The adverse impact of oil production – lessons for Uganda

In its rush to meet the Washington Consensus conditions for financial and technical assistance, the NRM government embarked on some projects without – or with inadequate – assessment of possible adverse impact including on health, employment, poverty, food security and the environment.

Warnings about the adverse outcomes of overfishing, rapid privatization of public enterprises, deforestation, large-scale herding and cut flower production to increase and diversify exports were largely ignored. The government believed that problems should be addressed as they arose. In this regard, “It has been decided to begin divestments immediately, and to deal with any problems as they arise, rather than to delay the privatization program until all constraints have been resolved” (V.V.Ramanadham 1993).

Those who dared to speak out and/or write on these issues of national interest were described as opposition members bent on sabotaging government programs and they would not be tolerated. Now the sad outcomes of hasty decisions and neglect of advice are everywhere for all to see: massive clearance of grass, forest and wetlands, overfished waters, overgrazed rangelands, pollution of soil, water and air, shrinking water bodies, disappearing rivers, falling water tables and the associated frequent and devastating droughts, floods and declining agricultural productivity and total production etc.

The good news is that Ugandans are beginning to understand that when development programs are not adequately prepared, properly scrutinized and closely monitored, there could be serious problems. This understanding is reflected in their refusal to go along with NRM’s plans to destroy a part of Mabira forest in order to grow sugarcane.

The lessons learned so far of adverse effects of ill-designed development programs should embolden Ugandans – with support of development partners – to take the destiny of the country into their hands and to question government programs as and when necessary – demanding participation, transparency and accountability. In this regard we commend the steps that parliament is taking regarding the oil sector. In doing so, parliament should pay attention not only to the management of oil revenue but also – and perhaps more importantly – to the impact of oil production on biological diversity given a sizeable concentration of wild animals and woods in the area where oil has been struck.

In our National Recovery Plan (NRP) which the United Democratic Ugandans (UDU) umbrella organization of parties and organizations at home and abroad opposed to NRM policies has prepared and distributed (www.udugandans.org) as an alternative, we have called for a comprehensive assessment involving all interested stakeholders – especially communities where oil production will take place – of the likely impact on oil production. UDU will follow developments very closely and offer advice as and when necessary.

To give an idea of what could happen if proper assessment of the impact of oil production is not conducted or recommendations are not implemented or monitored closely, let us look at what has happened to the people, economy and environment of Niger Delta in Nigeria.
Niger Delta is occupied by Ijaws, Ogonis, Itsekiris, Urhobos, Igbos and many other indigenous groups. Before oil was struck, the main economic activities included agriculture and fishing producing enough food for residents. Oil production has dealt a heavy blow to these activities with adverse impact on the people and the environment. “Pollution has affected the atmosphere, soil fertility, waterways and mangroves, wildlife, plant life, aqua life, and has resulted in acid rain”, the government admits. “Fishing and agriculture are no longer productive enough to feed the area … the population is prone to respiratory problems and partial deafness” (Nicholas Shaxson 2007). And the Niger Delta produces more greenhouse emissions than the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa combined.

In some locations such as Imiringi many grievances connected with oil production and burning of gas have been aired including “We don’t have night here. There is no darkness. The flaring scares the animals away. Our food crops are withering, our plantains and yams are not growing big; the palm kernels are no longer producing. Youngsters go blind at an early age, there are skin problems. We have had no fish in our streams for ten years”. Local people also complained that the jobs oil companies promised had not materialized (Nicholas Shaxson 2007).

The vast agrarian swamps and wetlands have been devastated by pollution and become uninhabitable. The oil money has delivered few benefits to the people in the Delta who remain among the poorest in Nigeria. Life expectancy has fallen drastically to an average of 45 years (Onookome Okome 2000).   

Pollution and poverty have generated resentment, unrest and anti-government hostility, resulting, inter alia, into the formation of an armed insurgency that has sabotaged oil installations and kidnapped expatriate workers (Nicholas Shaxson 2007 & Michael T. Klare 2008). Deployment of troops to contain the insurgency is not seen as a solution.

The above information has been presented to alert Ugandans and particularly national policy and law makers about the dangers that lie ahead if appropriate steps are not taken to ensure equitable distribution of oil revenue and preventing the likely adverse impact of oil production.

Although we are aware that Uganda relevant government authorities fully understand the problems of revenue management and environmental degradation including in the Niger Delta, we wonder whether comprehensive studies have been conducted on the economic, social and environmental impact of oil production in Uganda. If they have been conducted then the reports should be made public – if not already done – for scrutiny including by members of parliament who – as representatives of the people – have primary responsibility for the welfare of all Ugandans. If reports do not exist, studies should be undertaken without delay.

As you can see, the oil sector is too important to be left entirely in the hands of the executive branch of the Uganda government.

Eric Kashambuzi
Secretary-General, UDU

© 2011 United Democratic Ugandans. All Rights Reserved.