Okavango, Murchison Falls: Big Oil closing in on two iconic African Edens, flags report

The Okavango delta and Murchison Falls are home to iconic African wildlife species and are the homeland of indigenous people like the San

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 09 December 2022
The Okavango delta is home to Africa’s Big Five wildlife species: Savanna elephants, Cape buffaloes, rhinos, lions and leopards. Photo: iStock

Oil companies are threatening two of Africa’s most iconic biodiversity hotspots in an effort to drill for oil that will ultimately make its way to a global elite and won’t benefit Africans, a recent report by a German non-profit has highlighted.

The Okavango delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Africa and Murchison Falls, Uganda’s oldest and largest national park, are home to iconic African wildlife species. The delta is also the homeland of indigenous people like the San.

The impact of the oil exploration projects being pursued in both locations could ring the death-knell for wildlife and render communities living there homeless.

Who is Financing Fossil Fuel Expansion in Africa? was released by Urgewald in November 2022.

Deaths of Edens

The Okavango delta is formed by the Okavango river, which originates in the highlands of Angola. It flows into the Kalahari desert of southern Africa and spreads out, forming what is called a ‘fan’.

The Okavango’s waters make the otherwise dry area a waterlogged wetland that provides vital water resources for animals, plants and over one million people, the document noted.

Read Anglican clergy joins efforts to stop oil drilling in the Kavango

But all that is now under threat. ReconAfrica, a Canadian company, has been drilling for oil in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Nature Conservation Area (KAZA).

KAZA is the second-largest nature and landscape conservation area in the world. It is spread across the borders of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The report said ReconAfrica “moved into conservation areas, cleared forests and drilled wells without the knowledge or approval of local communities. In the rare cases where ReconAfrica provided information, it did so only in English, not in people’s native language”.

The delta is home to Africa’s Big Five wildlife species: Savanna elephants, Cape buffaloes, rhinos, lions and leopards. There are also giraffes, zebras, antelopes, pangolins, 400 bird species and over 1,000 plant species.

More than 200,000 people live in the area that falls under ReconAfrica’s exploration licenses.

Drilling for oil will destroy this Eden forever, according to the report:

Drill rigs, connecting pipelines, pumping stations and access roads would fragment the region, disrupt hunting territories and obstruct migration routes. Income from tourism will dwindle as tourists will not want to visit an industrialised oil landscape.

In the worst case, an oil spill could pollute the Okavango River and ultimately also the Okavango delta. Add to that noise, infrastructure construction, toxic chemicals and oil spills

Environmental activists and US investors have taken ReconAfrica to court for its activities in KAZA. But the company has not stopped. In 2020, it announced plans to undertake fracking in KAZA. It was compelled to revoke this after a huge backlash.

The Urgewald report said UNESCO will now take a look at the potential impacts of oil and gas exploration in the Okavango delta. Meanwhile, ReconAfrica is drilling exploration wells in Namibia.

Like the Okavango, Murchison Falls too is in grave danger.

It is situated on the northern shore of Lake Albert, one of the Rift Valley Great Lakes that lies on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“The Victoria Nile flows through the park and elephants, hippos, Nile crocodiles, buffaloes and marabou storks can regularly be seen on its banks. All in all, this natural refuge harbours 556 bird species and 188 mammal species,” the report said.

Read The Greenwashers: Big Oil’s words and actions on climate emergency do not match, says study

But the future of the park and the wider region are under threat since oil fields were discovered in the area around Lake Albert, it added.

Now, French oil giant TotalEnergies and China’s National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) plan to exploit one billion barrels of crude oil from the Tilenga oil field at the northern tip of Lake Albert and the Kingfisher oil field at the southern end of the lake.

This will be transported by means of feeder pipelines to a central processing facility and then to the neighbouring district of Hoima, where the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) would begin.

The 1,443 km long pipeline will transport the crude through Uganda and Tanzania to the Indian Ocean Port of Tanga.

The whole project “would cut through the habitats of chimpanzees, lions, zebras, elephants and migratory birds. Once the pipeline reaches the Tanzanian coast, oil tankers would steer through mangrove swamps and coral reefs to export the oil,” the report warned.

The pipeline will also run through 178 villages in Uganda and 231 villages in Tanzania. “All in all, TotalEnergies’ and CNOOC’s project will force more than 100,000 people off their lands,” according to the report.

The Okavango and Murchison Falls are just two of the several oil exploration and extraction projects going on in Africa at the moment.

“In 48 out of 55 African nations, oil, gas and coal companies are either exploring or developing new fossil reserves, building new fossil infrastructure such as pipelines or liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals or developing new gas- and coal fired power plants,” it said.

The document added that Africa and its people deserved the clean renewable energy sources of the future, instead of the dirty, polluting energy sources of the past.

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