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Uganda’s plan to build a $3.5 billion pipeline for oil exportation has met with stiff resistance from international and local campaign organisations who have written to block the provision of finance for the project. 

The 1,445 kilometres pipeline is proposed to run from fields in the west of Uganda to Tanzania’s Indian Ocean port of Tanga. Transporting about 200,000 barrels per day (bpd) during peak periods in oil production, it will cross the catchment in Lake Victoria made up of rivers and swampland as well as areas in wildlife.

The channel is considered essential in the development of oil reserves in the country particularly as it has been unable to record significant progress since oil reserves estimated to hold six billion barrels in western fields were discovered in 2006. The Ugandan fields are managed by France’s Total, China’s CNOOC and Britan’s Tullow Oil control

However, the project is reportedly risky and could damage local livelihoods, water resources, and wildlife. The potential risk is what led to a group of 30 activist firms petitioning two banks that are responsible for raising the debt to fund the pipeline to abandon the plan. The banks are South Africa’s Standard Bank Group and Japan’s Sumito Mitsui Banking Corporation.

In the petition sent to the banks by Global Witness and 29 other groups from Britain, the United States (U.S.) among others, the group considers the project to “present unacceptable risks to local people through physical displacement and threats to incomes and livelihoods.”

Other implications of the proposed project are risks to water, biodiversity and natural habitats and it also represents a new source of carbon emissions, something the group says the planet can ill afford. While Standard Bank via an email confirmed it had received the letter and was reviewing it, its Japanese counterpart declined to comment when asked by Reuters.

Petition against oil exploration

This is not the first time Uganda will be facing criticism from activists over its oil exploration activities. The latest petition comes on the back of another tendered last month by nearly 50 international and civil society organizations demanding the East African nation, together with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), stop the licensing for oil and gas exploration near the Virunga ecosystem.

Supported by their peers in other African oil economies Nigeria and Gabon, the environmentalists sought to halt the exploration of Ngaji oil block in Uganda and a total of 21 oil blocks in DRC, located in Virunga National Park, Salonga National Park, and Lufira River Basin.

The activists in a letter addressed to President Yoweri Museveni and DRC’s Felix Tshisekedi stated that communities occupying areas near the blocks are at risk if explorations are allowed. “Allowing oil exploration and exploitation activities in these ecosystems will not only negatively affect the biodiversity, but also the communities who depend on this biodiversity for survival,” the petition reads.

Avoiding a familiar crisis

The argument against the Ugandan government’s oil exploration in sensitive areas based on consequential risks finds credence in a similarly controversial case involving Shell Oil Company, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell and the people of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

Communities of the Niger Delta region which had sustained their economy on farming and fishing saw their land taken over by multinational oil companies whose oil prospecting and exploration activities were causing devastating environmental degradation. Several cases of environmental pollution were reported, from leakages of crude oil to gas flaring as well as the escape of other chemicals used in production processes.

A major oil spill in Ogoniland in 1970 saw thousands of gallons being spilt on farmland and rivers, ultimately leading to a £26m fine for Shell in Nigerian courts 30 years later. There were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, according to the Nigerian government. All of these negatively impacted the region’s biodiversity and in retaliation, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) began in the 1990s as a struggle against the exploitation of natural resources in the area.

More so, armed groups began sabotaging pipelines and kidnapping staff members of oil companies in an escalation of opposition to the environmental deterioration and underdevelopment in the Niger Delta, and such militant activities in the region persist till today.

Similar to Ogoniland, Virunga – Africa’s oldest national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most bio-diverse areas on the planet – faces the same negative environmental impacts from oil exploration unless the Ugandan government (in tandem with oil companies) sets up adequate measures for the protection of the environment from oil exploration, which must be made effective in terms of implementation, enforcement, and monitoring by agencies.

This appears to be the plan according to Uganda’s Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Energy, Robert Kasande, who revealed that Kampala was conscious about the sensitivity of the area and that it is making every effort to ensure that environmental degradation is minimised or avoided during exploration.

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