Tag Archives: international environmental law

The Global Regulation of Mercury

fluorescent light bulbs

The Minamata Convention on Mercury – a global, legally binding treaty which opened for signature today – was agreed to by governments in January (2013) and formally adopted as international law…Countries began the recognition for this new treaty at a special ceremonial opening of the Diplomatic Conference in Minamata, the city where many local people were poisoned in the mid-20th Century after eating mercury-contaminated seafood from Minamata Bay. As a consequence, the neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning has come to be known as Minamata Disease.

The Minamata Convention provides for controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted. The treaty also addresses the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal, and safe storage of waste mercury.

“Mercury has some severe effects, both on human health and on the environment. UNEP has been proud to facilitate and support the treaty negotiation over the past four years because almost everyone in the world – be they small-scale gold miners, expectant mothers or waste-handlers in developing countries – will benefit from its provisions,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Under-Secretary General of the United Nations….Other potential impacts include impaired thyroid and liver function, irritability, tremors, disturbances to vision, memory loss and cardiovascular problems.

“With the signing of the Minamata Convention on Mercury we will be going a long way in protecting the world forever from the devastating health consequences from mercury,” says WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. “Mercury is one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern and is a substance which disperses into and remains in ecosystems for generations, causing severe ill health and intellectual impairment to exposed populations.”

Under the provisions of the Minamata Convention, Governments have agreed on a range of mercury-containing products whose production, import and export will be banned by 2020. These items have non-mercury alternatives that will be further phased in as these are phased out. They include:

•Batteries, except for ‘button cell’ batteries used in implantable medical devices

•Switches and relays

•Some compact fluorescent lamps

•Mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps

•Soaps and cosmetics (mercury is used in skin-whitening products)

•Some mercury-containing medical items such as thermometers and blood pressure devices.

Mercury from small-scale gold-mining and from coal-fired power stations represent the biggest source of mercury pollution worldwide. Miners inhale mercury during smelting, and mercury run-off into rivers and streams contaminates fish, the food chain and people downstream.  Under the Minamata Convention, Governments have agreed that countries will draw up strategies to reduce the amount of mercury used by small-scale miners and that national plans will be drawn up within three years of the treaty entering into force to reduce – and if possible eliminate – mercury.

The Convention will also control mercury emission and releases from large-scale industrial plants such as coal-fired power stations, industrial boilers, waste incinerators and cement clinkers facilities.

New global treaty cuts mercury emissions and releases, sets up controls on products, mines and industrial plant, UNEP Press Release, Oct 10, 2013

How to Break Toxic Ships: send them to another country

MV "HANSA BRANDENBURG.  Image from Black Sea News

WWF-Pakistan has warned Pakistan against the import of a European ship, which is suspected to have burnt containers and cargo that may contain a substantial amount of hazardous materials such as heavy metals or PCBs.  Moreover, the vessel is suspected to carry dangerous substances in fire fighting water as well as a significant amount of fuels and oil. This container ship caught fire in July (2013) and was later towed to Port-Louis in Mauritius. (MV “HANSA BRANDENBURG”,).MV Hansa Brandenburg is a 2002-built Liberian-flagged container ship operated by the German shipping company Leonhardt & Blumberg.

WWF-Pakistan considers that this ship if imported to Pakistan may cause severe marine pollution in the Gadani area, which is already stressed because of a number of economic and industrial activities. Unplanned construction such as Fish harbour has already had serious environmental impact in the area, which is also designated as energy corridor and construction of power plants may have impact on the marine environment of the area unless proper mitigative measures are taken. According to WWF-Pakistan Technical Adviser (Marine Fisheries) Muhammad Moazzam Khan, the area of the Gadani is a part of Sonmiani, which is considered to have a rich marine biodiversity especially around Churna and Kaio islands. Dumping of toxic waste might seriously harm the fragile ecosystem of the area.

Agencies asked not to import vessel loaded with toxic chemicals, Daily Times (Pakistan) October 4, 2013

See also the Shipbreaking Business

Operation Rhino: dead rhinos despite arrests

rhino-kruger-park

“While we are still losing animals (latest statistics show Kruger has lost 381 rhinos to date this year) the new strategy is bearing fruit,” SANParks [South Africa] acting head of communications, Reynold Thakhuli, said.  The two dozen arrests bring to 73 the number of rhino poaching related arrests in the park this year…Nationally, 191 suspects have been arrested in connection with rhino poaching so far this year.

He also pointed to a better relationship with Mozambique following an official visit there by Environment Affairs Minister Edna Molewa. “Some arrests have been made inside Mozambique in terms of the hot pursuit concept now that there is more understanding of the problem not only Kruger and SANParks, but also South Africa and the region, faces from rhino poachers,” Thakhuli added.

