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Managing Impacts Of Oil & Gas Exploration In Murchison Falls National Park: Seeking A Critical Balance Between Uganda’s Development Needs And Conservation


In Uganda, commercially viable quantities of oil and gas resources have been discovered in the country’s Albertine Rift region. The country is excited by this discovery and is fast tracking exploration and development efforts. It expects to earn foreign exchange from the export of petroleum products. About 50 percent of the discoveries are found in Murchison Falls National Park. In order to exploit the oil without compromising conservation in the national park, the Uganda government institutions responsible for environmental, protected area and oil and gas management, as well as other stakeholders (e.g. oil companies) have developed and used tools, guidelines and policy to implement best practices that mitigate the impacts of oil and gas exploration and development in protected areas to minimize ultimate loss of biodiversity. The strict implementation of the tools and guidelines, while adhering to mitigation hierarchy (Avoid – Minimize – Mitigate – Offset), have so far helped in alleviating the negative impacts of oil and gas exploration activities on the protected area. The exploration phase is now complete, but with no visible impacts on biodiversity nor tourism.

Problem, challenge or context: 

Five oil fields have been discovered, drilled and appraised in Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP). The Ugandan Government, in partnership with two oil companies, are in final stages of starting production phase. These activities have been undertaken in an ecologically sensitive area of MFNP, part of which is a designated Ramsar site and an Important Bird Area. The oil fields lie astride the mighty River Nile, which includes the habitat for the last breeding population of Nile crocodiles. It is also home to thousands of Hippopotamus. Because of scenic landscape and game varieties, tourism is a leading activity in the national park. Tourism earns the protected area authority over four million dollars annually. A portion of this money is used to fund conservation efforts in the protected areas. Unfortunately, the tourism areas of the protected area directly overlaps with the oil fields. There are fears that this significant revenue will be lost once development activities commence in the oil field. There is also a fear that oil activities may negatively impact the protected areas ecosystem and biodiversity, hence compromising conservation in the national park.

Specific elements of components: 

Objective 9 of the National Oil and Gas Policy emphasizes that oil and gas activities should be undertaken in a manner that conserves the environment and biodiversity. In line with it, the following initiatives, tools and guidelines have been developed and implemented in order to prevent the impacts of this industry on the environment.

A) National level initiatives and tools:

  1. Worked with lead agencies to develop a Sensitivity Atlas for Albertine Graben to showcase the environmental sensitivity of it and act as baseline for monitoring oil and gas activities.
  2. Developed the Strategic Environment Assessment to guide decisions on planning and development of oil and gas infrastructure
  3. Developed the Albertine Rift Environment Monitoring Plan.
  4. Developed the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) operational guidelines to guide, coordinate and regulate the activities of oil companies while working within protected areas.
  5. Continue to build capacity of PA managers on oil and gas issues through training, study tour to countries showcasing good environmental practices.
  6. Developed an MOU between UWA and the oil company to further guide operations in MFNP.

B) Protected area level initiatives and tools:

  1. Developing a detailed sensitivity atlas for the national park based on biodiversity sensitivity to oil and gas activities and other developments. Ecologically sensitive areas have been mapped out and categorized as avoidance features. These include breeding grounds, watering points for wildlife and areas with large aggregations of wildlife.
  2. Working with WCS to carry out research on impacts of oil on ranging patterns e.g through the collaring of elephants and lions and the monitoring of their movements in relation to oil activities.
  3. Working with oil companies to carry out biodiversity surveys e.g surveys to establish baselines of birds, mammals, and fish.
  4. Convincing oil companies to pay daily entrance fees like other visitors to the protected areas (negotiated as conservation fees) and using these revenues for conservation.
  5. Establishing and equipping a fully fledged oil monitoring unit at the protected area level to enforce daily compliance monitoring with backstopping from UWA HQs technical staff.
  6. Encouraging oil companies to hold quarterly stakeholders’ engagement and awareness meetings at the field level to sensitize the public on their activities.
  7. Giving induction on conservation issues to all oil companies’ staff and staff of their sub-contractors before entering to work in the national park.
  8. Recruited and trained 100 dedicated staff to work with oil companies and ensure their activities are within the approved guidelines.
  9. Requirement to remove all drill wastes (both solid and liquid) from the protected area, upon completion of drilling.
  10. Immediately restoring all sites and access routes after completion of well testing. The restored sites are monitored for a year to ensure non-colonization by alien species.
Key lessons learned: 
  1. Implementation of the tools and initiatives requires that the capacity of PA staff should be built through training and exposure visits, which enable them grasp the oil and gas value chain processes.
  2. The breach of the tools and guidelines should attract penalties to ensure support and adherence.
  3. Reconciling development objectives and conservation is a challenge that can be overcome by using sound decision making, awareness of conservation and involvement of all stakeholders.
Impacts and outcomes: 
  1. The exploration phase is now complete, and has had no visible impacts on biodiversity nor tourism. Tourists have the right of way and precede oil activities.
  2. Routine inspections and the regular monitoring of oil activities puts the developer under pressure to adhere to the mitigation measures (e.g improved chemical handling on drill pads, self-reporting of accidents).
  3. Environmental and biodiversity baselines have been established for birds, mammals, and fish, as well as water quality, sound levels, air quality and will be monitored.
  4. Good practices have been adopted, such as no flaring in protected areas, the reduction of drill sizes, and the building of support infrastructure (material storage and staff camps) outside the protected area.
  5. Oil and gas activities have been incorporated into the Protected Area General Management Plan.
  6. A discussion has been initiated to develop a 30 Year Vision for the National Park, in the presence of oil and gas activities. It is envisioned that this plan will form the basis for ensuring that oil will not be extracted from the reserve, if conservation is compromised. The vision also includes thoughts about offsets and conservation financing.
Contact details: 
Tom Obong Okello, Uganda Wildlife Authority
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