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Oil Exploration, Mining Threaten Lake Malawi

Locals and Environmentalists Fear Drilling Will Impact African Nation’s “Inland Sea,” Destroy Livelihoods

Malawi is a landlocked country but it has a precious “inland sea” — Lake Malawi — a vast and deep body of freshwater that’s part of Africa’s Western Rift Valley system. Three hundred and sixty five miles long and 52 miles broad, this great lake’s waters are thought to be home to more tropical fish species than found in any other freshwater body on Earth, including over 1,000 species of colorful cichlids of which at least 395 are endemic to the lake.

Photo by Yoni Lerner Over a million Malawians rely on this vast body of freshwater for water, electricity, irrigation, and most
importantly, fish. Last October, the Malawi government granted British firm Surestream Petroleum two
licenses to explore for oil and gas in the lake.

Because of its rich fish population, the lake plays an important part in Malawi’s economy. (The largest portion of the lake is in Malawi but parts of it also lie in Mozambique and Tanzania) Over a million Malawians rely on the lake for water, electricity, irrigation, and most importantly, fish.  The lake is also a key tourist attraction.

Pollution and overfishing have long been threatening this valuable resource but now a new threat is imminent — oil and mineral exploration. A uranium mine is already operating on the western shores of Lake Malawi and just last October, the Malawi government granted British firm Surestream Petroleum two licenses to explore for oil and gas in the lake, which is said to have unconfirmed oil deposits.

Malawi’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, and for many years tobacco has been the country’s main revenue earner. (Until 2008 the tobacco industry was bringing in about $950 million annually — 60 percent of the country’s foreign exchange revenue). But the current global economic crisis coupled with a strong worldwide anti-smoking campaign has led to a serious drop in crop prices and caused huge losses for smallholder tobacco farmers and commercial companies.

Desperate for alternative sources of foreign exchange, Malawi has, in the past few years, begun looking at mining and oil exploration. New mining projects in the country include uranium extraction — Australian multinational, Paladin Energy is already mining in Karonga, a district by the western shore of Lake Malawi; rare earth metal exploration — the government has granted five exploration licenses in the past three years; and now, oil exploration in Lake Malawi itself.

President Bingu wa Mutharika believes oil extraction and metals mining would solve the country’s fuel shortage problems and help it tide over the current economic crisis in Malawi. But the spate of prospecting licenses been given out by the government isn’t sitting too well with local environmentalists and fishermen. They worry that local communities, especially fishing communities, will lose out because the projects, especially the ones close to or in Lake Malawi, would impact the lake’s ecosystem and affect fish populations.

“Many people rely on these natural resources for their survival and protecting [the resources] will help them improve on their lives,” says Sam Kamoto of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi. There’s also concern that the mining companies and government are being “secretive” and withholding critical information about possible environmental impacts. “Some people say uranium dust and other wastes are dumped in our rivers but there is no information... We need to know the dangers we will be subjected to,” say Jonas Manjanja, a fisherman from Karonga where Paladin Energy is mining for uranium.

Surestream Petroleum has been quick to claim that its operations won’t damage Lake Malawi. The exploration “will involve local biologists, scientists, zoologists and petroleum geologists, international and local independent economists who will carry out the EIA,” company general Manager for Malawi Keith Robinson said in January. But his assurance has failed to convince most environmentalists, including some within the government itself.

Drilling in the lake will not only damage eco-tourism but also the marine environment, says the country’s tourism director, Isaac Katopola. He pointed out that Sunstream’s operations would affect the districts of Karonga, Rumphi and Nkhata Bay — all fishing regions — and would endanger the social and economic lives of millions of people. Katopola expressed regret at the venture would deny local communities their livelihoods.

“The problem we have in Malawi is that law enforcement is a problem and this is the reason why environmental problems are on the increase,” says Reginald Mumba of Rehabilitation of the Environment, a local environmental nonprofit. “If we can only empower the local communities to manage their resources then they will benefit. But in this situation the communities have no say and the politicians just impose issues on them.”

Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist and writer based in Malawi's capital Lilongwe. He is author of the book "Environment: What Make it News?" and winner of several international environmental journalism awards.

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Comments

Find independent suitable environmental impact management plan for the fish, and show how the mineral revenue will improve the lives of local communities.
  After countless years of poverty in Malawi the oil and gas plan should be forced to work by all means possible to improve the economy.

By Leonard Mhone on Thu, January 02, 2014 at 1:22 am

Go ahead with the exploration work and bring the results to the public once accepted drilling will commence.Before the Drilling the areas where the wells may be found should be fully developed economically,socially and politically.Otherwise we will not accept.We have learnt a lesson from Kayerekera in KARONGA district.But the biggest and largest deposits is at Usisya in Nkhata-Bay you can not deny this fact.

By Francis M. Kamanga on Wed, November 21, 2012 at 2:09 am

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