Oil and water in Uganda – a photostory

The discovery of commercially viable oil in Uganda’s Albertine Graben region in 2006 set in motion the race for oil wealth across the country.

As Uganda moves from exploration and appraisal to production, civil society organisations in both Uganda and the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been raising concerns over the potential impact of oil activities on people’s livelihoods, wildlife conservation and tourism. Of particular concern is fishing – a major way of life in the region and one on which a number of livelihoods depend.

In 2014, International Alert interviewed people in the region to identify some of the perceived and real conflict risks associated with the oil industry’s impact on fishing across Lake Albert. This photostory highlights the feelings, thoughts and views of local communities across the lake, and suggests ways in which the oil and fishing sectors could peacefully coexist. Alert is convinced that careful understanding of the issues at play in the Albertine Graben will create trust, ensure stability and promote peaceful coexistence.

Uganda’s oil reserves are expected to yield US$2 billion a year for 30 years, according to the country’s Petroleum Exploration and Production Department. The Bank of Uganda estimates that the country could save up to US$630 million every year on oil imports once production starts. Successful oil exploitation, enhanced through fiscal responsibility, could elevate Uganda to a middle-income country, pulling millions of people out of poverty, including fishermen.

Yet, the discovery of oil and people’s expectations of gaining from it have already resulted in an influx of thousands of people into the oil regions. This migration is increasing pressures over land and fuelling tension between indigenous communities and newcomers. There are also concerns that an increase in population will put a strain on already limited social services, such as education, water and healthcare. Communities fear that the next phase of oil exploration will lead to further migration.

Although oil production is not expected to begin until at least 2018, many communities already believe that the current stages of oil development are leading to dwindling fish stocks – despite evidence to the contrary. Communities have also expressed significant anxiety about their future and their livelihoods with the coming oil development. “We people who live here, our life depends on the fish,” highlights Mzee Matteo Mulongo from Panyimur, Nebbi district. “This lake is our life … It is the only source of livelihood we have got. We don’t want to let it go.”

Entire villages are so dependent on the lake that a slight change in their livelihood would have a drastic impact. In recent years, fish stocks have fallen significantly. It is frustrating many fishermen and there is much speculation on what or who is to blame. Many of the fishermen attribute the change in fortunes to ‘light fishing’, a particular type of fishing that uses lights and is aimed at catching mukene (silver cyprinid). Some blame the oil exploration, arguing that some types of exploration used loud noises that must have scared away the fish. Others say it is due to overfishing or “the bad neighbours from Congo”.

Whatever the reason, there is no denying that poor resource management is partly to blame. Rofino, an elder from Panyamur, Nebbi district, explains: “The problem we have is one of too many authorities, yet nothing is being done to save the lake. We have the Beach Management Units, law enforcement officers, the fish guards, everyone … But even with all these people on the lake, illegal fishing is still going on.” There have been calls for Uganda to adopt a similar approach to the Democratic Republic of Congo and establish a fishing holiday period. The government appears to have no alternatives to the fishermen’s livelihoods.

Oil companies have put measures in place regarding waste management. However, there are legacy issues to contend with and anxieties from communities about the efficacy of the measures. “Heritage [Oil Company] … brought us water from up the hills, accessible to everyone in this village,” explains William Kato, Local Council I Chairman in Nsonga in Hoima district, in the west of the country. “However, when CNOOC [the China National Offshore Oil Corporation] took over, everything came to a standstill. Today, the water is untreated and the whole village is drinking it. We have had cases of typhoid and bilharzia due to people consuming contaminated water. Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do. CNOOC hasn’t done anything yet, too.’’

A narrative has been sold that oil exploitation will improve people’s quality of life, end the country’s dependence on foreign donors and increase national prosperity, with the proceeds being used to construct roads, hospitals and schools. There is even talk of Hoima becoming the economic capital of Uganda. This has encouraged many to migrate to the oil districts in the hope of benefiting from the oil industry. If the country is to manage the oil and gas proceeds, it must first find ways of managing expectations. The government must identify those who will be impacted by oil activity and engage with them.

There also seems to be a lack of reliable information about the possible impacts of oil exploitation on fishing as an economic activity. It is impossible to determine whether this is a case of people simply not understanding the potential impacts, or of the government and oil companies not sufficiently sharing information and engaging in dialogue with communities. In Panyimur, for example, locals were uncertain about the intentions of Total. An exploration attempt for oil there returned nothing; however, because the exploration well remains heavily guarded, some locals believe there is oil and accuse both the government and the oil company of failing to tell the truth for fear of compensation claims.

This information deficit extends to issues of land and compensation. According to a survey conducted in 2011 by Uganda Land Alliance, the most common land-related problems around the oil districts included land-grabbing and encroachment (42%), increased land disputes due to oil discovery (27%) and land fragmentation (21%). According to Abel Asiimwe from Butiaba: “People who came here as fishermen are now buying land or encouraging their relatives to buy land because they have heard that Butiaba may have oil. The relationship between the indigenous people and migrant communities is not cordial. There is a lot of mistrust.”

This photo essay was developed as part of Alert’s project, ‘Harnessing the potential of oil to contribute to Uganda’s peaceful development’. This aims to achieve higher levels of trust and accountability between the government, oil companies and Ugandan citizens, including communities in the oil regions.

It is Alert’s belief that the issue of how oil exploitation will affect people’s existing sources of livelihood should be understood from the broader perspective of effective resource management. Oil exploitation can coexist with other forms of livelihoods in the Albertine Graben region, but stronger emphasis needs to be placed on ‘getting it right’. Information sharing must be encouraged and both the government and oil companies should ensure that communities are involved in most, if not all, decision-making processes.

Successful oil exploitation coupled with fiscal responsibility could elevate millions of Ugandans out of poverty. Yet, oil is a finite resource and attention must be paid to the fact that a sudden influx of oil cash could distort the economy and undermine other sources of livelihoods, such as fishing and agriculture, which currently employ and feed far more people than oil ever will.

This is an abridged version of the photo essay, 'Oil and water? The impact of oil on livelihoods in Uganda'. You can find out more about Alert’s work on oil in Uganda here.