Why does government not look at issues holistically? One minute government seems to be rightly concerned with protecting its water resource—including Lake Malawi. But in the brink of an eye, the same government seems to be blinded by the glittering dangled before its eyes.
It makes sense that government has been cautious in granting oil exploration licences in Lake Malawi. That is the logical way to go. This week President Peter Mutharika said those who worry about government’s plans to explore and drill oil in Lake Malawi have no reason to fear. “If we decide to drill oil in the lake, we will ensure we use on-shore clean technology. We value our lake and we will ensure we implement measures to protect it at all costs.” I wish that was the pervading spirit underpinning all projects that have a bearing on the country’s water resource.
Government says before granting the initial oil exploration licences, it put in place a Petroleum (Exploration and Production) Act (1983). Then in addition to the 1983 law, government also reviewed the Regulation to the Act in 2009. To this effect, an Environmental Impact Assessment is underway.
One would have expected that the government would follow the same processes and procedures before granting the Engineering, Procurement and Construction of Lake Malawi Water Supply Project for Lilongwe City to a contractor.
For starters, Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) awarded a contract to Khato Civils Pty Ltd and South Zambezi Pty Ltd Joint Venture for the Engineering, Procurement and Construction of Lake Malawi Water Supply for Lilongwe City at a contract amount of K29 billion plus $397 million (K400 billion). The project is expected to pump 50 million litres of water from Lake Malawi per day to meet the city’s ever growing population.
What is shocking is that despite the fact that it is a requirement under the Environmental Management Act to carry out an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for a water project of this size before conducting such a project, nothing of this sort has happened and it is only now after some people have raised eyebrows that authorities are saying an ESIA is underway.
The question is: what should have come first?
And now we hear the contractor is already mobilising and has already spent millions of kwacha on the project even before the ESIA is done. Isn’t that setting a stage for conflict? Will Khato take it lying on its back should the ESIA show the water supply project cannot continue?
The same government carried out an ESIA for Diamphwe Dam. Why did it choose to take the wrong path on this the Salima—Lilongwe water supply project?
This project has many possible environmental and social impacts. Among other things, abstracting large volumes of water from the lake could impact fisheries and the flow of Shire River which is the main source of water for the hydro electric power stations for Malawi.
The same government which is promising Malawians that it is keen to ensure the lake is protected against activities that could affect its ecosystem on oil drilling is now looking the other way on this major water abstraction project which would equally negatively impact on hydro electricity in the country.
The current power outages are due to efforts to control water flow at Liwonde Barrage largely because the water level in the lake is low.
Now it is interesting to hear Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe saying should the ESIA show that the project cannot proceed, the project will be canceled without any legal implications on the LWB or government because no contract has been signed. Those in the know talk about the danger of elite capture. My plea to Members of Parliament who will be required to allow LWB to borrow huge amounts of money to finance the project, is that they should fully understand the project and its implications. While the idea of improving water supply to Lilongwe City is a noble one, and that it should be expedited, nothing should be done at the expense of making the whole country suffer.