Oil Is Here, So Is Climate Change: What Do We Do About Them? 

By Michael Businge

Peter Ekai Lokoel, Deputy Governor Turkana in September 2014 said, “Climate Change is here with us. We cannot stop it. The only way is to see how to work around it.”

Over the past century, the average annual temperature on earth has increased, the oceans have warmed, snow and ice caps have diminished, and the sea levels have risen. Although evidence of climate change, and its causes, has been debated for more than two decades, there is now scientific consensus that climate change is occurring and is mainly due to human activity.

Climate change is being felt in countries throughout the world, from low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and Maldives, to temperate countries in the northern hemisphere, to countries in the tropics, including my own country, Uganda.

Climate scientists have attributed both the increasing frequency of specific extreme weather events (such as drought, flooding and heat shocks) and the slow but steady change in long term features of the environment (such as receding glaciers) to rising temperature caused predominantly by anthropogenic (i.e. human) sources. They predict that these, and other, observed climate changes will become more severe in coming years.

These changes in the climate are imposing an increasing burden on governments, especially in countries with limited resources, in their efforts to protect vulnerable populations. Changing precipitation patterns such as drought, and shorter but intense rainfall, can have negative direct impacts on health and contribute to desertification, flooding, low food production, food insecurity, migration and increased conflict, water scarcity.

Most of this is happening in Uganda. In 2016, storms that hit the western District of Buliisa left over 20 people dead and more than 50 missing. Property was destroyed and children resorted to studying under trees since class room blocks were destroyed due to the storm.

Indigenous populations, poor and socially marginalized individuals, women and people with disabilities are often most affected. Hoima District is no different from her neighbor, Buliisa. The crop yield, unbearable hot and conditions have been experienced over time, water levels in some areas has gone down, and animals have starved to death in some areas around Lake Albert basin. Climate change is posing particular risks to the rights to life, food, access to clean water, and health to vulnerable communities. 

It is now 10 years since commercial oil deposits were discovered in Uganda. One thing to note is that Hoima and Buliisa host oil wells. In fact, Buliisa District alone has got over 60 oil wells which were discovered near and around settlements, national park and in the game reserve but also along the shores of Lake Albert. These are ecologically sensitive areas with all unique species of flora and fauna.

It is a fact that oil activities impact nature, people and climate. Oil activities disrupt important ecosystems, endanger species of fauna and flora and degrade the quality of environment in some dimension. These range from aesthetic considerations to the massive toxic wastes generated through process water, drilling mud, and a myriad of other chemicals in the industry.

We are right now at a development phase where currently Uganda is undergoing significant developments in the exploitation of the oil resource. The transition of the country’s oil and gas sector from exploration and appraisal phase to the development phase means that Government and the Oil companies are in the process of putting in place infrastructure to enable production of the discovered oil resource. 

Major infrastructural developments such as the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, the Central Processing Facilities in Tilenga and Kingfisher, the Kabaale International Airport, feeder pipelines, critical oil roads and other sector related developments have posed changes in community set ups, raised some red flags in some areas and possible ecological footprint.

How then do we balance development, nature conservation or adopt and maybe mitigate climate change? How do we safeguard forests, fresh water bodies from destruction, maintain soil quality in areas where there is oil activities?

Countries with tropical or subtropical climates, including Uganda are projected to experience the effects of climate change most intensely, and low income countries are least able to prevent and prepare for the impact of climate change.

It has also been noted that 80% of Uganda’s population depends primarily on biomass to meet their household energy needs, and this has led to massive destruction of the forest  cover thus leading to occurrence of hazardous air pollutants in the atmosphere due to absence of forest cover which acts as carbon sinks. 

Indigenous people in Buliisa and Hoima who traditionally rely on natural sources for food, shelter and livelihood lack better infrastructure such as good roads, health centres and in cases of an eventuality, it makes it difficult to reach health centres in time for first aid or any kind of treatment. This creates a risk on people’s health yet the country’s health care system is already strained!

What then can we do? As Ugandans, we need to recognize that the changes in climate will likely impede the country’s ability to realize sustainable development. 

  • Local Governments should be empowered to mobilize, sensitize and support communities to participate in the planning and agreeing on the best climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.
  • We therefore need to build the capacity of local people to mitigate and adopt to climate change, a phenomenon that is with us!
  • Communities also need to come out and selfishly denounce activities that put environmental integrity to disrepute and then proactively engage in environmental conservation practices and management.
  • Implement laws, policies and regulations on regarding environment management. The environmental monitoring plans on Oil, Gas need the participation of the local people since they are interact with the environment in their areas on a day to day basis.
  • There is need to assess the impact so far caused by climate change and identify individuals and communities that are most vulnerable, and then taking steps to reduce on the vulnerability.
  • For development projects, environmental standards should be followed during project implementation.
  • Government needs to do more to monitor oil activities, design strategies and incorporate these strategies in order to reduce ecological footprint.
  • Government needs to ensure meaningful participation and put out relevant information about climate change so as informed decisions can be taken on climate change from the local to the national levels.
  • Local Governments at District levels need to develop climate change adaptation and mitigation plans which are in accordance to the national Adaptation plans. And partnerships at the District and national levels needs to be enhanced for possible collaboration and funding on mitigation and adaptation measures for climate change.
  • We need to improve on water harvesting capacity, efficient and sustainable use of water resources, practice good soil and water conservation strategies especially for the farmers.
  • Embark on massive indigenous tree planting.

Environment is life! There is no more time left, we need to act together now to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change but also harness the oil resource for sustainable development of our communities. 

The writer is a coordinator of a CSO Network in Bunyoro working on issues of Petroleum and Environment


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