Environmental activists, including one Godfrey Mfiti, have been holding public lectures and mobilising community and traditional leaders to rally behind them in persuading government to withdraw licenses it gave to companies to explore and drill oil and gas on Lake Malawi.
Mfiti argues that there is too much secrecy in the manner in which these licenses were awarded; and, therefore susceptible to abuse by the licensees.
He goes on to state that the drilling of oil and gas in a fresh water lake in a country without proper legislation governing oil drilling process is a threat to aquaculture as well as human life.
“Besides, oil and gas drilling is not a sustainable development that Malawi needs to pursue,” he emphasises.
Mfiti defines sustainable development as one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
He told one of the media houses recently: “By drilling oil in fresh water lake, the government will compromise the ecology of Lake Malawi and hence future generations will not enjoy its benefits.
The process will leave negative environmental footprints, public health hazards and loss of livelihood apart from rare species.”
The activist claims there are some technocrats in various departments such as culture, tourism, parks and wildlife, fisheries and agriculture, which are not happy with oil drilling on Lake Malawi, yet have chosen to remain quiet to save and keep their jobs.
Mfiti says these departments first wrote government in 2013 advising it to withdraw oil drilling prospects. But since “political power overrides policy in Malawi,” they have lately remained quite to keep their jobs.
It is imperative that we emphasise that Lake Malawi has endangered species listed under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list.
This means Malawi has species of fish that are on the verge of decline and they are only available in Malawi.
The United Nations Educational and Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage Centre in Paris and the IUCN have been raising their concerns about the prospects of oil and gas drilling on Lake Malawi.
And as Mfiti observes, the current legal and policy framework are not in tandem with the drilling process, particularly considering that Malawi is using the Petroleum Production Act of 1983.
The outdated legislation brings to the fore a number of questions, with one being: In case it happens in Malawi, does the country have safety nets for those living along the lakeshore?
Mfiti says it is on this basis that he is recommending that government should revoke all the licenses, and; instead, promote other sustainable economic activities such as irrigation farming.
But long-time human rights activist Undule Mwakasungula thinks otherwise.
While appreciating the concerns as raised by Mfiti, World Heritage Centre and others on ecosystem concerns on Lake Malawi, especially the bloc that has the Lake Malawi National Park which is a world heritage site, Mwakasungula emphasises that as a sovereign state, Malawi needs not be dictated to her development agenda.
He wonders why majority of those opposing oil and gas drilling are “speaking these issues sitting kilometers away in some parts of the world and trying to teach Malawians on how to go about with our own God-given natural resources”.
“Malawi is a sovereign nation with its own national agenda for development. Therefore, I am sure that Malawi as a sovereign nation will not be dictated on how it wants to deal with its natural resources for the interests of national development,” Mwakasungula states.
Of course, the human rights activist acknowledges that the World Heritage Centre has the right to make its position known on the issue as part of promoting dialogue and participation in such ventures.
He, however, thinks its approach is that of a bully rather than an institution open to constructive dialogue with Malawi Government.
“Malawi is not the only country in Africa exploring and drilling oil. Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Angola, and Nigeria, are among the others. Why so much noise about Malawi?
“If it’s for our socioeconomic growth as a nation, why not explore this oil and then look at how we can go on with transparency, accountability and professionalism?” he asks.
Mwakasungula says, as a nation, Malawi must strive to use natural resources productively, in a sustainable manner and to the benefit of all people.
He says it is high time Malawi moved and shifted from “these unknown fears of our resources being a resource curse to resource blessings for our nation”.
He again cites Ghana where under President John Kufuor, the country benefited significantly from its oil wealth and is the first West African country to eradicate extreme poverty by half.
“So, why all these unnecessary fears in Malawi? If well managed, oil revenues fuel could spur development and that’s what we must all advocate for. What we need is to initiate a national dialogue on the benefits and pitfalls of oil, with support from other institutions. But not raising unnecessary warnings and statements, which have the same story: creating unnecessary fears among Malawians,” he states.
Mwakasungula further warns World Heritage Centre and other environmental activists against using their platforms to manipulate countries, which would want to explore oil, gas and other minerals for national development.
“Yes, we might say we need the chambo surely, but where is this chambo now? Are we saying the chambo will now disappear with the exploration?
“In my home district of Karonga, I have never eaten this chambo for more than seven years now. It is scarcer now and if available – which is very rare- then it’s very expensive. So, which chambo do you want to protect? Why not promote other alternatives such as fish farming to preserve this chambo?” asks Mwakasungula in resting his case. n