Unesco, a United Nations agency, has in its report warned Malawi Government against allowing foreign oil companies from conducting oil exploration on a part of Lake Malawi categorised as a World Heritage site.
A local environmental activist Godfrey Mfiti has since said government has been given a deadline of November 30 2015 to respond to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) reactive mission report.
But while government says it is yet to receive the report, it, however, states that it is ready to implement some recommendations by the UN agency on the matter.
According to the report seen by Nation on Sunday, the exact site the UN body wants government to stay away from lies on the southern tip of Lake Malawi—the world’s third largest fresh water lake-and is located within the Lake Malawi National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
According to the report, the UN body in response to a request by the World Heritage Committee at its 37th session sent a monitoring team into the country in April 2014 following the issuing of oil exploration licences to foreign firms.
Among others, the team investigated progress on preparation for an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (Esia) for an oil exploration concession awarded to Surestream covering the northern part of the lake which is outside the heritage site and the concession to the United Arab Emirates-based Rakgas.
The mission, according to the report, also held direct discussions with ‘high-level representatives’ of oil companies and was presented with copies of a draft Esia report covering 2D seismic exploration activities in Surestream’s concession area.
“Recognising past decisions regarding oil and mineral exploration in World Heritage properties, the mission considers that it is crucial to ensure that Rakgas refrains from exercising any exploration rights over the property and that the two companies that have been awarded concessions in Lake Malawi subscribe to the commitment already made by industry leaders, Shell and Total, not to explore and/or exploit oil or gas in World Heritage properties,” reported the UN team.
The report further asks government to at least consider adjusting the oil exploration permit awarded to Rakgas, to ensure that the property is fully excluded from the permit in line with the World Heritage Committee’s established position that oil and gas exploration and exploitation are incompatible with World Heritage status.
But Principal Secretary for Mining and Energy Ben Botolo says while they are yet to receive the report, government is ready to undertake some of the recommendations issued by the UN agency on the matter.
“I would love if you spoke to the director of environmental affairs as I am yet to receive such a report. The Lake Malawi National Park, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site, is at the southern tip of the lake, but so far most of the [oil exploration] activity has surrounded the northern part of the lake. Before we conduct any oil production, there will be an environmental assessment study.
“We will follow the environmental study on the impact of any production prospects. However, we will not just follow any advice telling us not to pursue the exploration for environmental reasons, we will consider some areas for exploration because of the economic benefits, but for the Unesco sites, we will take such advice under consideration,” said Botolo.
But Mfiti, who runs Institute of Sustainable Development (ISD) is quoted by www.expogr.com as saying that by exploring oil in a World Heritage Site, Malawi is contravening 1972 World Heritage Convention which it is a signatory.
Last November, government announced it was suspending the exploration exercise and a decision is yet to be made on cancellation and renegotiation of production sharing agreements (PSAs) with companies licensed to explore oil and gas. This follows a legal opinion from the Attorney General (AG) that faulted the manner some deals were awarded.
Under the Petroleum Regulations Act, the country is divided into six blocks for the exploration of oil.
Block one was awarded to Sac Oil Holdings Limited of South Africa whereas block two and three were awarded to British firm Surestream Petroleum in 2011, but Hamra Oil Holdings in 2011 acquired a 51 percent stake in the Surestream licences. Blocks four and five were awarded to Rakgas in 2013 whereas the sixth block went to Pacific Oil.
Last week, Nation on Sunday reported that the second AG legal opinion has called for cancellation of blocks four and five