The discovery of oil in Uganda in 2006 has been viewed by many as a blessing, by equally as many it is viewed as a curse. As in most underdeveloped countries that discover such natural resources, Uganda is faced with the difficult problem of managing the mining of the oil in such a way as to not destroy the environment at the same time. The oil was discovered in the Albertine Rift, Lake Albert region of Western Uganda, an area that inhabits 52 percent of African birds and 39 percent of the continent’s mammals. If managed
properly, the oil wealth in Uganda could lift a generation of people out of poverty. If not managed properly, the risks to the people and the environment could be devastating.
The threats to the wildlife in this region are many; the major one being the issue of habitat loss. With bad planning, the degradation to the environment due to infrastructure development could cause irreversible damage to the fragile habitat of the wildlife species that are already stressed to unacceptable limits due to encroachment of the forests by the humans settled in the area. Oil spills, which are not uncommon today, could have a devastating impact on the wildlife and their habitat. Poor waste management is another serious issue that must be addressed immediately. In terms of the birdlife, specifically for migratory birds, the routes or ‘flyways’ as they are called, are being compromised by this development. Birds have been studied by conservationists and it is not uncommon for them to get disorientated by the lights on the oil platforms. The birds fly in circles for hours around these lighted platforms and sometimes die of exhaustion or collide with other birds or structures, causing them to get injured and die.
For Uganda, there is much at risk. This area, the Lake Albert region, where the oil exploration is taking place, is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world, and yet it is afforded minimal protection from the contracts that were signed with the oil extractors. Global Witness, a watchdog group of such environmental concerns has analyzed the contracts signed between the Ugandan government and the oil exploration companies and there are few safeguards in place to protect the delicate environment of the ever-declining wildlife.
There are an estimated 200,000 fisherman and local people that depend on Lake Edward for their livelihoods. Any oil activity in this area could do significant damage to the lake, the broader ecosystem and the people and wildlife that depend on it. The issues are the negative impact from drilling, road construction, increased population and water pollution. Queen Elizabeth National Park is the most popular tourist attraction in Uganda, with having 1/3 of all visitors to the country. The contribution of this tourism is 8 percent of Uganda’s total GDP; a figure comparable with the anticipated earnings from the oil exploration.
Arguably, tourist visits to Queen Elizabeth National Park will decline as a result of this exploration, as it has globally in similar situations. Tourism is an internationally competitive and notoriously fickle market and Uganda does not need ‘another’ reason for tourists not to come and visit. In addition, and probably even more significant, is the damage that this oil exploration could do to reduce the number of wildlife species in the area due to habitat loss and human encroachment; something that will have an ever-lasting negative effect on the economy of the country.
It is universally accepted by environmentalists and conservation groups that the mix of oil and wildlife just does not work. Sacrificing the wildlife for oil money is very short-sighted, especially such a unique set of wildlife resources that exist in this region. To add to all these issues, there is now planned two pipelines from the oil area of Western Uganda; one to Lamu, Kenya and the other to Tanga, Tanzania. These pipelines are planned to cut two swaths right across Uganda, without consideration of the environmental impact especially in terms of the already fragile wildlife that is already being over-stressed.