Uganda’s oil activities: The new test in Nile Basin relations?

On the remote western edge of Uganda, the land nonchalantly drops down into the western arm of the Great Rift Valley to reveal the vast expanse of Lake Albert and the blue mountains of Congo and beyond

Occupied. An oil field operated by Cnooc on the shores of Lake Albert in Hoima District. Preliminary estimates by the Petroleum Authority show that around 75,000 cubic metres (m3) of water will be drawn from Lake Albert. PHOTO BY FREDERIC MUSISI 

BY Frederic Musisi

IN SUMMARY

Diplomacy. Preliminary estimates by the Petroleum Authority show that around 75,000 cubic metres (m3) of water will be drawn from Lake Albert in mid-western Uganda. The water is available but in light of the already complex hydro-relations in the region, government wants to tread carefully, writes Frederic Musisi.

Advertisement

On the remote western edge of Uganda, the land nonchalantly drops down into the western arm of the Great Rift Valley to reveal the vast expanse of Lake Albert and the blue mountains of Congo and beyond.
It is here that early British explorers first stumbled upon oil seeps, which paved way for further geological surveys and drilling, which in 2006 confirmed that Uganda’s oil reserves were commercial.

The reserves have jumped from 300 million barrels, 11 years ago, to now 6.5 billion barrels from the area — about 40 per cent of the basin better known as the Albertine Graben. And with more exploration licences doled out recently to Australia’s Armour Energy and Nigeria’s Oranto while three other prospective blocks are still on the shelf, officials are confident about more discoveries.

South of the Lake Albert lies Exploration area 3 (EA3), site of the Kingfisher field which is expected to pump first oil; to the east of the lake is EA2 with five appraised oil fields—Kasamene-Wahrindi, Kigogole-Ngara, Nsoga, Ngege and Mputa-Nzizi-Waranga, and up north EA1, with several fields but only three – Ngiri, Jobi-Riii and Gunya operated by French Total E&P, for whose production licenses have been so far issued.

Given the numerous infrastructure constraints that have delayed Uganda’s commercial oil production, Total intends to pump crude oil through feeder pipelines drilled beneath the River Nile from fields in EAI to the Central Processing Facility (CPF) in Buliisa.
A CPF is where oil is separated from other impurities before being fed into either the proposed pipeline or refinery.

Environmental groups have more than once raised red flags over the proposed move of laying oil pipelines under the world’s longest river and oil companies drawing large volumes of water for own activities during development phase.
Activists under the Water Governance Institute earlier in August expressed fears of not only pollution but also that drawing enormous water volumes from Lake Albert could affect livelihood of surrounding communities.
Oil production worldwide uses huge volumes of water; in Uganda pressured water will be injected inside the wells to force out crude oil from the ground.

Steering clear
The laying of feeder pipelines two metres below the River Nile bed, known as horizontal directional drilling, the National Pipeline Company general manager, Mr John Bosco Habumugisha, says: “Is proven technology and one of the safest in the world.”
“Of the entire pipeline that section beneath the river could be the safest,” Mr Habumugisha maintains.
“In any case, if there is any problem, the pipeline can be shut from both sides but that notwithstanding, there will be so many safeguards put in place,” he explains.

He adds: “We are aware of the odds so before anything is done, several impact assessments are being conducted.”
Lake Albert forms part of the River Nile ecosystem, the stretch known as the Albert/Upper Nile which journeys northwards to the South Sudan border and further through Sudan and Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.

The lake’s main inflow is at the south end via River Semliki, which flows from the Mufimbira mountains in DR Congo through Lake Edward, augmented by streams from the Rwenzori ranges.
It is this mix of ecosystems which span several biogeographical areas that best explains why Uganda will be under test when oil production commences.

The oil companies—Total, Cnooc and Tullow—during the construction and operation phases will be drawing 75,000 cubic metres of water daily from Lake Albert, for usage for upstream activities.
Throw in the other infrastructures; the crude oil export pipeline, refinery, the petroleum based Industrial Park and the proposed Kabaale international airport.

Energy minister Irene Muloni says the daily 75,000 cubic metres is the projected “peak demand.”
She said her ministry is in constant engagements with ministry of Water and the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) secretariat, the cooperation bod