NO! To oil drilling on Lake Malawi, Africa’s Third Largest Lake


BY Jones Ntaukira
For centuries European explorers had speculated about the existence of a great lake in Central Africa. Returning travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries offered descriptions of the lake they had heard about with some even claiming to have seen it. This is a story of the Calendar Lake because it is 365km long and 52 km wide just like a lunar year has 365 days and 52 weeks! After some other explorers claimed to have ‘seen’ the lake years before…it was Dr David Livingstone who ‘discovered’ Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi) in 1856. Livingstone nicknamed this mass of water as the ‘Lake of Stars’ because of its glittering surface at night from the lanterns of fishermen at night that appeared like stars in the sky. This continues to be the case up to now!

Lake Malawi is an African Great Rift Valley Lake and the southernmost lake in the East African Rift system. It has one outlet, the Shire River that takes the water to Zambezi River in Mozambique which then drains into the Indian Ocean. This lake, the third largest in Africa and the eighth largest lake in the world, is located between Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania with 80% of it in Malawi. It is the second deepest lake in Africa and its tropical waters are reportedly the habitat of more species of fish than those of any other body of freshwater on Earth, including more than 1000 species of cichlids. This lake is home to Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site claimed in 1980. The Park encompasses the Nankumba Peninsula and several of the offshore islands. This is the magnificent Cape Maclear where a succession of sandy bays is interspersed with hills and rocky outcrops, which rise steeply from crystal, clear waters. According to an article on when at the reserve ‘the cries of fish eagles, fishermen in dugouts silhouetted against the evening skies, and the warm, sleepy atmosphere, make it impossible not to relax.’ This little background about Lake Malawi makes it one of the few remaining best places to go for holidaying in Africa. Plus the fact that the lake is found in the Warm Heart of Africa- a very peaceful country that has known no war and is ranked the most peaceful country in Africa.

Oil was discovered long time ago in the 1980s but the then President Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi refused exploration and drilling of oil on the lake to protect this national treasure. Not to mention that over 30% of people directly rely on the lake and it is its waters that run the main Hydro Power plants in this land locked country. In an effort to protect one of the largest and most bio-diverse freshwater lakes in the world, on June 10, 2011 the Government of Mozambique officially declared Lake Malawi a reserve. However, despite efforts by his predecessors and neighbouring countries, 3-4 years ago the then President late Bingu wa Mutharika allowed the exploration of oil on the lake. He went ahead giving a British company licence to explore the lake for oil and consequent drilling of oil on the lake. The current president Joyce Banda has been silent on the issue but it is certain that the drilling of oil on the lake will go ahead because she was part of the government of Mutharika that started the process in her capacity as a Foreign Minister.

Personally, I feel drilling of oil on Lake Malawi, simply MUST not continue. The problems that might arise due to drilling of oil on Lake Malawi surpass the benefits. In our time when environmental protection is given such importance, offshore oil drilling is taking quite a lot of flak. One of the major concerns is oil spills and a prime example of this is the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Oil spills of varying severity occur literally in every aspect and every phase of drilling. But the major threat comes from oil being transported. These spills pollute the water with poisons, which seeps into the land, and potentially disrupts the larger ecology and the food chain. People in Alaska and the world whole saw the awful images of petroleum coating the feathers of birds, making it near impossible for them to fly. This is a situation we do not want to see in Malawi. Do we?

Another major hazard that occurs due to all this is the damage to the ecosystem. The infrastructure for drilling oil is so large –from oil rigs to roads and tankers and pipeline jobs – it affects everything in its path. Airstrips are a big problem for birds. The constant landing and taking off of planes creates problems for reproduction and a loss of their habitat. You might want to be reminded that Lake Malawi National Park was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site also because of its diversity in birds. It is the best place for bird watching in the World. A lot of building and construction is undertaken to create more energy and all this too creates havoc for the nearby flora and fauna.

What (ever) happened to PP15 in Malawi?

Now this is where as Malawians and indeed the international community must come together and reason together to stop such a destructive operation. To start with, Malawi is a signatory to the Rio Declaration of 1992 which established a number of principles for conserving the environment especially the global commons like Lake Malawi. Let’s take look at principle 15 for example also known as the Precautionary Principle (PP15). The principle states that ‘In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’

For the laymen like myself, what this principle entails is that concrete scientific evidence should not be an essential precursor to taking action against a potential environmental threat; instead, the onus should be on science to prove that the threat does not exist. If the lack of a threat cannot be established just like what we are being told in case of Lake Malawi, the government and the indeed the international community MUST be obliged to assume that a potential threat does exist. Doing this is respecting human rights, because those people who rely on Lake Malawi ecosystems for their quality of life should have it protected by default as a basic inalienable human right. Inability to provide scientific evidence that a life-supporting habitat is at risk should not invalidate a community’s right to have their livelihoods protected.

Today, the technology used for drilling by energy companies like Shell Oil has come a long way. They have improved the way they deal with the environmental fall out and are working to reduce oil spills as well. Although there is now a new method of drilling oil which is horizontal drilling which basically rules out having to have oil rigs potential environmental problems still exist. As a nation we need to do something to stop this ECOCIDE of Lake Malawi and I call upon the international community to intervene, lest we are going to repeat the Alaska tragedy only that now it is going to happen in Malawi a poor country that cannot even cope with such a costly manmade disaster.

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