Home Climate Change Conservation vs economic development: Uganda’s delicate balancing act

Conservation vs economic development: Uganda’s delicate balancing act

While conservationists feel stymied in their efforts to protect the environment, the government, on the other hand, feels villainized in its efforts to advance economic development in a country whose economy has for long been in disarray

construction of the EACOP holds immense promise for the economic development of the region
Construction of the EACOP holds immense promise for the economic development of the region

As Uganda ramps up oil infrastructure development in preparation for commercial oil production in 2025, dire messages about the fate of the country’s biodiversity have sparked dichotomous views about advancing economic development and environmental conservation.

While conservationists feel stymied in their efforts to protect the environment, the government, on the other hand, feels villainized in its efforts to advance economic development in a country whose economy has for long been in disarray.

There are some 6.5 billion barrels of crude oil beneath Lake Albert in western Uganda – reserves that are projected to last between 25 to 30 years with peak production of up to 230,000 barrels per day.

These numbers are quite impressive, of course, and the Ugandan government is banking on them to turn around the country’s battered economy and lift millions of Ugandans into upper-middle-income status by 2040.

Huge cost of the environment

However, as the government rides that wave, both local and international conservationists have asserted that oil-driven economic development will come at a huge expense of the environment as it poses big risks to biodiversity and natural habitats.

Uganda’s Albertine region is home to over 500 mammal species, including lions, elephants, leopards, mountain gorillas and hippos – and its exceptional wetlands are home to some endemic bird species, making it an important bird and biodiversity area.

Conservationists have warned that there is a big risk of loss of habitats and biodiversity in the area due to the ongoing development of oil infrastructure, such as the recently constructed road that passes through Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s largest and oldest conservation area.

Early this year, the government also kicked off construction of the Nteko-Buhoma road that connects Kisoro and Kanungu districts and cuts through Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to the endangered mountain gorillas, much to the ire of environmentalists.

But the biggest project – and perhaps the one that has received the most blistering dissent from both local and international climate change activists – is the forthcoming construction of the 1,400-kilometer East African Crude Oil Pipeline (Eacop) that is expected to commence by the end of this year.

The Eacop, which is touted to be the longest electrically heated crude oil pipeline in the world, will transport crude oil from fields in western Uganda to the Tanzanian port of Tanga.

Conservationists worry that if the government continues down its business-as-usual path, we’ll see a worsening climate change crisis, loss of habitats and biodiversity and increasing levels of air pollution.

“We are concerned that natural resources in that area are being depleted at a worrying rate,” said Christine Nakimwero, the Woman Member of Parliament for Kiboga district and Shadow Minister for Water and Environment. “Human development at the expense of natural resources is against the principles of sustainable development because we want to feed the present as well as the future.”

Already, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has translocated some rothschild’s giraffes, an endangered species that number about 1,600 individuals worldwide, from Murchison Falls National Park to a safer environment in Lake Mburo National Park to save them from the environmental impacts of oil drilling activities in the area that could possibly drive them to extinction.

“The purpose of translocating these giraffes is to ensure survival of this endangered species. More translocations will be made in future to Queen Elizabeth National Park and also the southern bank sector of Murchison Falls National Park,” UWA said in a statement.

‘African jobs must come first’

But the government and energy industry players seem to be unstoppable. On August 30, 2021, Cabinet passed the East African Crude Oil Pipeline Special Provisions Bill, signaling the government’s commitment to see the project through.

In its statement after the signing of the agreements to launch the Eacop project, TotalEnergies, one of the contractors, insisted that, “All the partners are committed to implement these projects in an exemplary manner and taking into highest consideration the biodiversity and environmental stakes.”

During the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) first ever virtual Ministerial Roundtable Discussion on Energy, Climate and Sustainable Development held on September 6, 2021, the common ground was that human development should be a priority for Africa since the continent still has low levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

“What all African countries have in common is their low levels of greenhouse gas emissions… A short term priority should be how to harness these resources in a sustainable way,” said Rolake Akinkugbe-Filani, the African Energy Chamber representative.

“Whether Africa embarks on a rapid change to renewables or continues with hydrocarbon development, African jobs must come first. The growth of the industry leads to job creation, and we need to harness the energy sector to work for local development,” she added.

The solution

According to Ms Nakimwero, the government should conduct regular vulnerability analysis to ascertain where to concentrate funds and adaptation and resilience options.

“We are requesting for regular Environmental Impact Assessment reports on activities such as the planned crude oil pipeline,” she said. “We’re also aware that private companies are interested in making profits, but we remind them to always consult with the local leaders because they know what’s best for them.”

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