By Maina Waruru

For retired Anglican clergyman, the Reverend Fred Msimenta anticipated negative effects of his country‘s massive oil venture have begun to show early, and they are being manifested right in his backyard.

A few metres from his house in Butimba East village in Kikuube district in Western Uganda region, lies what is his former half an acre trees plantation, which has now been reduced to mere stumps.

He had to cut down the eucalyptus trees and sell them to traders before maturity date to give way to the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project. The parcel of land was identified for compulsory acquisition as it lies right on the 30 metre-wide corridor that will be the pipeline.

He is not alone as similar fate has befallen his neighbours in this fertile farming region where besides coffee, maize, beans, sweet potatoes and a host of other crops, farmers also engage in commercial agroforestry, giving the area a beautiful green cover.

“We do not know how this area will look like in the future after this project disturbs nature. Already trees are being cut down to give way to the pipeline and to open up access roads. Without doubt we will lose a lot of animal habitats, forests and wetlands,” he says.

“There are many fears in people’s minds, a lot of communal land including forests will be taken up by the pipeline and we are really apprehensive over what will happen.”

The massive pipeline will move oil from the East African country’s oilfields in the larger Albertine region eastwards for some 1443 kilometres to the port of Tanga, on the Indian Ocean coast of neighbouring Tanzania for export, Uganda being a landlocked country.

It will be the world ‘s longest electrically heated crude pipeline, with numerous pumping stations along the route to the Tanga terminal, due to what experts say is the ‘waxy’ nature of the crude.

It is partly because of this, that the project will cost the two countries and their partners, China National offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and Total US$3.5 billion.

It’s sheer scale aside EACOP, is just but a part of the “Pearl of Africa’s” huge fossils fuel venture that also includes Tilenga and Kingfisher oil development projects, the latter consisting of six wells located inside biodiversity-rich Murchison Falls National Park. The projects jointly hold an estimated 6 billion barrels of oil reserves, 1.4billion of which is classified as recoverable.

More than 20,000 people including landowners and “land users” will be affected by the whole enterprise, which will include six oil fields and 400 wells in 31 locations under Tilenga alone. Out of these Total claims that no more 10 will be drilled in the wildlife park.

“We hear news of spills in other countries around the world and wonder what would become of our land if the same were to happen here, but when we ask the authorities, they tell us that this will be a sophisticated conduit that can neither leak nor break,” Msimenta says of EACOP.

Like many people here, the community leader expresses concerns for the river Wambavya, and its many tributaries that emanate from one of Uganda’s most notable and natural features-wetlands. In this locality for example is the Ijumagambo wetland, that gives rise to a stream of similar name and which empties into Wambavya. The latter is the most important river in western Uganda.

Any threat to the river, he believes, would jeopardise the Kabalega Electric station, a 9 MW hydropower station constructed along the river.

Wambavya is also critical to the survival of Lake Albert, a trans-boundary resource shared with Democratic Republic Congo, the river being its main inlet to the south and a source of livelihood for thousands of people in both countries.

These fears are however disputed by the country’s oil sector regulator, the Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU), who claims to have put environmental and social measures, to address both direct and indirect impacts of the projects.

“Various Environment and Social Management plans are in place to address any cumulative and or indirect impacts. These also provide for various mitigation measures and environmental safeguards. In addition, continuous sensitisation programmes are undertaken within the communities to mitigate such impacts,” Ernest Rubondo, PAU Executive Director told The Elephant.

Pipes, he alleges will be insulated, and buried to ensure there’s no damage and that Environmental and that Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs) have been undertaken by oil by the companies in consultation with state institutions and communities.Some of the mitigation measures he claimed, will include management of dust and equipment.

“Combustion equipment will be designed to meet national regulations and project standards regarding air quality. The project will also provide for progressive vegetation and habitat restoration as part of efforts to curb emissions,” he claimed.

Total is equally defending itself against claims of possible adverse environmental effects, saying that it will implement actions that “generate a positive net impact on biodiversity”. It adds that it will only use less than one percent of Murchison park land for its activities.

“The route of the EACOP pipeline has been designed to minimise its environmental impact. Careful attention was paid to watercourses, and “horizontal’ drilling will be used for the most sensitive case, ” Total said in a statement.

Environmental groups are however having none of it, insisting that the projects will spell doom for the environment. They will affect or have affected over 30 ‘eco-sensitive’ areas including Murchison, Budongo forest, and the Murchison Falls-Albert Delta Wetland, a critical bird protected under the Ramsar Convention.

“Of major concern is the fact that a third of the EACOP will be constructed in the Lake Victoria basin. This poses immense oil pollution risks yet project developers have failed to provide adequate mitigation measures to address the threats. As a result, court cases have been filed in courts in Uganda, the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) and in France,” said Dickens Kamugisha, CEO of the African Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO),Uganda’s foremost energy policy research and advocacy body.

The three projects of EACOP, Tilenga and Kingfisher will produce over 34.3 million metric tonnes, over 48 million metric tonnes and over 26 million metric tonnes of carbon respectively every year, says Kamugisha.

According to Mohamed Adow CEO of Nairobi-based energy and climate think-tank, Power Shift Africa, economic benefits from oil projects remain largely short-term, when compared to prolonged impacts on Africa’s climate, environment and human health.

Considering Africa’s vulnerability to climate crisis, there’s no reason for continued investment in fossils oil, since there existed an abundance potential for renewable energy of wind, solar and geothermal, he noted.

“The far-reaching environmental impacts, displacements, changes to groundwater and risk to our health cannot be put on the same scale with short-sighted, short-lived economic interests,” he charged.

He adds that it was satisfying to know that banks like Barclays and Credit Suisse had reportedly pulled out of financing EACOP. “Indeed, if more international financial institutions make commitments to prioritise green projects, such initiatives like EACOP will not see the light of day,” he says.

Meanwhile despite the objections the presidents of Uganda and Tanzania on 11 April inked the final agreement for joint venture, paving way for commencement of EACOP as soon as funding is secured. Uganda president Yoweri Museveni and his Tanzania counterpart Samia Suluhu Hassan signed the deal in Kampala, moving the controversial project closer to reality.

Last year groups including the Centre for Food and Adequate Living Rights(CEFROHT), AFIEGO, Natural Justice-Kenya and the Centre for Strategic Litigation Limited, sued the Attorney Generals of Uganda, Tanzania and the regional bloc, East African Community at the East African Court of Justice.