SacOil, one of the firms hired by the Malawian government to search for oil in Lake Malawi, said last week that it has successfully completed its environmental assessment study on the water body.
Last April, SacOil initiated a satellite monitoring study to assess the environmental risk of a proposed oil exploration program over the area where it has a license, which covers approximately 16,000 square kilometers across northern Malawi.
"With the positive results associated with the satellite environmental work, planning of the environmental and social impact assessments has now begun," the said in a statement.
The company said it had presented the results of the satellite study to the Malawi Department of Mines at a meeting in Lilongwe in December. The 2014 budget and work program for the project were also presented and approved at the meeting.
"In consultation with the Malawian government, SacOil is currently targeting to have all environmental work completed by [the third quarter of] 2014," the company said.
However, SacOil did not indicate how soon it plans to start drilling for oil on the lake, which is currently at the center of a territorial dispute between Malawi and neighboring Tanzania.
In addition to SacOil, the Malawian government also gave an oil exploration license to UK-based Surestream Petroleum.
SacOil's announcement about its completed environmental impact assessment comes despite the fact that preliminary responses from Malawians, gathered during public hearings last month on the proposed oil exploration, revealed that most are against the activity.
Participants at the hearing expressed fears that oil exploration on the lake might lead to oil spills that the country is not equipped to contain.
Paramount Chief Kyungu of Karonga, in northern Malawi, noted on March 13 that "a spill happened just some weeks ago by a mining firm which is doing its mining operations in my district. Although the company was quick to claim that it has rectified and contained spillage, my people are living in fear -- they are afraid to draw water from nearby water sources, since they believe they have been polluted by the mining firm."
Residents in Karonga district rely on Lake Malawi as a water, he said.
A prominent human rights campaigner and executive director of the Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI), Rafik Hajat, also warned that “our current mining and oil regulations are outdated [and] not in line with present trends, [and] therefore, cannot guarantee conservation of the lake's resources during oil exploration.”
But Peter Chilumanga, Malawi's Deputy Director for Mining in the Ministry of Mines, said people should not panic.
“We are therefore assuring them that since the processes of oil exploration on Lake Malawi are to take time, every stage is also alternated by monitoring and evaluation to protect water resources and the environment in general," he said.
Chilumanga added that the companies hired to do the oil exploration -- Surestream and SacOil -- had modern technology capable of protecting the environment during their operations.
He said the government anticipated very minimal damage, if any, to the lake ecosystem during oil exploration activities.
Malawi claims the entire northern part of Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Nyasa, based on colonial-era treaties between Great Britain and Germany. Tanzania says the border between it and Malawi runs through the middle of the lake, which Tanzanian officials say is a shared water resource.
The long-standing dispute resurfaced in 2011, when Malawi first granted Surestream permission to explore for oil and gas in the lake. Tanzania said it should have been consulted before the permits were issued.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Forum of Former Heads of State is mediating in the territorial dispute. The forum, chaired by former Mozambican President Joachim Chissano, has yet to identify a resolution.