UNESCO examines potential impact of oil exploration in Lake Malawi National Park amid unresolved border dispute

Disputed border of Lake Malawi (Courtesy of Tanzanian Affairs )

Disputed border of Lake Malawi (Courtesy of Tanzanian Affairs)

Malawians and Tanzanians have been waiting for many months for a decision on the boundaries of Lake Malawi (or Lake Nyasa as the body of water is called in Tanzania). The Lake is sitting on potentially lucrative oil reserves. As Malawi recently elected a new president, Peter Mutharika, in the country’s first tripartite elections, Tanzanians are beginning to wonder if his approach will be different to his predecessor’s, Joyce Banda.

Mutharika asserted a couple of weeks ago that although Malawi will not go to war with Tanzania, the Lake has been Malawi’s for 104 years. In his address to the press following the US-Africa Leaders Summit, he explained,

The law is very clear, I think there is very little room for negotiations on the issue of the lake, but I think we will find a way to settle this out with Tanzania.

During the US-Africa Leaders Summit, Mutharika met with Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Georgetown, Washington DC. He invited Kikwete to Malawi,

As you know, Tanzania is my second home, and I left the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), even before President Kikwete joined the university as a student in the early 1970s.

We are all brothers, we are one people. We have close relationships stretching many years, and our tribes are located on each side of the lake.

I want you to come to my country just to rest and enjoy Lake Malawi weather and we taste different fish together. We have good tasty fish found in the lake.

Kikwete has also recently committed to a peaceful resolution of the dispute,

It is possible to get a solution over the issue of boundary on the Lake without engaging in wars. Tanzania does not see the need of war.

The Malawian government divided the area for oil exploration into six blocks, three cover the lake and the remainder are on land in the north and south of the country along the Rift Valley. Six exclusive prospecting licences (EPLs) have already been awarded to: Block 1 to SacOil, Block 2 and 3 to Surestream Petroleum, Block 4 and 5 to RAK Gas and Block 6 to Pacific Oil & Gas.

Civil society has raised concerns about the impacts of oil exploration and the absence of a suitable legislative and regulatory framework for governing oil extraction (cf. Lake Gate and this recent Open Letter to the President on oil exploration).

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Centre has also responded to the government’s decision to award an EPL in an world heritage area (to RAK Gas) and to the progress Surestream Petroleum has made in preparing its Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) to begin surveying work as part of the concession awarded by government in 2011.

Lake Malawi was added to the World Heritage List thirty years ago due to “its exceptional natural beauty”, “its outstanding example of biological evolution” and “the outstanding diversity of the fresh water fishes it hosts”. The Lake Malawi National Park covers an area of 9410 hectares (total land area: 8,710 hectares; total aquatic zone: 700 hectares) in Mangochi and Salima districts and includes a number of small islands. This represents only 0.02% of the lake’s surface area.

From 30 March to 4 April 2014, UNESCO’s Marc Patry and International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Dr Peter Howard led a reactive monitoring mission to the Lake Malawi National Park (read the Mission Report). Malawi was requested to invite this mission during the 37th session of World Heritage Committee,

The objective of the monitoring mission was to review the state of conservation of the property, in particular the potential impacts of oil exploration on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of Lake Malawi, as well as other potential threats and concerns related to the integrity of the property. (Page 8)

Reactive Monitoring Mission to Lake Malawi National Park (Malawi) - 30 March to 4 April 2014  (Mission Report available here)

Reactive Monitoring Mission to Lake Malawi National Park (Malawi) - 30 March to 4 April 2014 (Mission Report available here)

The mission emphasised the importance of ensuring RAK Gas refrains from exercising its prospecting rights over the World Heritage Site and that both companies follow the example of industry leaders Shell and Total not to explore or exploit oil or gas in World Heritage properties.

Since the property size covering the lake surface area is so small, the mission considered that

  1. there is a need to establish a wide buffer zone around the property to protect it from major threats such as oil exploitation and
  2. there is clearly scope for extension of the property to include a more fully representative sample of the lake’s unique species, biodiversity and evolutionary processes.

This may require the involvement of Mozambique and Tanzania which share the lake’s shoreline.

The following recommendations were those made in respect of oil exploration and strengthening protection and management of the site:

  • Complete the ESIA process for the initial exploration phase of the two oil concessions, including a specific assessment of impacts on the OUV of the property in conformity with IUCN’s World Heritage Advice Note on Environmental Assessment
  • Adjust the oil exploration permit awarded to RAK Gas, to ensure that the property is fully excluded from the permit, in line with the World Heritage Committee’s established position that oil and gas exploration and exploitation are incompatible with World Heritage status;
  • Enhance stakeholder involvement and transparency in all aspects of the oil development programme, and improve inter-ministerial and inter-departmental consultation and communication;
  • Surestream and RAK Gas, as holders of oil exploration concessions in parts of Lake Malawi are encouraged to publicly subscribe to the commitment already made by industry leaders Shell and Total not to undertake any exploration and/or exploitation of oil and gas inside World Heritage properties;
  • Define a wide buffer zone (e.g. 50 kilometres) around the property within which oil exploitation would not be permitted; and
  • Ensure that management is financed and supported at a level commensurate with the area’s global significance, mobilising support from the international community as necessary.

During the mission, the team also examined the impact of human populations, land degradation, overfishing, tourism infrastructure and pollution on the property along with the current enforcement of protection measures, and the risk of an introduction of non-native fish species.

It is important to note that Malawi is not a signatory to the International Maritime Organization’s Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness Response and Co-operation, whose parties are required to establish measures for dealing with pollution incidents, either nationally or in co-operation with other countries. Nor is Malawi a signatory to the Convention on the protection and use of trans-boundary watercourses and international lakes. This convention is intended to strengthen national measures for the protection and ecologically sound management of trans-boundary surface waters. (Page 10)

While the gaze of media is largely fixed on the ongoing dispute between Tanzania and Malawi, the livelihoods and experiences of lakeshore communities and the “Outstanding Universal Value” of the lake, to borrow UNESCO’s terminology, must not be neglected.

7 responses to “UNESCO examines potential impact of oil exploration in Lake Malawi National Park amid unresolved border dispute

  1. Thanks Rachel for sharing with me the post. I will use information from the report for an article. Kind regards, Marcel

    Date: Tue, 19 Aug 2014 14:10:51 +0000 To: [email protected]

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