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Uganda playing catch-up with her environment

Recently, I was part of a capacity building exercise on strategic environment assessment (SEA) – an important tool that enables integration of environmental considerations in a country’s policies, plans and programs – and one government official pointed out something that I think all Ugandans need to pay attention to.

He said government and its agencies such as Uganda Wildlife Authority were ill-prepared for exploration for oil in sensitive ecosystems such as in Uganda’s largest and oldest conservation area, Murchison Falls national park.

In his view, government needed much more information such as that on the monetary or economic values of the ecosystem that was being destroyed by oil exploration efforts in the park which took place up to 2012.

This way, better decisions regarding the oil sector vis-à-vis protection of the environment would have been made. But, this official says oil companies moved faster than our own government, beginning oil activities before government had a sufficient legal framework and environmental information to guide it!

At the time of exploration in the park, none of the two oil laws for the upstream and midstream activities was in place. The SEA too was not in place. Worse still, regulatory institutions such as the Petroleum Authority of Uganda were not in place.

National Environment Management Authority (Nema) existed but, as recently pointed out by parliament when Nema presented its budget, the environment has often been degraded on Nema’s watch.

Perhaps we all remember how Nema left local leaders in Wakiso such as the district chairman, Matia Lwanga Bwanika, to singlehandedly fight with sand miners who were destroying the environment!

Clearly, government was caught flatfooted during the exploration days. Today, Nema is putting in place SEA regulations and guidelines and this is commendable for Uganda needs these regulations and guidelines like yesterday to protect the environment.

As Ugandans are well aware, there is a government deadline to produce first oil by 2020. In preparation for this, activities for development of infrastructure such as the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), the finished products pipeline that will go up to populous Buloba and beyond, an oil refinery at Kabaale, Hoima, an international airport, roads and other infrastructure are ongoing.

Setting up of these infrastructures will result in destruction of the environment and, as such, environmental regulations are direly needed.

As Ugandans, we should not let government be caught unprepared again! We have to be involved to see that the SEA regulations are enacted and enforced.

This is especially important because you know that as a country and people, we are entirely dependent on nature and we need to protect it. When we had less-than-normal rainfall last year, you saw how the price of foodstuffs skyrocketed.

To improve the effectiveness of the regulations, you should also join Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) and her partners to demand for the following:

• That Uganda undertakes ecosystem valuations for her protected areas to (i) protect the areas from oil activities through showing the economic value of the systems or (ii) tasking oil companies to pay for economic values lost when oil activities destroy ecosystem services in protected areas.

• That effective public participation in SEA and environmental impact assessment (EIA) processes is enabled through helpdesks for Nema and through publications of environmental assessment processes, among others. I am sure a number of Ugandans are unaware that the SEA for oil activities in the Albertine graben exists! Without information, Ugandans cannot hold government accountable.

• Finally, that a multi-stakeholder monitoring committee comprising communities, civil society organizations and religious and cultural leaders to oversee the implementation of environmental assessments is actualized. Without this committee that would provide oversight, environmental assessment reports may never be implemented.

The writer is a field officer with AFIEGO.

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