It is with no doubt that the developments in Uganda's oil and gas sector are currently in advanced stages of development that are moving the country towards first commercial oil production. As the country seeks to maximise profits from its commercially viable oil deposits, it is important to ensure that the environment that hosts the oil is conserved.
Whereas progress has been made in the sector, including the formulation of key oil institutions such as Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU) and the National Oil Company (NOC) and all the three oil companies that include, CNOOC, Tullow Oil and Total E&P have been issued with production licenses. In addition to signing a memorandum of understanding with Tanzania on the 1,410 Km export route pipeline, the Environmental Amendment Bill 2014 meant to align the oil sector requirements with environmental conservation efforts has not yet been tabled in Parliament for debate and enactment into law.
It should be noted that oil development, more than most other developments, has the potential to destroy the environment. For instance, the proposed oil refinery alone will require huge amounts of water from Lake Albert and other water bodies. As such, this may stress the water body and affect its aquatic ecosystem as well as the surrounding communities especially those who depend on it for survival.
In the same way, the oil pipelines that will be transporting crude oil from the oil wells to the Central Processing Facility (CPF), to the refinery or the export pipeline itself will cover thousands of distances on land, crossing lakes, rivers, swamps, protected areas, wetlands, agricultural land and others. The development of these infrastructures will have grave impacts including causing water and food insecurity if not well handled.
It is clear that the current environmental laws and regulations of 1995 and 1998 respectively do not adequately accommodate the oil sector and as such require alignment with the volatile and unique challenges of oil production such as dealing with the social and environmental impacts of the industry.
Without effective laws, oil exploitation will damage our ecosystems such as rivers, lakes, protected areas, agricultural land and others, which are of significant importance to both human survival and economic development.
It should be noted that Uganda’s oil is located in ecologically delicate areas including Murchison Falls, Lake Albert, River Nile, among others, which are also transboundary resources and for that reason, we need strong environmental laws, policies and systems before commencement of oil production in this fragile ecosystem.
It is necessary for the Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) to work with her sister institutions, especially National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), to urgently table the Environmental Amendment Bill 2014 to Parliament for debate and enactment into law to enable the country balance its oil exploitation with environmental conservation needs for the benefit of all citizens.
The writer is an environmentalist and programmes and research coordinator at the Africa Institute for Energy Governance