Uganda livelihoods and oil exploration in lakes of legend

Republished with permission of Infonile

11 Oct 2023 by The Water Diplomat

Lake Albert shores flooded following heavy rains in 2020

Legends and Spiritual Meaning

It’s cool and breezy by the shores of Lake Wamala, an almost 100-square mile freshwater body a few hours’ drive from Kampala, the Ugandan capital. It’s a home for dozens of birds and fish species, including tilapia, catfish, lungfish, and mudfish, which are sold on the local market. But to the people of Buganda Kingdom in central Uganda, this lake is not just a source of livelihood and recreation: In fact, Lake Wamala is magical. One story goes that Lake Wamala is the son of a local woman named Wamala, who “was walking when her water suddenly broke and poured there,” said Beth Timmers, a social scientist who recorded stories by fishmongers about the spiritual significance of the lake. “Just like that, the water flowed, and the lake grew in size. That is the story of Wamala: it was simply born. “Even the government does not have control over it because it is the lake of a spirit,” she was reportedly told by one fisherman at one of the landing sites of this lake in Mityana District.

According to another legend, the lake immortalizes Wamala, the last king of the vast and powerful Chwezi Dynasty, which existed over 1,000 years ago and comprised present-day Uganda, western Kenya, northern Tanzania, eastern DR Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi, said Yasin Bbira, the Mityana District Natural Resources Officer. Today, the many shrines around the lake are a testament to these beliefs. Locals pray to the spirits dwelling in this lake for life, love, health, and wealth. According to Sammy Nsereko, the headteacher of Mityana secondary school, religious leaders in Buganda passed down these legends to ensure that the people valued the lakes and other resources.

For a long time, it worked. But today, Lake Wamala’s divine status is no longer enough to protect it from the impacts of environmental destruction. In East Africa, a region endowed with abundant freshwater resources, Lake Wamala is just one of many lakes that are in danger of drying up – putting at risk the millions of people who depend on water and fish across the region.

How did this happen, and can the lakes be saved?

In East Africa, the fisheries sector has long been the source of livelihood for millions. It has also been crucial for proper nutrition, food security, and a source of employment and income. The fishery sector’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for different East Africa Countries is enormous. For example, data from the Fisheries Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) indicate that 2018 exports of fish and fish products for Tanzania were worth USD 206.9 million; USD 29.4 million for Kenya; USD 1.4 million for Rwanda; USD 171.7 million for Uganda; and USD 11,000 for Burundi. With such a contribution to employment generation and GDP, the sector supports East Africa countries in achieving SDG Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth) and SDG Goal 1 (end poverty in all its forms). Also, with millions depending on fish for food, the sector significantly influences the attainment of SDG Goal 2 (zero hunger). However, the fishery sector is currently shrouded in uncertainty as pollution, the effect of dangerous human activities on the environment, and climate change threaten water bodies, especially the freshwater lakes, which are the most significant source of fish in East Africa.

Under chapter 19, Article 111 of the East African Community Treaty , Partner States agree to take concerted measures to foster co-operation in the joint and efficient management and the sustainable utilisation of natural resources like water bodies within the region for the mutual benefit of the Partner States.


The Dark Side Of Uganda's First Oil

Lake Albert is Uganda’s second-largest lake, a source of livelihood for thousands of fishing communities in Uganda and the neighboring DRC. The Lake is part of the Nile River, a crucial water source for millions of people in east and northeast Africa. Residents in areas around this lake say fish populations have reduced. “We have for years known that during the rainy season, flooding is related to plenty of fish. This, however, has changed. The catch is too poor these days,” observes William Bamuturaki, a resident and chairman of Kiyere Village in Buliisa District, which lies on the shores of Lake Albert.

Historical data shows that before the 1990s, larger fish species were dominant in Lake Albert. However, between 2010 to 2015, fish brought ashore per boat declined by almost 30 percent. The main reasons for this decline include the growing fisher population, illegal fishing equipment, weak enforcement, increasing demand, improved access to domestic and Congolese markets, and unrestricted access to fish.

Lake Albert is part of the oil-rich Albertine graben in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Uganda has discovered an estimated 6.5 billion barrels of oil, of which 1.4 billion are considered recoverable, and plans to commence commercial oil production are underway. Experts, however, have warned that once oil production activities begin, threats such as oil spills and construction will become contributing factors to the declining biodiversity of the lake ecosystem. Albertine graben residents like Alice Kazimura, the Executive Director of Kakindo Integrated Women Development Agency (KAWIDA), an Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in Buliisa district, fear that since many oil wells are near the lake, oil activities will worsen fish scarcity in Lake Albert. Alice Kazimura, the Executive Director of Kakindo Integrated Women Development Agency, states: “We keep wondering why fish have reduced when oil activities are in high gear. They keep telling us that fish has reduced because of poor fishing methods, but these methods are what we have used for ages without the fish becoming scarce.”  She says that because many oil wells are near the lake, residents suspect the oil activities are the culprit for fish loss. She and other residents speculate that oil might have already spilled into the lake during the construction of drilling sites. “We keep wondering why fish have reduced when oil activities are in high gear,” Kazimura tells InfoNile. “They keep telling us that fish has reduced because of poor fishing methods, but these methods are what we have used for ages without the fish becoming scarce.”

On March 29th, 2020, a blowout occurred at a geothermal exploration site in Kibiro Village of Hoima District. Residents feared this could be an oil spill, one of the worst accidents that could happen in oil-rich areas.The incident sparked discussion on whether Uganda is adequately prepared to handle oil spills it may face with the coming oil development. The Kibiro geothermal exploration site, like Uganda’s oil deposits, is located in the Albertine graben along Lake Albert’s shoreline. In a press release more than two weeks after the incident, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, one of Uganda’s governmental bodies, downplays the possibility that this incident was an oil spill based on the composition of the discharge, cited as mostly sand, water and clay.

“Whereas what happened in Kibiro is almost similar to what happens during an oil spill incident, it may be erroneous to dub the incident an oil spill,” Secretary Robert Kasande clarifies in the press release. An Inter-Ministerial Task Force investigating the incident, however, observed that water reeds along the lakeshore had black deposits resembling crude oil that extended kilometres away.