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Major African pipeline project leaves Ugandan farmers at the mercy of climate change

Residents of the Albertine region blame the damage to farmlands on global warming, as well as the mass felling of trees to make way for the massive infrastructure

Una mujer colecta agua de una charca formada tras las recientes inundaciones en la región de Albertine, Uganda.
A woman collects water from a pond formed after recent flooding in the Albertine region, Uganda.John Okot

Four years ago, John Jabila’s garden was bountiful: from one edge to another repeated rows of maize crops, potato vines and banana groves covered his farmland.

But since May last year, devastating floods have swept through his two-acre garden, a situation that worsened during rainy season. Jabila has since abandoned his garden, which has since been submerged with flood water, silt and soil sediments.

“I cannot farm anymore because my garden is like a small lake — and our crops are drowning,” says Jabila, 41, who is married with six children and lives in Kasenyi, Albertine region. “Because of that, it is becoming harder every day to get food because I do not have land to grow crops.”

Like most locals in the Albertine region, Jabila’s major source of livelihood is farming. For now, he is working as a casual laborer in other people’s gardens in the neighboring villages to make ends meet for his family.

Annet Katushabe, who lives in the same village, also decided to abandon her three-acre garden also because of the rampant floods. The mother of four, has been forced to rent a flood-free land on a monthly basis so that she can continue with her farming.

“I don’t have any solutions,” says Katushabe, who is 32. “I have to walk for five kilometers [three miles] to my new rented land so that I can grow crops because it seems to be the only practical way to continue getting food for my children and also sending them to school. But it is also expensive to rent, and I have to engage in other odd jobs to earn some extra money.”

As climate change continues to take a toll on communities globally, Uganda, like most countries in the sub-Saharan Africa, are increasingly finding it tough to grow food as extreme weather — characterized by sizzling temperature and erratic rainfall patterns — affects crop yields and exacerbates unreliable harvests. Studies show that burning fossil fuel is the major driver of climate change globally. But in Uganda, locals are blaming the activities of an oil giant, TotalEnegies, for the rampant floods that have led to serious food insecurity in some communities in western Uganda.

In 2021, TotalEnergies began constructing a 700-acres industrial area in Buliisa district. The vast site, which is part of the controversial East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), will have a Central Processing Facility (CPF) with the capacity to process190,000 barrels of crude oil, a camp for 4,000 workers and a drilling support base. Setting up this facility, however, required clearing large swathes of trees to pave for the project.

EACOP is expected to be the world’s longest oil pipeline, with the potential to release 35 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, according to scientists. TotalEnergies is leading the multibillion-dollar oil project to develop Uganda’s oilfields, which will help it transport crude oil through a 896-mile (1,443-kilometer) pipeline to the port of Tanga in Tanzania.

In recent years, EACOP has faced constant pressure from climate activists across the globe, who have repeatedly called on investors not to inject funds into the project, arguing that the “carbon bomb” will destroy the fragile ecosystem and increase greenhouse emissions, thus exacerbating the global climate crisis. As a result, most investors have pulled out of the EACOP — estimated to cost $5 billion — and Uganda is currently negotiating with Chinese investors to finance the controversial oil pipeline.

Rogers Tusiime, Buliisa’s district environment officer, blames French oil giant TotalEnergies — which has a 62% stake in the EACOP project — for the increased food insecurity in the region, arguing the company engaged in large scale tree-cutting which exposed the farmlands to floods.

“Our region has flat land,” he says. “When you uproot all the trees, you disrupt the ecological balance in the area.” Tusiime added that most locals are smallholder farmers “who can’t afford to buy modern farming equipment to manage environmental disasters,” which makes them even more vulnerable to floods and other climate-related shocks.

TotalEnergies, however, denies the accusation of causing the floods. In an email, company spokesperson Stephanie Platat argues that Buliisa is “historically prone to flooding” especially during rainy seasons. At the moment, the oil company says, it has contracted a firm to conduct a hydrological study to develop a retention pond system that can curb the devastating floods.

“Some of the activities that were conducted during the study included: a review of existing topographical data for the site, condition assessment of the existing temporary site drainage system, review of historical rainfall intensity, duration and frequency data for flood forecasting and modelling drainage in the project site. This was a prerequisite to designing the proposed solution — a retention pond system,” says Platat.

“TotalEnergies should have known better that cutting trees in big numbers has consequences. Their mistake was cutting trees without a proper plan. And now people are struggling to grow food because of their actions,” Tusiime cautions. Studies show that trees help to soak up rain water or even reduce the speed of water-run off during heavy downpours.

An oil platform in Bulisa district, Uganda.
An oil platform in Bulisa district, Uganda.John Okot

Bernard Atwooki, the community development officer, urges TotalEnergies to prioritize the welfare of the people as it continues with its oil activities, adding that “it has become an oil curse that continues to eat away people’s major source of survival – farming.” Agriculture remains the major source of livelihood in Uganda, with an estimated 80% of the population relying on it, mostly small-holder farmers.

“The first phase for food security is tailored to the specific-livelihood setting of the Project Affected Persons (PAPs) and informed by their preferences. The food security programs reflect the predominance of agricultural livelihoods along the pipeline route,” says Platt, adding that the “the types of programs include: land preparation for cultivation (clearing, soil improvements and tillage); main crop improvement programs — crops to be confirmed for a specific area.”

Due to the ongoing problem in the region, some climate activists and environmental rights bodies have decided to seek legal redress. In June last year, TotalEnergies was sued again, this time by 26 Ugandans for reparations over human rights violations. The complaint also argued that the oil giant has caused “serious harm” by depriving them of their free use of land, leading to “serious food shortages.”

A report by Human Rights Watch also showed that the “construction and operation of EACOP poses grave environmental risks” since the “pipeline route traverses sensitive ecosystems, including protected areas and internationally significant wetlands, posing threats to biodiversity and ecosystems that local communities depend on for their sustenance.”

In another case, more than 500 locals in the Albertine region have petitioned the Uganda Wildlife Authority over elephant attacks caused by “oil related activities” (Murchison Falls National park, which is the largest in Uganda, has the highest number of elephants totaling 15,000).

Dickens Kamugisha — Chief Executive Director of the African Institute of Energy Governance (AFIEGO), who was part of the legal team that sued TotalEnergies last year — accused the government of “failing to conduct a proper environmental assessment of the project,” adding “that is why people are facing floods.” “The environment assessment is questionable,” he says. ”The people who did were hired by the government — and as a citizen of this country, I know very well that our government has a history of being corrupt when it comes to profiting from projects.”

Tony Achidria, spokesperson of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), however denies the accusation, saying that the environment assessment on the EACOP was done in an objective manner by a team of expert personnel.

“The environment assessment was transparent, and the report was shared with the public because there was nothing to hide,” says Achidria. “Those saying that the EACOP project is causing floods are wrong because climate change is affecting everyone globally. That is why people are failing to grow food because of this crisis almost everywhere.” He adds: “the good news it that the EACOP will use some of the best eco-friendly technologies that will limit carbon emissions.”

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