With less than a month before government stops receiving bids for the next round of oil licensing, pressure against the Ngaji block is mounting, writes EDWARD SSEKIKA.
Pressure is mounting over Uganda’s plans to allow companies to drill oil in an environmentally-sensitive area around Lake Edward, with arguments that such activities in the Ngaji block could disrupt the ecosystem around the highly-acclaimed Virunga national park.
Kishore Rao, the director at the World Heritage Center of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), last year wrote to the ambassador, permanent delegation of Uganda to Unesco, expressing worry that oil drilling around Lake Edward is likely to destroy the fragile ecosystem that crosses into the DR Congo.
“I would like to recall that Virunga national park is a world heritage property and also a Ramsar site, inscribed on the list of wetlands of international importance.
This site is situated in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and managed by the state party of DRC. Nevertheless, the statement of outstanding universal values of the property refers on several occasions to the importance of Lake Edward and its flood plains. Therefore, the potential oil drilling could become a transboundary issue,” the letter dated, August, 25, 2015 reads in part.
“We would like to draw your attention to the fact that the World Heritage Committee has adopted a clear position that the oil exploration or exploitation is incompatible with World Heritage status, which is supported by the commitments made by industry leaders such as Shell and Total not to undertake such activities within world heritage properties,” the letter added.
Last year, government announced the first competitive round of licensing with six oil blocks up for grabs. One of the six blocks is the Ngaji block, which is located near Queen Elizabeth national park, and forms part of the wider Virunga national park.
Other blocks lined up for the next licensing round include: Mvule (Moyo and Yumbe districts), Taitai and Karuka (Buliisa), Ngassa (Hoima), Turaco (Ntoroko) and Kanywataba (Ntoroko district).
In addition to Unesco, a group of local and international civil society organisations want government to place a moratorium on the licensing of the Ngaji oil block. However, Yusuf Bukenya Matovu, the ministry of Energy and Mineral Development spokesperson, says despite the opposition, government will not back away from the Ngaji.
“Government of Uganda is simply looking for its wealth, even if Ngaji block is in the Virunga ecosystem, it is a distance from the Virunga park; so, there is no reason to withdraw it from this licensing round,” he said.
In December last year, the European Union Parliament passed a resolution calling on the government of the DR Congo to cease oil exploration in the park. The Virunga national park is Africa’s oldest, with a wide diversity of habitants and biodiversity. The few mountain gorrillas left in the world use the Virunga as their sanctuary.
In Uganda, Queen Elizabeth national park is responsible for a third of all tourist visits to the country. However, local and international civil society groups warn that tourist numbers could drop should oil drilling commence in the area.
Also, civil society organisations say there is an estimated 200,000 fishermen and local people who depend on Lake Edward for their livelihoods.
“Any oil activities in this area could lead to significant damage on the lake, the broader ecosystem and people and animals that depend on it. This could include adverse impacts from drilling, road construction, increased population, or water pollution,” the statement reads.
Bukenya Matovu, however, said he did not see the fuss surrounding the Ngaji. He explained that the country has explored oil in other fragile ecosystems such as Murchison Falls national park, Semuliki national park and Kabwoya wildlife reserve, and that the ecosystems there hadn’t been destroyed.