By Brian Atuheire Batenda
Located in Lake Albert region, the oil fields are in Buliisa and Nwoya Districts. Some facilities will also be located in Masindi and Pakwach Districts. Part of the Project is in the Murchison Falls National Park, an important biodiversity and tourism area South of the Victoria Nile, villages in Ngwedo, Buliisa and Kigwera sub counties and Buliisa Town Council will be directly affected by the Project. For those who might be unaware of where the name Tilenga comes from, ‘Tilenga’ is a combination of the Bunyoro and Acholi names for an antelope Engabi in Bunyoro and Til in Acholi. The name itself shows how this area is gifted in terms of biodiversity.
On Tuesday October 16, 2018, NEMA published a public notice in the media calling for public comments on the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) study undertaken for the Tilenga project. In the public notice, however NEMA did not indicate that it has an obligation to call for a public hearing on the Tilenga ESIA. Under the Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] regulations of 1998, the Executive Director of NEMA is mandated to call for a public hearing where there is controversy or where the project may have transboundary impacts as the Tilenga project case.
The fact that NEMA did not indicate the date for the public hearing which the law says must be held for projects such as the Tilenga is a fundamental gap and it should be a concern of all Ugandans. Public hearings are important to enable poor, local, illiterate, isolated and other vulnerable host communities to participate in decisions that affect their wellbeing and this is key for both the project and host communities.
More to the above, the Tilenga project is located in one of the most biodiverse areas in Africa and is going to affect key forests, rivers and conservation areas which support the most pre-dominant economic activity in the country, agriculture, and on which Ugandans rely to make an income from tourism, fishing, transport and other economic uses.
The fate of the above ecosystems, which serve millions of Ugandan, DRC, South Sudanese, Sudanese and Egyptian citizens to mention but a few, cannot be decided by NEMA without a public hearing as is mandated under Regulation 21(2) of the 1998 EIA regulations. Oil activities on Lake Albert and use of resources such as fisheries from the same lake have caused conflict between Uganda and the DRC. Just this July , the Ugandan and Congolese navies were involved in fighting on the lake and several lives were lost.
The Tilenga oil project, whose activities will include drawing of water from Lake Albert, is bound to increase pressures between the two countries over use of the lake. If the Tilenga project is not well handled, it may worsen conflicts and loss of lives as well as environmental destruction in Uganda and the DRC. It should further be noted that efforts such as signing of agreements including the Uganda-Zaire1990 Agreement, the 2007 Uganda-DRC Ngurdoto Agreement and others have failed to achieve lasting results.
Ugandan citizens including those in the Uganda-DRC border areas must therefore participate in the decision on whether to issue an environmental certificate for the Tilenga project through public hearings because the decision made on the project will affect them. Stakeholders across the borders who are likely to be affected by the Tilenga project must also be consulted.
NEMA should therefore organise public hearings at national and local level with hearings being held in all the Tilenga project host sub-counties of Buliisa and Nwoya and others in Hoima, Masindi and Kampala because the Tilenga project has national, transboundary and international impacts.
The other problem the oil sector faces is that the process of developing and enacting the National Environment Bill has taken over four years yet oil activities are ongoing based on old laws that government recognizes which cannot protect the environment from oil threats.
It is therefore urgent that government completes and enacts the National Environment Bill of 2017, the draft EIA and Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) regulations of 2017, the Uganda Wildlife Bill and others that may be could help in such processes but before that let NEEMA be transparent.
The writer is a Director Research and Policy at the African Initiative on Food Security and Environment