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OUR CROPS ARE DROWNING: Ugandan Farmers Lose Crops as EACOP Activities Trigger Devastating Floods

It Has Become an Oil Curse that Continues to Eat Away People's Major Source of Survival, Says Farmer

Farmers in a flooded garden in Buliisa district. Photo by John Okot
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OIL CURSE?

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, even worse during rain seasons. 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 everyday 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 labourer in other people’s gardens in the neighboring villages to make ends meet for his family.

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

“I don’t have any solutions,” says Katushabe, who is 32. “I have to walk for five kilometers 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. Burning fossil fuel is the major driver of climate change globally. At the recent COP28 climate summit, after tense negotiations, more than 200 member countries agreed to ‘transition away from fossil fuel’ to avert the impact of climate crises.

But as they mot ways to switch to clean energy, in Uganda, locals are blaming the activities of TotalEnegies, which they say are exacerbating  floods, resulting in food insecurity in the Albertine region, west of Uganda.

In 2021, TotalEnergies embarked on 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 construction 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.

Buliisa District Environment Officer, Rogers Tusiime, blames French oil giant TotalEnergies for the increased food insecurity in the region since they engaged in large scale tree-cutting thus exposing 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. That’s what Total did – they removed all trees, and they ended up exposing our farmlands to floods”.

Tusiime added that most locals are smallholder farmers “who can’t afford to buy modern farming equipment to manage environmental disasters” thus making them even more vulnerable to the floods and other climated-related shocks.

“Total[Energies] should have known better that cutting trees in big numbers has consequences. There mistake was cutting tree 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 downpour.

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 percent of the population relying on it, mostly small-holder farmers.

Due to the ongoing problem in the region, some climate activists and environmental rights bodies have decided to seek legal redress. In June this year, Total energies was sued again, this time by 26 Ugandans for reparations over human rights violations, adding 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 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”. Again, more than 500 locals in the Albertine region have since  petitioned the Uganda Wildlife Authority over elephant attacks caused by “oil related activities”.(Murchison Falls National park, which is largest in Uganda, has the highest number of elephants totaling 15,000.)

TotalEnergies, who own the majority stake of 60 percent in the EACOP project, however, denies the accusation of causing the floods arguing 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,” said TotalEnegies’ Spokesperson Stephanie Platat.

“Currently, two retention ponds are being constructed at the Central Processing Facility to hold 102,516.5 cubic meters and 279,384 cubic meters of water respectively, with a plan to later release the water through the existing drainage channels at a controlled pace to avoid damaging neighboring land”.

Platat also noted that TotalEnergies intends to implement livelihood programs in two phases – “the first to ensure food security after relocation, moving onto delivery of additional programs to improve and diversify livelihoods”.

“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,” she said in an email, 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”.

Dickens Kamugisha, Chief Executive Director of African Institute of Energy Governance (AFIEGO), who has also been part of the legal team that sued Total Energies this year, accused the government  “ failing to conduct a proper environmental assessment of the project” adding “that is why people are facing floods”.

“The environment assessment is questionable,” he said “ 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,”Achidria said. “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 said adding that “the good news it that the EACOP will use some of the best eco-friendly technologies that will limit carbon emissions”

Despite that, the EACOP is expected to be the longest oil-heated pipeline in the world with the potential to pump out 35 carbon emissions into the atmosphere, scientists say. TotalEnegres is leading the multi-billion dollar oil project to develop Uganda’s oilfield that will help it transport crude oil though a 1,443 kilometer pipeline to the Tanga port Tanzania.

In recent years the EACOP has faced constant pressure from climate activists across the globe who have been repeatedly called upon investors not to inject funds in the project, arguing that the ‘carbon bomb’ would destroy the fragile ecosystem and increase greenhouse emissions thus exacerbating the climate crisis globally. As a result, majority of the investors have since pulled out of the EACOP – which is estimated to cost 5 billion USD –  and at the moment, Uganda is negotiating with financiers from  China to help fund the controversial oil pipeline.

This story was produced with assistance from MESHA and IDRC Eastern and Southern Africa Office for science journalists reporting on COP28.

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