Oil drilling likely to impact the mighty Selous ecosystem

16Jul 2017
Lucas Liganga
Guardian On Sunday
Oil drilling likely to impact the mighty Selous ecosystem

THE Kilombero Valley Flood Plains (KVFP) has a significant importance not only to Tanzania but globally as it's one of those very important Ramsar Sites.

Elephants roaming in the Selous Game Reserve.

The KVFP provide very significant ecological and socio-economic functions. KVFP support a variety of habitats for wildlife but also provide livelihoods for people living in the area through agriculture, fishing and hunting.

However, invasion by livestock keepers in the KVFP and impending development projects have raised environmental alarms by conservationists and environmental experts urging that such projects were likely to impact the environment, including the Selous ecosystem.

A retired wildlife conservationist: “Kilombero Valley Controlled Area is part of the mighty and famous Selous ecosystem that encompass the Selous Game Reserve, the Mikumi National Park, the Udzungwa National Park and other wildlife areas that include several wildlife management areas and open wildlife areas.

“Drilling oil in the area shall have a serious and devastating environmental impact and consequences. I am aware that the drilling shall also be conducted in Selous Game Reserve in the Msolwa sector of the Western Selous Game Reserve.

“As is the case for oil drilling elsewhere in the world, the effluents from the oil extraction and other consequent and accompanying anthropogenic activities in this area will directly and indirectly further repress the ecological processes and patterns in the area that are key for its renowned biodiversity.

“The area is one of the only two critical endemic habitats for puku antelope in the country. The other habitat for puku antelope is Lake Rukwa area. Already, the population of puku in the valley has been severely hit by uncontrolled and unplanned anthropogenic activities currently taking place in the area, notably farming and livestock grazing.

The puku population is on a sharp decline and on its brink to extinction in the area. Drilling of oil in the area will only add up to the ecological stress in the area leading to an increased speed of decline and a quick catch-up to the extinction of the species.

“Kilombero valley is a critical Ramsar site that provides for watershed services to the mighty Kilombero, Ulanga and finally Rufiji Rivers. Aquatic life in the area has been affected by human activities to the extent that oil extraction in the area will further exacerbate the situation.

“It is a pity that instead of working against the factors that currently pervert the ecological integrity of the Kilombero Valley and the Selous ecosystem at large, all is set to worsen the situation by adding on developments in the area that will further strain the biodiversity of the area that counts to be a world heritage for mankind.

“The ecological resilience of Kilombero valley is to its threshold. The government of Tanzania should do all it can to stop this insatiable and ravenous human character of going for every inch of development at the expense of a safeguard of the pristine ecological entity freely gifted to us by the Almighty.”

Abdallah Shah, a forester-cum-environmental management expert, says: “The Kilombero valley is a component part of the Rufiji (Great Ruaha) River system; it is situated in Kilombero and Ulanga districts. The valley is a wetland system covering more than 7,000 square kilometers with about 260km long by 52km wide. The flood plain is fed by many rivers and due to huge seasonal variations and dynamics it forms a wide variety of wetland types.

“This valley is an important valley for floral biodiversity conservation and water management. It is also an important wildlife habitat, as it is home to the largest population of the rare Puku antelope; it is part of a migratory route for various animals between Udzungwa National Park and Selous Game Reserve. There are three endemic bird species and two endemic fish species found in the valley.

“The valley is facing threats not only from oil and gas exploration but from various other development initiatives including growth in pastoralism and agriculture expansion.

“The increase in economic activities in the valley, especially oil drilling can lead to irreversible damage to the wetland ecosystem and the lower Rufiji. That may include drainage and long term conversion of the wetlands, river pollution through perturbation of the soil during the laying out of ground work for drilling and during the actual drilling. That is because the drilling will need construction of roads, oil platforms and pipes.

That process can be disturbing to the natural system and may cause irreversible damage. Furthermore, in case of accidental leakage of oil during drilling, its damaging impact on the Kilombero and lower Rufiji ecosystem could be far reaching.

“The challenges to nature conservation are not only in Kilombero Valley they are all over the world in both urban and rural areas. It is a global challenge of how to balance development and conservation. It is a conundrum of what to sacrifice, economic growth or natural beauty of our planet and its associated environmental and economic benefits. One of a glaring controversial example is the intention to drill or not in Alaska – Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The problem in Tanzania is exacerbated by weak laws, inadequate law enforcement [weak institutions] and poor compliance to the rules, marginal interest in environmental governance.

Moreover, the Ramsar Convention is not about total protection, but rather wise sustainable use of the wetlands. Thus Tanzania can argue a case and present guarantees that the country will manage the drilling in a way that that is not destructive to the Kilombero valley flood plains system, that the oil drilling is compatible to wise sustainable use.

“Perhaps we should not only think of the impact to only Selous Game Reserve but rather the potential impact on the entire Rufiji River ecosystem, including the waters of Rufiji, the Selous Game Reserve, the lower Rufiji flood plains, the mangroves, the ocean and even the Mafia Islands and the associated Marine Parks.

“On one hand however we should agree that today there are technologies that can significantly minimise the negative impact of oil exploration and production. The concern is will the explorers/drillers [and the local regulators for that matter] employ the same social-environmental standards and safeguards applied elsewhere in the world?

