developers denied the accusations.
Relocation and loss of land from the pipeline threaten the employment and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.
A local natural resources officer of Mubende district, Vincent Kinene, fears that the project will interrupt access across villages because crisscrossing the pipeline route is not possible.
“Outside the long-promised jobs and hyped local transformation, there will likely be a spike in land and access related conflicts,” he says.
According to Kinene, the quoted mitigations in the Environmental and Social Impact report are generic and not locality specific. The lack of thoroughness at that stage is an indicator of spills to come.
While the government claims that oil developments will increase energy supply and lower the overall cost of power generation in Uganda, environmentalists are concerned about the colossal impact of oil developments on the environment. They say that since Uganda has a huge capacity of potential renewable energy that can be readily tapped into. So why turn to non-renewable fossil fuels?
“Government’s insistence on developing oil resources is coming at the expense of providing clean, affordable, and reliable energy options such as off grid solar,” says Dickens Kamugisha the executive director at Africa Institute for Energy Governance, a local Non-Governmental Organization spearheading the campaign to stop the project.
Instead of investing resources in off grid energy options that have the potential to meet the energy needs of the poorest, the government is spending money investing in oil, which will not guarantee access to clean, affordable, and reliable power.
Uganda, which has one of the highest population growth rates in the world according to the World Bank, already cannot keep pace with its energy demands.
Once produced, part of the crude oil will be refined in Uganda to supply the local market while the rest will be exported to the international market through the pipeline. The Uganda National Oil Company and the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation will be shareholders in the pipeline which will be developed, constructed and operated by Total E&P Uganda B.V, Tullow Uganda Operations Pty Limited and CNOOC Uganda Limited.
In Uganda, the pipeline covers 296Km and traverses 10 districts, 22 sub-counties, 4 town councils, 41 parishes and an estimated 172 villages.
Robert Magori, Africa Communications Manager at 350.org, says environmentalists consider the pipeline a “disastrous project” because of the threat it poses to the environment, society and the associated economic risks.
“The international scientific community is telling us that the world cannot absorb any new fossil fuel developments if we are to tackle the climate crisis,” he says.
The emissions from burning the oil transported through the pipeline alone are estimated at 33 million tonnes of CO2 per year, according to 350.org.
According to a 2017 report by World Wildlife Fund, the pipeline project overlaps several wildlife habitats including 510 km of African Elephant Habitat, important biodiversity and natural habitats, water resources and marine coastal ecosystems. The pipeline will deliver oil to a port located in an area rich in mangroves and coral reef, as well as adjacent to two ecologically or biologically significant marine areas.
Last month, an oil spill off the coast of Mauritius caused extensive ecological damage when Japanese-owned cargo ship MV Wakashio ran aground on a coral reef, leaking 1,000 tons of oil onto pristine coasts. The spill left a 15-kilometer stretch of the coastline — an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot — smeared with oil causing an ecological emergency.
Proscovia Nabbanja, the chief executive officer of the state oil company, Uganda National Oil Company says that the government plans several initiatives to lessen the impact of the project on the environment.
“Sector players are really working hard to ensure they limit the impact on the environment.” She said, “Total, for example, introduced the cable less technology in the acquisition of seismic data because we are working in a National Park.”