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Eyes on East Africa over Uganda's heated oil pipeline

If constructed, the heated pipeline will run along Lake Victoria for 460km. [iStockphoto]

Lake Victoria is in grave danger as Uganda’s heated oil pipeline project inches closer to a start. Up to 6.5 billion barrels of oil reserves have been discovered in the Lake Albert basin on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Of these, at least 1.7 billion barrels are projected to be recoverable, and commercially viable. As a result, a plan to construct a 1,443km long heated pipeline to transport the oil from the Tilenga and Kingfisher fields on the shores of Lake Albert in Uganda, to the port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean coast in Tanzania, are underway.

The East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project, which is expected to extract oil from the more than 400 wells in Uganda, recently applied to the Ugandan government for a licence to start construction. 

However, several voices have come up to oppose the project, saying it will hurt East Africa more than it will uplift its economy, as promised by EACOP proponents and the stakeholders. Omar Elmawi, the Stop EACOP Campaign Coordinator, says the project will only further the interests of corporates and not residents of Uganda and Tanzania.

“This is a corporate colonialist project that exploits resources in Tanzania and Uganda for international markets and takes most, if not all, the profits as Ugandans and Tanzanians are left to suffer the impacts to their people, nature and climate,” Omar told The Standard.

The partners in the EACOP project include TotalEnergies, with 62 per cent stake; China National Offshore Oil Corporation (8 per cent); Uganda National Pipeline Company (15 per cent) and Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation with 15 per cent.

Over and above the exploitation that Elmawi complains about, he says the project poses a grave danger to Lake Victoria – which is shared by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – and the biodiversity around it.

According to Map for Environment, an estimated 40 million people depend on the water and food resources of Lake Victoria, and would be exposed to the pipeline risk through potential oil spills. “You have seen oil spills in other places in Africa and the effects they had on the people. That’s what EACOP wants to expose our people to,” says Elmawi.

Fishermen at work in Lake Victoria. [Titus Munala, Standard]

In 2019, giant oil company, Shell, was ordered to pay communities affected by an oil spill in the Niger Delta, Nigeria, $2 billion in damages.

In the last decade, there have been thousands of oil spills in the Niger Delta. In just three days in October 2004, about 23,000 litres of crude oil spilled from a poorly maintained pipeline in Goi, burning nearly 40 acres of mangrove forest and poisoning the land and fishponds that were the lifeblood of the village.

By 2010, six years after the initial leak, the village was still too polluted to sustain its residents. The Nigerian government ordered them to abandon their homes and permanently evacuate Goi.

Elmawi cites some of the above cases, pointing out the disruptions they caused the affected communities, including loss of livelihoods, biodiversity loss, disruption of social lives and other resultant issues.

If constructed, the heated pipeline will run along Lake Victoria for 460km, pointing to the devastating effect the project promises to the population around the largest freshwater lake in Africa should there be disaster similar to that in Niger Delta.

The lake is already choking from pollution caused by waste, especially plastic, dumped in there daily.

Other than Lake Victoria, the main oil extraction sites and the planned pipeline, which is expected to transport up to 216,000 barrels of crude oil daily, are situated in the headwaters of Africa’s main basins of the Nile and Congo rivers. This puts these two important rivers at a similar risk faced by Lake Victoria.

In Tanzania, the pipeline is to run through various protected areas and forest reserves, including 32km of the Wembere Steppe, a key biodiversity area that hosts a diverse plant and animal species, including lions, buffalos, impalas, hippos, giraffes, zebras, roan antelopes, sitatungas, sables, and the red colobus monkey.

“Oil extraction would take place within the Murchison Falls-Albert Delta Ramsar wetland system, which plays an important role for wildlife in the National Park and is a spawning ground for endemic fish species,” says Map for Environment on its website.

The EACOP has defended the project, saying it will uplift the economies of Uganda and Tanzania by directly injecting into them up to $3.5 billion investment capital. The investment is associated with the construction and operation of the pipeline, which it says will increase the two countries’ foreign direct investment (FDI) by more than 60 per cent during the construction phase.

The project stakeholders have also promised to create thousands of jobs throughout the pipeline route.

Turtle covered in crude oil. [iStockphoto]

“The pipeline will create short-term (2 to 3 years) employment for both highly skilled and semi-skilled professionals, and casual labourers. It is expected that casual workers who will be involved in the construction phase of the project will be sourced locally from each district, thus promoting the development of local capacity to develop other pipeline projects in the region,” EACOP says on its website.

But it is the determination by the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments to have the project start despite its opposition that is raising eyebrows.

Baraka Lenga, the GreenFaith International Coordinator in Tanzania, says the compensation announced by the government is not commensurate to the value of land in which the pipeline will run. “Besides, the assessment was done in 2018 and four years later, 99 per cent of the landowners have not been compensated, yet they have been told to grow only seasonal crops now,” says Lenga.

Lenga and Elmawi are united in their call that the project should not be allowed to proceed at a time the rest of the world is discouraging investment in fossil fuels. 

TotalEnergies says it plans to consider “land acquisition programme compliant with the highest international standards”, “close attention to the rights of the communities concerned”, “projects consistent with our environmental commitments” and “producing a positive impact on biodiversity”, opponents say this cannot be guaranteed.

Meryne Warah, a Global Director of Organising at the GreenFaith, recently told KTN in an interview that the resource curse has always accompanied poor communities living in areas where crude oil prospects are. “The oil is protected with arms, the communities are never really adequately compensated, especially considering the disruptions that come with the displacements and the rates offered for the land to be taken from the communities along the pipeline,” she said.

The EACOP opponents celebrate a win in their strategy to dissuade potential financiers of the project, which needs a $3 billion project loan besides insurance.

“So far, 20 banks, eight insurers and four export credit agencies have decided not to give project financing for the pipeline after seeing being involved in it is an injustice,” he says.

If the project succeeds, East Africa will boast of harbouring the longest heated pipeline in the world. But at what cost?

Experts say heated oil will emit up to 34 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere daily, 30 times more than what Uganda and Tanzania emit today. “This will increase Africa’s carbon footprints at a time the world is focused on Net-Zero. The project must not be allowed to proceed,” says Warah.