Floods submerged farms near TotalEnergies’ 700-acre industrial area. The oil major has compensated 88 people. Officials say thousands were affected.
Floods first ripped through Sam Akuguzibwe’s three-acre garden in May last year. His family had farmed that piece of land for decades, but they had never seen anything like this. Seemingly out of nowhere, rushing waters submerged their garden, along with hundreds of acres in the surrounding Albertine Graben region of western Uganda. Akuguzibwe, 56, desperately resisted the inevitable before he gave up on his harvest.
“My crops were drowning, and the water kept on bringing more sand and gravel,” says the father of ten. “My garden lost its fertility.”
In Uganda, climate change has contributed to more extreme weather patterns including heavy rains. This is a result of global greenhouse gas emissions – many of which come from burning fossil fuels – but one oil major’s much more local activities have also been blamed for the devastating floods. In 2021, TotalEnergies began constructing a 700-acre industrial area in Buliisa district. Part of the controversial East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project, the vast site will host construction camps, a drilling support base, and a Central Professing Facility with a capacity to process 190,000 barrels of crude oil per day. An initial part of its construction involved clearing huge swathes of trees.
Buliisa District Environment Officer, Rogers Tusiime, believes the deforestation left local residents vulnerable and negatively affected about 4,000 people. Trees hugely reduce the likelihood of flooding through slowing and reducing surface run-off as well as by storing water. Tusiime says TotalEnergies failed to take this into account.
“They made a very big oversight when they cleared all trees without putting a proper drainage system for water in place,” he says. “Total never conducted due diligence and their biggest mistake was clearing everything at once, and not in phases…The land was left bare, and floods caught them unaware.”
Local experts and campaigners came to the same conclusion following last year’s devastation. “The flooding problem is a clear sign that danger is imminent,” says Dickens Kamugisha, Executive Director of African Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO). “Right now livelihoods are being lost and biodiversity being destroyed – and lot more of these disasters will happen if Total doesn’t stop this bad oil project”.
In response to concerns about the environmental impact of 1,443km crude oil pipeline, local activists have called on Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to re-evaluate the project’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA). They have not just been ignored but silenced. In December 2022, a group of activists protested outside NEMA’s offices in Kampala. They were arrested and charged with “inciting violence”. As African Arguments previously reported, the Ugandan government has responded to local opposition to EACOP by intensifying its use of repressive tactics such as arrests and the shutting down of NGOs.
Criticism of the project, however, is not limited to Uganda. The East Africa Court of Justice is due to rule in August whether EACOP should be suspended until questions regarding its social and environmental impact – which go well beyond Buliisa district – are resolved. The international #StopEACOP campaign has successfully pressured several major banks to rule out financing the controversial project. Meanwhile, the European Parliament in September 2022 passed a resolution calling on TotalEnergies to postpone the project for a year, citing “human rights violations”, “judicial harassment”, and “immense” impacts on local communities, the environment, and climate.
TotalEnergies rejected the European Parliament’s denunciations, claiming they were based on “factual inexactitudes”, and rejected an invitation from its Subcommittee on Human Rights.
NEMA’s Senior Public Relations Officer, Tony Achidria, similarly refutes the widespread concerns. He told African Arguments the original assessment report was “spot on”. He added that TotalEnergies is using “environmentally-friendly technology” and says the project will ultimately improve living standards.
In response to African Arguments’ questions about the floods, TotalEnergies said it had “taken into account all the complaints lodged by local residents concerning flooding following heavy rainfall”. It explained it had acquired nine acres impacted by the floods and compensated the landowners as well as 88 others. The company added that it has contracted “a leading Ugandan hydrology consultancy firm” to develop a “retention pond system”.
For residents in western Uganda who have seen their farms and homes submerged, this is too little too late. Last May’s floods destroyed some people’s livelihoods and sources of subsistence, and officials say thousands more were affected than were compensated. For instance, Akuguzibwe was told he is not eligible for payments. “I am bitter because these problems began haunting us right from the time Total started working here,” he says.
Many others in the area, like Joan Bujuni, 25, have been trekking several kilometres each day to fetch water since the nearby wells were destroyed in the floods. Some fear stagnant water has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and water-borne diseases. The changing landscape has also attracted marauding elephants from the neighbouring Murchison Falls National Park, where oil exploration is taking place. The animals have trampled crops and attacked locals.
“I worry a lot about my children,” says Bujuni, who is also farmer and a mother of four. “I fear that they might suffer from diseases after drinking unclean water, or even get attacked by elephants”.
Bujuni has also been denied compensation and has been renting a one-acre piece of land three kilometres from her home since her garden was submerged by the floods.
Charles Onencan, a local leader of the persons affected by floods, has so far registered 102 affected people in the villages of Kasenyi and Kisomere. He says they have plans to go court to seek legal redress but that their efforts have been held back by financial constraints. “We are still registering names of the affected people,” he says, adding “the biggest challenge would be getting arrested for following up or protesting”.
The environment office in Buliisa district is worried that more communities will be affected if a solution is not put in place imminently. Officials had previously carried out a re-afforestation programme in which 500,000 tree seedlings are given locals to plant around their homes, but inadequate funding has slowed down the initiative this year.
International anti-EACOP campaigners meanwhile continue to decry the environmental impacts of a pipeline that will pass through sensitive ecosystems and areas of important biodiversity in Uganda and Tanzania. Climate activists also note that EACOP is expected to emit more than 25 times the annual greenhouse gas emissions of Uganda and Tanzania combined.
John Okot is a freelance journalist based in Gulu, northern Uganda.