Malawi: The thirst for oil and the pearl that will be lost

Let us start today with a summary of John Steinbeick’s novel, The Pearl.

Kino, a young, strong, poor pearl diver, lives in a small town, La Paz, with his wife Juana, and his baby son, Coyotito. Kino discovers an enormous pearl while out diving with Juana and he is ready to sell it for a lot of money. Nearly as soon as he returns from sea, the whole town knows of the pearl. Everyone calls it “the pearl of the world,” and many people begin to crave it.

From that very night evil-minded people attack Kino. He tries to sell the pearl the following morning to pearl merchants in town, but they all collude to pay him a pittance. He decides to run away to the city with his family, to sell the pearl there, but robbers follow them everywhere, culminating into a fracas at one point whose singular disastrous result is that Coyotito is shot dead by one of the attackers. Kino and Juana then return to La Paz, mourning, no longer wanting the pearl, with Coyotito’s dead body. Kino throws the pearl back into the ocean and it then sinks to the bottom of the sea.

A fishing boat on Lake Malawi, which is potentially rich in oil and gas. Ding Haitao/Xinhua Press/Corbis

There then, is Steinbeck’s beautiful story, the story of the great pearl, how it was found, and how it was lost. For the diver Kino, finding a magnificent pearl means the promise of a better life for his impoverished family. His dream blinds him to the greed and suspicions the pearl arouses in him and his neighbors, and even his loving wife cannot temper his obsession or stem the events leading to the tragedy. For Steinbeck, Kino and his wife illustrate the fall from innocence of people who believe that wealth erases all problems.

This is what is about to befall Malawi. We have the lake as our greatest possession, whose fish provides 70 percent of animal protein in this country. Half a million people are directly or indirectly employed in the fishing industry. Each year, an average 75,000 tons of fish are caught and consumed in the homes of Malawians. As we speak, there is no dish more popular than bonya fish in our country at present, all supplied by Lake Malawi.

But then, again, as we speak, there are people out there exploring the underbelly of our lake, looking for a pearl called oil. This oil will be, for us, what the pearl was to Steinbeck’s Kino. It is a beautiful thing for a country to have its own oil, because it means we will become rich. Look at Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and all those Middle East countries. Aren’t they filthy rich? Boy, they have got so much money they don’t even know what to do with it, so they create man-made islands on the ocean. Qatar, to host the football World Cup one of these days, is planning to build stadiums with air-conditioning, the first of their kind in the world. So, yes, oil means a lot of money. We will kiss our poverty goodbye.

But that is just one part of the story. The darker side of it is not mentioned.

As we saw in the USA in 2010, there can be an oil spill in the course of the drilling. Such oil spills can kill marine life on our lake. The Fisheries Department told the Daily Times on Monday this week that an oil spill on Lake Malawi could take 700 years to clear. Lake Malawi, we are told, is a closed lake. It has an estimated 8,000 cubic km volume of water but only discharges 11 cubic km of water through the Shire River, while some water is also lost through evaporation. Because of this, the lake has a long ‘flushing time’ of approximately 700 years.

In the event of a major oil spill Lake Malawi will die, or, more aptly, it will cease to be of national importance. The fish will die. The water will become too dirty for anybody to swim in. The lake will no longer be a tourism attractor. Until after 700 years.

The Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake, is being destroyed this way. From the time its $12 trillion worth of oil was discovered, environmental damage began.

No matter, you may say, as we shall be so rich we shall no longer rely on the lake for animal protein. We will be importing all the protein we need. Our farming shall also have improved, so we shall be rearing lots of cattle and goats and sheep.

Do not count eggs before the hatching process has even begun. Nigeria has oil, but poverty levels remain disturbingly high decades after extraction of the energy resource began. As Emma Vickers noted in the UK’s Guardian newspaper on Monday this week, exports of around two million barrels per day have been accompanied by endemic and institutionalised corruption: oil governs politics, rewarding petroleum “playboys” while the average Nigerian can expect to earn $2,000 per year before dying at the age of 52. Not to mention the environmental catastrophe in the Niger Delta.

The discovery of oil will not necessarily be the end of our problems. It might, in fact, be the beginning of new challenges. Our politicians might simply pocket the significant portion of the oil revenue, given that our levels of corruption are high. Already Tanzania is acting like the jealous neighbours of Steinbeck’s Kino, suddenly claiming that half of the lake belongs to them. There is a lot of saber-rattling on either side, and it is everyone’s hope that this dispute will not lead us to war.

The prospective oil find is, from many angles, proving to be as disastrous as Kino’s pearl. It is bad luck.

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