Davis Katsonga, head of Malawi’s opposition Chipani Cha Fuko party, has promised that his government will halt oil exploration on Lake Malawi if he is elected president in the upcoming May 20 general elections.
"It's not a secret that the firms currently conducting oil exploration on Lake Malawi were granted such permission by the current government without following the right procedures and based on outdated Malawi mining laws and regulations. So if we are voted into power in the May 20 general elections, our government will bring sanity in the mining sector by revoking licenses from these firms to stop oil exploration activities on the lake and to preserve the lake's water resources," Katsonga told state-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation Television (MBC TV) on April 6.
He said his party is concerned that in recent years the government has been granting mining and oil exploration licenses without first reviewing the country's lesiglation and regulatory regimes.
"The current government has been focusing more on the economic benefits mining and oil exploration will bring, and not considering the negative impact such activities would bring on the environment, including water resources -- yet we can't achieve sound economic growth and eradicate poverty without sustaining our natural resources, including water," Katsonga said.
He added that research has shown that neither local communities nor the country as a whole were benefiting from the exploration activities.
Archbishop Montfort Stima, chair of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Malawi, agreed. He said there was an urgent need for all stakeholders to balance the economic benefits of extractive activities with conservation of environmental resources.
"Extraction of natural resources must not be considered from an economic perspective alone, because it's said that ‘if we take care of the environment, the environment will in turn take care of us,’” said Stima.
Meanwhile, President Joyce Banda said that mining and oil exploration activities are on her government's list of priorities aimed at bolstering Malawi's economy.
She acknowledged, however, that there was a need to improve the legal and institutional framework for mining and oil exploration so that they fully contributes to the country's economic growth and preserve the environment.
Banda said the Ministry of Mining has already prioritized some projects in the energy and mining sector, and has established a legal and institutional framework.
"...My government is committed to the promotion of a conducive, transparent and accountable mining regime in this country,” she said. “In this regard, the government is reviewing the Mines and Minerals Act, the Petroleum Policy and the Petroleum Act. My government will ensure that the mineral resources benefit Malawians.”
The Malawi government has granted licenses to two firms, UK-based Surestream Petroleum and South Africa’s SacOil Ltd., to explore for oil and has on Lake Malawi.
This decision in 2011 reignited a long-running territorial dispute between Malawi and neighboring Tanzania.
Malawi claims the entire northern part of the lake (known in Tanzania as Lake Nyasa) based on colonial-era treaties between Great Britain and Germany, while Tanzania says the border between the two countries runs through the middle of the lake. Tanzania says it should have been consulted before the exploration permits were issued.
The latest round of talks between the two countries to resolve the issue ended in deadlock last month.
A prominent Malawian human rights activists, Rafik Hajat, has blamed Malawi's foreign policy for the failure to resolve the dispute.
Hajat said the country’s presidents have been promoting their own personal interests and not those of the country.
"For example, if Malawi government's foreign policy had first taken into consideration that since time immemorial Malawians and Tanzanians have been depending on Lake Malawi's water resources, and the benefits far outweigh the anticipated benefits from oil exploration on the lake, the ongoing lake border dispute would have not been there," he said.
"It's a fact that many Malawians depend on the lake's water resources, hence it needs to be conserved for future generations," Hajat said last week during the fifth and final political debate organized by the Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), with support from the British High commission. "We should always remember that if polluted with oil, it will take not less than 700 years to flush the lake."
The debate involved candidates from Malawi's three major opposition political parties: the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).