“Mama” Joyce Katushabe lives in the Buliisa region of Western Uganda. For most of her life she lived in a one-room grass-thatched hut without electricity or running water. Every day, she would trek miles under the scorching sun to chop down wood and fetch water. Exhausted, she would then begin the process of preparing her family’s meal.
Today, Mama lives in a new neighbourhood in a modern house fitted with electricity, running water and all other basic amenities that previously seemed like unattainable luxuries. Her home is the result of the new buzz of economic activity following the discovery of oil in her previously quiet and impoverished district. Schools, roads and health centres have sprung up to serve her community where previously there were none. Even a new airport is being constructed.
The hubbub surrounds the new oil project currently being developed by the Ugandan government in partnership with France’s Total Energies and China’s CNOOC. It will include a pipeline that runs from Uganda to Tanzania, known as EACOP (East African Crude Oil Pipeline).
Millions like Mama Katushabe stand to benefit. The project is integral to Ugandan ambitions become a middle-income economy that can sustain the increasing demands of its population for health services, education, transport infrastructure, employment and basic social services. Such economic growth is critical as Uganda seeks to industrialise in the wake of the pandemic. With EAPOC delivering the project across East Africa, the project is a tremendous opportunity for the rest of the region too.
Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way.
Ever since Uganda found oil, environmental activists have sought to hamper the project, without any consideration for what it means for Ugandans or East Africans more broadly.
Nor is it the first time they have sought to block Uganda’s development. Foreign activists hampered the building of our hydro-electric dam in Bujagali. In the 1990s, they said it would damage our environment, destroy local cultures and displace communities. As a result of their disruptive activities, the project took a decade to complete. Of course, our local cultures and communities were unaffected. And now those same activists who then flew in from Europe to oppose a hydro-electric project are back again to oppose EACOP and calling for renewables. It seems Africans aren’t allowed to use any kind of energy at all.
These activists demonstrate no understanding of the daily reality for Africans, especially the crippling energy poverty. Perhaps most galling they presume to speak for us, denying us our own agency when it comes to defining our interests. Meanwhile they beam neon lights against the side of banks, intimidating and campaigning against those who would finance our energy supply.
While we are accustomed to bearing the brunt of the activists’ actions, we are tired of hearing the lies. So here are the facts:
First: The world will need fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. This is particularly true of Africa, the combined population of which is set to double by 2050, and which simply cannot switch to costly and unreliable renewables overnight. Mama Katushabe and millions like her still need affordable, available and reliable energy to live – and they need it now. Africa contributes so little to global emissions in the first place; we should be able to use what we have at our disposal.
Second: Few countries are more committed than Uganda to protecting biodiversity, agriculture and the environment – our economic mainstay long before the discovery of our oil and long after all the oil is gone. Our ambitious reforestation programme, which aims to replenish forest back to 24% of Uganda’s landmass by 2040 has already grown cover from 9% to 12.5% in just five years.
Third: Uganda’s commitment to protecting its environment is reflected in the partners it chose for its oil project. Total Energies has committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and only engages in new hydrocarbon projects with a low breakeven point and low greenhouse gas emissions. By reducing its footprint in our National Park from the 10% land area approved in the project’s extensive Environment and Social Impact Assessment reports to less than 0.05%, Total Energies is walking the walk.
Finally, the project itself is one of the most environmentally friendly that has ever existed. It will use no routine flaring, but instead renewable power supplied by the national grid. Excess gas from the project will be used to produce Liquified Petroleum Gas, which will supplement the Ugandan market and reduce national energy costs while contributing to the reduction of deforestation by removing the need for charcoal and firewood. Greenhouse gas emissions intensity of the Ugandan projects stands at 13 kg of CO2 per barrel – significantly lower than the industry average of 20kg per barrel.
All this while providing a critical, post-pandemic opportunity for economic advancement to one of the poorest regions in the world. 16 business sectors around the project have been ring-fenced for local communities and businesses, ensuring they will reap the rewards.
Small wonder the actions of the activists are leaving an unpleasant taste in African mouths. At best, they are tone deaf.
Mama Katushabe’s daughter will live a better life than she did. She can bathe in her home with water from a tap. She can do her homework at night, studying for her future, by electric light. Her neighbourhood already now has a paved road. Soon it will have a playground too. But her future is only bright if those agitating in her name against her economic advancement lose. Environmental activism need not come at the cost of our development.
The Writer is a Senior Partner in Kampala Associated Advocates, Trustee of the Uganda Chamber of Mines and Petroleum and Chairman of the Private Sector Foundation of Uganda.