This is the question we need to ask what standards and safeguards are to be used, how compliant are the drillers and how powerful are our regulators in enforcing the rules.

“Can we put a disaster response mechanism that can effectively and efficiently deal with oil spill if it happens in the future?
“All Ramsar sites including Kilombero wetlands are not strictly speaking protected areas.

These sites are the sites which have attained a certain quality or have certain conservation value and are to be managed under wise sustainable use principles. Now, though there are set criteria to designate a wetland as a Ramsar site, a definition of wise sustainable use can be manipulated and would vary from country to country.

“It is important for Tanzania to continue to consider the intrinsic value of natural systems such as Kilombero. Nonetheless since the country is in quest for poverty eradication and does need economic growth, the liquidation of natural resources is inevitable.

That may include oil drilling in Kilombero Valley Ramsar Site. It is imperative therefore that adequate and impartial socio-environmental assessment is carried out, its recommendations be adhered to the letter and all planning and environmental laws should be complied and enforced to ensure that while attaining economic growth the natural values and benefits such as those of Kilombero are maintained in perpetuity for posterity.”

The Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Lands, Natural Resources and Tourism, Eng. Atashasta Justus Nditiye: “The oil drilling project is likely to affect water sources in the area.

“Oil drilling in the Kilombero Valley is likely to affect water sources in the area. And mind you all the water you get in Dar es Salaam and Morogoro are sourced from the Kilombero valley flood plains.”

Jumapili Chenga, Project Coordinator with the Tanzania Natural Resource Forum (TNRF): “The dangers (oil drilling) are certainly obvious in interfering with ecological and socio-economic functions that the area provides.

However, the most notable ones to consider first would include loss of biodiversity through habitat destruction and fragmentation. Wetland species which cannot take refuge to other areas may go extinct. This is a possibility.

“Other dangers will be deforestation during exploration, loss of agricultural land, grazing and fishing grounds. The exploration and drilling will also exacerbate already heated conflicts between farmers and pastoralists due to land grabbing and acquisition by the government for oil and gas exploration.

“I believe the government has done the cost-benefit-analysis of keeping it as the Ramsar site or explore other opportunities and the benefits are exceeding costs and therefore the government is happy to pursue the project.”

Deodatus Mfugale, a veteran environmental journalist: “The Kilombero valley is an important wetland to Tanzania. A good amount of rice consumed in the country is produced in Kilombero valley mainly by small-scale farmers.

Recently there have also been investments in large rice –production, mainly for export, but it has also offered employment for the youth and a market for the small-scale rice producers.

“Given the fertile soils in the valley, farmers also produce substantial amounts of maize which until recently was not a popular agricultural produce in area.

Natives usually prefer rice and fish to ugali. Besides large-scale and small-scale sugarcane farming, farmers have also started growing cocoa as a cash crop, which has raised the incomes of small-scale farmers.

“There is variety of wildlife in the valley, ranging from big mammals like elephants to small ones like digidigi. Kilombero valley is home to a rare type of antelope called puku and according to experts, 75 percent of the species is native to the valley. This number has certainly gone down.

“Of exceptional importance is the Kibasila swamp which used to cover a big part of Kilombero river valley, one of the four Ramsar Sites in Tanzania. The swamp is very important for tourism. It is home to various animal and bird species; hence bird watching is a major tourist activity. The swamp is an important habitat for freshwater life, harbouring fish, birds, hippos and crocodiles.

There are reports that Kibasila swamp is a breeding site for rare fish species found in Kilombero and Rufiji Rivers. The fish come to the swamp during the rainy season to breed and the fingerlings become fully grown by the end of the rainy season and swim back to the rivers.

The swamp is also home to unique species of birds and plants including freshwater mangroves and toads which give birth instead of spawning.

The swamp also discharges its water into the Kilombero River thus helping it to maintain perennial flows. Kilombero River accounts for 60 percent of the water in Rufiji River.

“However, all is not well for residents in the valley and beyond. Increased and uncontrolled human activities have led to the degradation of the swamp.

Cases of fishermen using poison to have resulted in massive killing of fish. Cutting trees, grass and other water plants to feed livestock destroys breeding sites for fish and nursery grounds. Using under-size nets for fishing results in catching of premature fish and eggs.

There is also rampant poaching for crocodiles’ skin, hippos and buffalo and antelopes which leads to loss of potential species for tourism.

“Records available from Kilombero District Council show that about two decades ago the size of Kibasila swamp was 2,200 square hectares but by 2011 it had shrank to half its original size. So if this swamp dries up, it will have a direct effect on the water supply in Kilombero and Rufiji Rivers and rare fish species will become extinct.

“The environmental degradation of the Kilombero Valley is reflection of governance failure. Natives of the Kilombero valley are fishers and small-scale rice farmers. They have never kept any livestock save for chicken, ducks, and in rare cases, a few goats.

They have lived with the environment on friendly terms. Then came the influx of livestock keepers with their large herds of cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys. They cut trees, polluted water sources and harassed their hosts, the farmers.

“At that time authorities in Morogoro region kept a blind eye at the destruction caused by the livestock keepers and word goes around that they were bribed a few heads of cattle in order to remain silent. When farmers complained, they were silenced.

Eventually some farmers and fishermen decided to join in the environmental destruction. If you can’t beat them, join them, so the saying goes.”