Scientist worried about oil extraction plans in African Great Lakes

Date: 4 November 2016

Introduction: In a letter in Science, biologist Erik Verheyen (Evolutionary Ecology) voices the concerns of an international group of scientists about the plans to extract oil and gas from the African Great Lakes.

70 researchers from 17 countries, including 10 Belgians , express their concerns about possible oil and gas extraction in the Great Lakes region in East Africa.
One of them, Lake Tanganyika, is about the size of Belgium, and contains one fifth of the global freshwater reserve and holds an immeasurable biodiversity, with hundreds of species of fish that live nowhere else in the world. The possibility of oil and gas reserves under the bottom has been examined in  recent years. Several countries – including DR Congo, Burundi, Tanzania and Zambia, the countries surrounding Lake Tanganyika– are hoping for a much-needed extra source of revenue.

Environmental disaster in the making
But extracting gas and oil would mean an enormous risk for the more than 10 million people living around and depending on Lake Tanganyika. A possible oil spill would destroy the whole ecosystem, cause the fishery and food supply to collapse, pollute the water and endanger the health of the population in regions like the Congo Basin, into which the lake slowly drains.

The Great Lakes form a relatively closed ecosystem – it takes 7.000 years before the water in Lake Tanganyika is ‘renewed’ – so the recovery from an oil spill would take millennia. The remote location of the lake would impede fast and effective intervention. The unstable political climate in East Africa is also a problem: competition for fossil fuel resources could lead to sabotage, as has been the case in the Niger delta.

Control measures are needed
A group of scientists, some of whom are considered authorities in their respective countries, urge local governments to develop strong control mechanisms in advance, even before oil extraction begins. Even better, they should foster alternative, sustainable plans to develop the region in accordance with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, as is currently being attempted in the Virunga National Park, in the DR Congo.

Biologist Erik Verheyen, Evolutionary Ecology UAntwerp

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