Albertine Rift: A Global Biodiversity Hotspot on target for oil and gaz exploitation

The Albertine Rift region is one of the world’s hotspot for biodiversity conservation, providing valuable services to the local populations. This region encompasses a good number of African great lakes, from lake Albert and Edward in north west of Uganda through lake Kivu shared by Rwanda and DRC up to Lake Tanganyika in southwest of Tanzania. All those lakes are rich in animal and plant species some of which are endemic to the Albertine Rift. For example, Lake Tanganyika is one of the richest freshwater ecosystems in the world and is home to more than 1,500 plant and animal species, of which 600 species (including coloured cichlid fish, gastropods and marine snails, etc.) are endemic to Lake Tanganyika. However, sedimentation, pollution and over-exploitation among others, threaten biodiversity and ecosystem services of these lakes and the new discovery of oil and gas and potential for exploitation will worsen the situation.

The Albertine Rift region is one of the world’s hotspot for biodiversity conservation, providing valuable services to the local populations. This region encompasses a good number of African great lakes, from lake Albert and Edward in north west of Uganda through lake Kivu shared by Rwanda and DRC up to Lake Tanganyika in southwest of Tanzania. All those lakes are rich in animal and plant species some of which are endemic to the Albertine Rift. For example, Lake Tanganyika is one of the richest freshwater ecosystems in the world and is home to more than 1,500 plant and animal species, of which 600 species (including coloured cichlid fish, gastropods and marine snails, etc.) are endemic to Lake Tanganyika.

However, sedimentation, pollution and over-exploitation among others, threaten biodiversity and ecosystem services of these lakes and the new discovery of oil and gas and potential for exploitation will worsen the situation. Currently, almost all the Albertine Rift lakes are being investigated for oil exploitation and the process for some is at drilling stage while for others the exploitation is already taking place. These activities are backed up by the riparian countries sharing these ecosystems and are currently signing bilateral agreements for exploitation.

The research on oil and gas in the Albertine rift region started many years ago, but the actual interest on exploitation increased in the past few years with potential oil companies including Total, Tullow Oil and others drilling in Lake Albert and Edward while UK oil company Soco was drilling in Virunga National Park on the Ugandan side. At the same time, the exploration of Methane Gas in Lake Kivu was going on some years after the drilling started in Lake Tanganyika.

Currently, the drilling results show that all of the above-mentioned lakes contain oil deposits, except lake Kivu, which is still under investigation. Uganda developed the Petroleum Exploration, Development and Production Bill (read more here)which provides for the establishment of a National Petroleum Authority and a National Oil Company. On the other hand, the ministry of Infrastructure in Rwanda is in the process of finalizing the legislative framework (Petroleum Policy and Act, Production subsequent petroleum exploration programme to take place in Rwanda where the exploitation of Gas methane is already taking place). Additionally, in October 2016, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo signed a memorandum of understanding for a joint exploration and development of hydrocarbons in Lake Tanganyika. While, oil business is going on in these lakes, different groups are continually questioning its sustainability. For example, civil society organisations in both Uganda and the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been raising concerns over the potential impacts of oil activities on people’s livelihoods, wildlife conservation and tourism around lake Albert and Edward. Of particular concern is fishing – a major source of livelihoods for many people in the region. Also, some groups of people think that these ecosystems can better be used alternatively for sustainability purposes. In 2013, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) undertook a total economic valuation of the Virunga National park (Targeted for oil exploitation by UK oil company Soco), which highlighted the potential of the forest while used alternatively. Virunga’s estimated annual economic value was at US$48.9 million with an annual income of US$1.1 billion per year from ecosystem services and it could be the source of more than 45,000 jobs. 

Considering the speed at which the oil business is increasing in the Albertine rift, and the likely impact from the exploitation, it is paramount to apply the sustainable development principles in any step forward towards oil exploitation. Additionally, whatever decision to be made in this regards, it is crucial to understand the impacts (environmental and Social) and the mitigation cost of a development project. This can only happen with a transparent and participatory environmental impact assessment done well before the beginning of exploration/exploitation activities for informed decision making.