UK-based Surestream Petroleum pledged this week to protect the environment and respect borders when it carries out oil exploration activities on Lake Malawi.
Ownership of the lake is currently disputed between Malawi and Tanzania, where it is known as Lake Nyasa.
“We are assuring Malawians that during our operations we will do whatever we can to protect Lake Malawi’s environment, including avoid oil spills, to conserve the lake’s marine life, as well as not doing our work beyond Malawi-Tanzania border,” Surestream Operations Manager Keith Robinson said on January 20, during a public hearing in Karonga on the company’s environmental and social impact assessment report for the planned oil exploration activities.
Robinson was responding to concerns raised by Paramount Chief Kyungu of Karonga about potential oil spills.
“It’s an indisputable fact that our lake [Lake Malawi] is one of the few water resources rich in marine life worldwide and hence needs protection. Our fear is that the lake could easily lose this enviable status if oil spills occur during the ongoing oil exploration,” the chief said.
The head of the Catholic Church in Karonga, Bishop Martin Mtumbuka, appealed to the Malawian government during the meeting to ensure that proper regulations are put in place for extractive industries.
“Our mining regulations are over 30 years old and hence are outdated, not in line with current trends, and do not provide safety in mining and oil exploration industries,” he said.
Mtumbuka said there have been complaints from communities located near mines “that they are not benefitting from extractive industries or mines close to them,” and that the mines are “even putting their natural resources, including air, land and water, at risk of degradation.”
The country’s Deputy Director for Mining, Peter Chilumanga, said there are processes under way to review mining and petroleum regulations and ensure they are up to date.
“As a government, we are not just idle on these important matters; we are already working on a draft mining and petroleum policy that will suit the current mining and petroleum trends,” he said.
Surestream will hold public hearings in six other districts -- Rumphi, Mzuzu, Nkhata Bay, Nkhota Kota, Lilongwe, and Blantyre -- by the end of the month.
“These public hearings will give a chance to local Malawians to give their views on the environmental and social impact assessment report by Surestream Petroleum Ltd.,” said Environmental Affairs and Climate Change Principal Secretary Yanira Mtupanyama.
Mtupanyama said Surestream would soon start seismic operations, using a boat and aircraft, to search for oil on Lake Malawi.
“The data captured by the boat and aircraft will then be used to determine the amount of oil reserves available in Lake Malawi and how extraction can be done,” Mtupanyama said.
Malawi granted Surestream a license to explore for oil and gas deposits on the water body back in October 2011. This had the effect of reigniting a long-standing territorial dispute with neighboring Tanzania, which claims half the lake and says it therefore should have been consulted before the license was offered.