Oil drilling in Lake Malawi: What we can learn from Deepwater Horizon

Realizing the irresponsible nature of gambling on tobacco as the nation’s hallmark industry, President Banda has wisely supported efforts to diversify the economy by encouraging development in other areas. Unfortunately, the most significant of these targeted industries – nature-based tourism and mineral extraction – cannot effectively coexist without extremely thoughtful and sophisticated management. To that end, the government’s recent actions indicating support for oil drilling in Lake Malawi display an alarming lack of foresight and, frankly, make little economic sense for the vast majority of Malawians.

As a rural society blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, Malawi depends on the allure of its mountains, water bodies, forests and plateaus to bring in tourists and their much-needed foreign currency. Lake Malawi is, of course, the preeminent draw – and the source of income for millions of Malawians who depend on tourism, fishing, and various supportive industries for their livelihoods.

Yet the threat of pollution in the lake is nothing new: The massive Kayelekera Uranium Mine, for example, has stoked recent concern due to its construction in an earthquake-prone watershed that feeds into Lake Malawi. Just as a major spill of radioactive wastewater would have catastrophic effects upon the lake and its tourism and fishing industries, it stands to reason that a substantial oil spill could devastate the lake and the millions of lives it supports on a daily basis.

L-R: Benard Membe (Tanzania, Minister) - Ephraim Chiume (Malawi, Minister) enjoy a cup of tea at the Kilimanjaro Hyatt Regency in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in August 2012, before the lake Malawi/Nyasa discussion.

As law students from the United States working in Malawi this winter for Friends of the Earth International, we are monitoring the growing search for oil in Lake Malawi with recent and direct knowledge of the impact oil drilling can have on an ecosystem and its attendant industries: We study at Tulane University Law School in New Orleans, Louisiana, which is situated less than 150 kilometers from where the British Petroleum-contracted Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in April 2010, spewing nearly five million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico over the following three months. The fishing industry along the American Gulf Coast was decimated, with tens of thousands of people suddenly out of work and many more negatively affected. In short, the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States.

Fast-forward two years: In spite of multibillion-dollar cleanup campaigns in the region, yields of shrimp, oysters, and other fish species are still a fraction of what they were before the spill. Tourism in Louisiana and other states continues to suffer. The thousands of unemployed residents who formerly worked in fishing and/or tourism now depend increasingly on the fossil fuel industry for jobs and income.

The oil spill, in effect, transformed a relatively diverse economy that had relied primarily on extraction, fishing and tourism into one that relies more than ever on oil and gas extraction – that is, a more homogenous economy where the dominant industry is the very one responsible for effectively ruining the environment and economic diversity of the place.

The basic parallels between the economies of the American Gulf Coast and Malawi are striking: From Karonga to Mangochi, millions of Malawians make their living by fishing in Lake Malawi, feeding millions more by harvesting chambo, usipa, kampango, and other species through healthy, small-scale operations. Another large segment of Malawi’s population depends on income from tourists drawn to such resort areas as Nkhata Bay and Cape Maclear by the lake’s pristine water clarity and clean, sandy beaches.

Moreover, Lake Malawi possesses two qualities that distinguish it from the Gulf of Mexico and magnify the threat posed by oil drilling in its waters: First, the lake – along with its two Great Lake counterparts to the north – supports more biodiversity than any other lake in the world, with roughly 1,000 different species of fish thriving in its clear waters.

In addition to serving as a source of fascination and scholarship for biologists worldwide, this abundance of aquatic life, coupled with consistently impressive water clarity, has allowed Malawi to develop into a prime destination for snorkeling and diving – activities that have never seemed especially inviting in the muddy Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, many, if not most, foreign tourists engage in one of these activities while visiting the major lake resorts. Thus, while the Deepwater Horizon spill did not significantly harm such forms of tourism in the United States, a significant oil spill in Lake Malawi would likely!  have a ruinous effect on these major forces behind the tourism economy here.

Second, Lake Malawi is, well, a lake. The oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill dispersed somewhat thanks to oceanic currents and the Gulf’s considerable depth – to the point, in fact, where researchers cannot even find a large portion of the spilled oil (though its harmful ecological effects are, of course, becoming increasingly evident).

Lake Malawi, on the other hand, is comparatively shallow and stagnant. Thus, it stands to reason that any oil spilled in the lake would not benefit from the same natural dispersion as would a similar spill in the open ocean. Depending on the size and location of the spill as well as the timeliness and adequacy of the cleanup effort, Lake Malawi’s ecosystems and the industries they support could well be destroyed by a spill a mere fraction the size of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Entertain for a moment, then, such a post-spill vision of the lake: Iridescent globules of petroleum replace the lake’s legendary array of cichlids. Fish eagles, coated in crude, flounder in the shallows. No more dried chambo in the market. No more foreign tourist dollars flowing in at Nkhata Bay or Cape Maclear. And no more usipa next to your nsima.

All for a one-time payday that will likely only provide a substantial benefit to foreign oil conglomerates and the MPs who championed them.

Ask yourself, Malawi: Is it worth it?

**Ben Fuchs and John Hays work in Malawi as legal clerks with Friends of the Earth International, a Netherlands-based environmental organization with affiliates in 76 countries worldwide. They are also currently studying at Tulane University Law School in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

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