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Why we must preserve environment in the oil region

By Moses Mugwisa
In a country that is landlocked and almost exclusively dependent on agricultural products for its economy, as it progresses gradually to an industrialised economy, any opportunity for economic diversification is exciting.

Oil and gas industry development offers the potential to bring a great amount of wealth into Uganda and could help this country in many ways. Unfortunately this oil and gas resources are majorly in the Albertine Rift, which is one of the most biodiversity hot spot in the world and a basic base for tourism in Uganda, another powerful non-agricultural sector of economy.

Preserving the ecological integrity and tourism value of the Albertine Rift will require that extra care is taken to protect this sensitive and fragile area. There is historical and disastrous record of environmental destruction and human rights violations associated with oil and gas production in developing countries.

The Uganda national oil and gas policy is filled with good intensions to address the environmental concerns, but there are some gaps in specific actions and targets to avoid such negative results.

Drilling in protected area has been allowed without thinking of endangered animal species in the region that can lead to their extinction, if these protected areas are not carefully safeguarded during these oil drilling activities we are likely to have disappearance probably extinction of some vital animal species out of Uganda in next 10 years to come.

However there are a number of interventions that both government and oil and gas companies can offer and implement to mitigate the adverse negative impacts on environment ecosystems and tourism values in the Albertine region.

Those companies in oil industry must be committed to the policy of maximum biodiversity protection (No-Net-Biodiversity-Loss). Oil and gas industry developments affect negatively biodiversity in various activities such as clearing land for infrastructure development, pollution of underground and surface water, creation of new roads where they have never existed, introduction of alien species, changing of landscapes and many more.

The oil companies and government should ensure that they invest in offsetting such negative impacts by creating other wildlife buffer zones, restocking protected areas with native flora and fauna that have been or are likely to be degraded and demarcating preservation areas that will serve as strict nature reserves because of fragile ecosystem services provided.

If ecologically critical land is to be used for oil and gas production other lands providing similar services should be securely protected and this can be approached from watershed management strategy, as ecological functions cannot be entirely outsourced to another part of the country.

Enough area in any of watershed must be protected to avoid compromising the ecological functions.
Infrastructure development should follow all the right procedures without comprise, NEMA should ensure that in this industry development, “The National Environment Act (Cap 153) is enforced to every bit of development in the oil and gas industry development”.

The Act provides for the sustainable management of the environment in the country.

Under this law, it is a requirement that an environmental impact assessment be undertaken by the developer where the lead agency, in consultation with NEMA, is of the view that the project may have an impact on the environment, is likely to have a significant impact on the environment, or will have a significant impact on the environment.

The Act also puts a duty on persons whose activities or the activities of those persons working under their direction, to manage wastes generated in such a manner that does not cause ill health to people or damage the environment.

The Act further puts the duty on such people with such activities, to employ measures for the minimisation of waste through treatment, reclamation and recycling.

Section 58 of this Act provides that no person shall pollute or lead another person to pollute the environment contrary to any of the standards or guidelines prescribed or issued under Part VI (Sections 26 & 27) and VII of the National Environment Statute (NES), 1995.

More to that management plans should be clearly enforced and Regular, effective & efficient monitoring of implementation plans and monitoring measures (Environmental audits) should be a “must” in this industry without compromise in order to avoid disasters like those that happened in Nigeria in 2009 of oil spills by shell company pipelines.

Wildlife buffer zones must be put in place as wildlife populations become more isolated in compromised protected areas.

The most areas of concern are kigezi wildlife Reserve and kibale National Park; another is the north-south wildlife corridors; one of them stretching from Toroko-Semuliki wildlife Reserve in the south to mt. Otzi in the north.

All these corridors are located in within active oil and gas development areas. As a result of fast changing nature of oil and gas industry and the serious ramifications of any spills or other accidents, it is critical to include on-going education in any plan for mitigating impacts on protection, management, conservation and tourism. Communities must be educated both their human and legal rights and how to recognize ecosystem damage and how to manage their ecosystems.

Uganda is at the junction; one route leads to a possibly bright future in which oil and gas development brings an economic boom whereas another route could lead to biodiversity degradation, dried-up wells, degraded soils, polluted water sources as well as low diversified economy due to decreased agricultural and tourism potential.

For more efforts in this field of oil industry all sectors need to collaborate and work together plus communities on the ground so that the route taken manages, protects, preserves and conserves for the next generation to come.

I strongly believe that “together for better for all” for our motherland Uganda and East Africa as a region.