Promising solution for Malawi’s fuel crisis or disaster for Lake Malawi’s ecosystem?
Last year in October the Malawian government made an announcement public wherein it asked international oil drilling companies to apply for exploring licenses for the suspected sizeable quantities of hydrocarbons in Lake Malawi and the Shire-River-Basin. While there were two big companies following this announcement, Surestream Petroleum Limited and Simkara, Malawian minister of energy Goodall Gondwe said on Monday, 3 October 2011, the government had awarded oil exploration licenses to the UK-based company Surestream Petroleum Limited.
Surestream Petroleum Limited is currently already present in two other African countries. In Lake Tanganyika, Republic of Burundi (see map), and western regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo the firm already received licenses for exploring the local oil resources.
Additionally to those projects, the company now also received licenses for a large region in northern Lake Malawi. The two licensed blocks extend over a combined area of 20.000 km2.
Experts, governmental officials and environmentalists actually discuss to which extend such oil exploring projects will have a positive or negative impact on Malawi as well as on the environment and the tourism along the Lakeshore. According to Reuters William Chadza, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy said:
New investment in the mining (sector) has ignored environmental issues like in the case of the uranium mine … we fear that the same will be the case in this venture!
While the main touristic spots are basically located more in the central and southern Lakeshores, the ecosystem and the importance of fisheries for local communities are highly important everywhere along the Lake, also in the northern parts. In 2005 the FAO still expected 50.000 fishers to be directly employed and about 350.000 Malawians were benefiting indirectly from the fishery-sector. If an oil production would really affect the ecosystems of Lake Malawi the large abundance of fish species as well as the subsistence of many local families and communities would be in danger. Their basis of livelihood could be destroyed and lead into a social disaster.
To allay the fears of such expected impacts on ecosystems, Malawian minister for energy and mining Goodall Gondwe told Reuters:
We engaged Surestream Petroleum to do some exploration on the lake and we expect them to do a thorough environmental impact assessment before they can go any further.
Moreover Chief executive officer of SureStream Petroleum Limited, Chris Pitman said after signing the agreement:
We will immediately start our investment programme commencing with a large environmental assessmen.
All in all it remains to be seen how an oil exploring venture in Lake Malawi will develop. It is not automatically true that such a venture will have bad impacts on the country and its environment. Quite the opposite could be the case: Exploring oil in Malawi could also affect the current fuel crisis in Malawi and could lead out of that difficult situation. On the other hand it is questionable if environmental standards and security issues will really be taken into serious account.