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Malawi Suspends Oil Exploration on Disputed Lake

LILONGWE, Malawi

The government of Malawi has suspended oil and gas exploration on Lake Malawi, over which it is currently locked in a territorial dispute with neighoring Tanzania. The move is part of a broader effort by the new to re-evaluate all proposed extractive activities in the country.

In a statement issued last week, the Malawian government asked all companies involved in oil exploration to cease operations pending a national review process, which is expected to begin soon.

The new govenment of President Peter Mutharika will be scrutinizing all oil exploration licences issued under previous President Joyce Banda’s administration, in order the ensure that proper procedures were followed, accrding to the statement.

Principal Secretary  for Natural Resources, Energy and Mining Ben Botolo called this is an important step that will be benefit all Malawians.

Economist Glades Phiri said Malawi needs the economic benefits that could come from oil exploration, but supported a review, noting that if the Minerals Act of 1981 is applied, the government could lose out on a lot of revenue.

“I feel there is need to review the oil exploration law, because at the time when this law was made, in 1981, oil had not been discovered in Malawi,” Phiri said. “Now that we have the oil, we need  to close all loopholes.”

Malawi has six blocs earmarked for oil and gas exploration so far. It has granted licenses to Pacific Oil & Gas Ltd.; SacOil Holdings Ltd. of South Africa; UK-based Surestream Petroleum, which later partnered with El Hamra Oil; and UAE-based RAK Gas LLC, according to Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining Atupele Muluzi.

Residents in the area around Lake Malawi have expressed concerns about oil exploration in the water body, saying they had not been briefed on the issue before the licenses were approved.

“We rely on the lake for water to drink, as well as water for washing and other activities,” said Atepeke Kamanga, who lives in Nkhatabay, in the Lakeshore district. “If the oil that they are exploring for leaks into the lake, what will happen to thousands of people that rely on [it]?" he asked.

He expressed hope that once the review is completed, local people will be consulted before any exploration starts in Lake Malawi.

Meanwhile, on November 20th Mutharika told two members of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) mediation team working to resolve the Malawi-Tanzania border dispute that Malawi’s position on ownership of the lake has not changed.

Former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano and former Botswana President Festus Mogae arrived in Malawi on November 19th to brief Mutharika on the progress they have made toward resolving the dispute.

"I informed the two former Presidents of Mozambique and Botswana that to us here in Malawi, there is no conflict between Malawi and our neighbor, Tanzania,” Mutharika said. “However, I have stressed that the row about Lake Malawi is not negotiable, and my position has not changed.”

He hastened to add that this did not mean Malawi was planning go to war with Tanzania.

Malawi claims the entire northern part of Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Nyasa, based on colonial-era treaties between Great Britain and Germany. However, Tanzania says the border between the two countries runs through the middle of the lake, and that the water body is a shared resource.

The long-running territorial dispute resurfaced in 2011, when Malawi 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 two countries opted for mediation by the SADC forum of former heads of state to settle the issue, but the latest round of talks ended in deadlock back in March.

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