UGANDA (eTN) – The Ugandan conservation fraternity is reeling in shock over NEMA’s latest public admission that they lack the capacity to effectively monitor oil exploration activities in the Albertine Graben, where much of the test drilling has taken place inside Murchisons Falls National Park, the Kaiso Tonga Game Reserve, and now extends to the Semliki National Park, before in the future reaching sections of the Queen Elizabeth National Park, earmarked for test drilling.
The organization also all but admitted that they have no capacity to monitor or enforce current regulation effectively in the absence of sufficiently trained and qualified staff, leaving the entire oil sector open to abuse of regulations, which are generally already considered as far too weak to prevent any significant damage to the surrounding environment.
“The admission before the parliamentary committee on natural resources by NEMA officials is shocking and frightening at the same time. NEMA is supposed to be our national watchdog on environmental issues. Their failure to create capacity to monitor such potentially very hazardous activities is a scandal. If they are not given the funding by government to train staff and give them monitoring skills, or employ enough skilled personnel, then this is either a very bad oversight or a deliberate attempt to make controls fail so that oil companies can get away with anything really. And when the committee demands a full report from NEMA, and it is not being produced, we wonder what they are hiding from the public eye.
“There was a time when Heritage Oil used to take environmentalists and journalists to their sites to see for ourselves what they were doing, but since they sold and left Uganda, that has almost stopped. And we suspect when the Chinese come under the Tullow deal, they will just fence us out altogether and not allow any public scrutiny, going by their track record. Does NEMA really have any teeth in their mouth?
“And the other day I drove to Munyonyo and can confirm what you have written about so many times – that the Konge valley wetland is shrinking by the day with more buildings, now even a petrol station being put into the swamp. NEMA has become completely useless and is a disgrace now,” roared a regular contributor and eminent environmentalist from Kampala when discussing the parliamentary proceedings with him yesterday.
When confronted with the ire of parliamentarians on the committee, the NEMA boss, in an almost feeble way, tried to offer mitigating factors on the issue of funding and their current level of activities, but MPs would have none of it and laid into the NEMA boss with a vengeance.
Questions are also increasingly being raised on the status of preparedness for a potential oil spill inside the parks, where in particular at Murchisons Falls a spillage could irrevocably alter environmental conditions of this biodiversity hotspot and contaminate the wetlands, Lake Albert, and in particular the River Nile, on which downstream, tens of millions of people in Northern Uganda, South and North Sudan, and Egypt depend on for their livelihood.
The impact on the tourism industry could be instant and almost lethal, as the habitat of birds and animals could be wiped out by a spillage, leading to tourists staying away as a result of the resulting negative publicity. However, oil companies have been quiet on these issues and little is known how they are prepared with pre-positioned equipment and contingency plans to contain and clean up a major spill or leak, and the same applies to government where the level of readiness to deal with an oil accident is shrouded in secrecy.