The hot pursuit strategy was presented to SANParks management at the beginning of last month after Molewa’s visit to Mozambique by Major General (ret) Johan Jooste, Officer Commanding Special Projects in Kruger. It makes provision for rangers, soldiers and other government agencies to track suspected poachers across the border without fear of reprisal.Bearing out Thakhuli’s “still losing animals” statement, the national rhino herd now is 618 less than it was on January 1, 2013…with 15 weeks left in 2013 the 668 all-time high looks sure to be overtaken.The current weekly loss of rhino stands close to 17 animals. If poaching continues at the same kill levels the year-end death toll could surpass the thousand mark.

The South African defence sector is a contributor to the ongoing anti-rhino poaching effort via the SA Air Force, SA Army and the defence industry.Land-based elements are deployed primarily on border protection duties and assisted by SAAF helicopters for Operation Corona but also regularly assist rangers, police and other government agencies in anti-poaching operations.Denel Dynamics has made a Seeker UAV available, manned by trained personnel, to help with tracking poaching suspects. A Seabird Seeker reconnaissance aircraft donated by the Paramount Group adds more eyes in the sky to the ongoing Operation Rhino.

Excerpt, Kim Helfrich, Increased rhino poaching related arrests attributed to more militaristic approach, defenceWeb, Sept. 6, 2013

Drones and the Rhino: the militarization of conservation

The Shipbreaking Business: how European states dump hazardous waste in South Asia

Shipbreaking Bangladesh. Image from wikipedia

Hundreds of European vessels are scrapped under hazardous conditions in South Asia every year. European parliamentarians have approved a new regulation to tackle the problem – but critics say it will have very limited impact…“With this, we will have a safer disposal of ships. About 90 percent of the European vessels are scrapped illegally and the Basel Convention has failed to do something about this,” said Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter, who negotiated the agreement with the Council and guided the legislation through the European Parliament. “Last year one European ship was sent to a substandard beaching yard in South Asia every day.”

European Union-registered ships will now have to be recycled at EU-approved facilities that meet specific safety and environmental requirements and are certified and regularly inspected. The European Commission would be obliged to act if NGOs report irregularities.  Both EU ships and non-EU ships would also have to carry an inventory of hazardous materials when calling at ports in the EU. The regulation is likely to enter into force in the beginning of 2014.

Patrizia Heidegger from Shipbreaking Platform, a global coalition of organisations working for safe and sustainable ship recycling, is not pleased with the outcome…She says that the regulation will not have a large impact since ship owners can easily flag out and circumvent the regulation if they don’t want to comply. The coalition wants the regulation to apply to all ships calling at European ports, instead of only the EU-flagged vessels.

Schlyter pushed for an EU fund to subsidise safe recycling of the ships. The fund would have been financed by fees on ships docked in EU ports, but the parliament rejected this part of the proposal.  “Without the ship recycling fund the new regulation won’t be effective. A ship recycling fund would put obligations on the ship owners beyond the flag,” Heidegger said.  “The fund was supported by all the political groups, but then the parliament voted it down after strong lobbying from ship owners and EU ports. The ports claimed that the arrangement would result in over 100 percent increase in fees, which is not true,” Schlyter told IPS.  Schlyter says that with a fund in place it would not pay to flag out. He says that the commission might propose creation of a fund later if the new regulation proves insufficient….

European ship owners dumped 365 toxic ships on South Asian beaches last year, according to the Shipbreaking Platform.  Of the top 10 European “global dumpers” in 2012, Greek ship owners were number one, dumping 167 ships on Asian beaches. German ship owners represented the second largest group of toxic ship dumpers with 48 ships, followed by ship owners from the UK with 30 ships, and Norway with 23 ships scrapped on beaches in South Asia.  According to the coalition most of the end-of-life ships sent by European ship owners did not fly an EU flag but flags from Panama, Liberia, the Bahamas or St Kitts-and-Nevis.  Bangladesh tops the list of countries having the greatest number of ships scrapped every year, with India and Pakistan trailing far behind. Unskilled and unprotected workers manually handle poisonous chemicals and are also exposed to the risk of explosion while dismantling old vessels.

Excerpts,By  Ida Karlsson, New EU Rules ‘Fail’ Against Shipbreaking Dangers, IPS, July 17, 2013

See also Greens against the Workers

Antarctica: Environment and Geopolitics

antarctica. image from wikipedia

The meeting  (week of July 14, 2013)of the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) offers a “unique opportunity” for representatives of 24 countries and the European Union to…  designate the world’s largest marine reserves  Nature conservation is also a question of geopolitical interests — an arena in which no country wants to lose influence. The countries at the meeting are those active in Antarctica, in either a business or scientific capacity. So far, two opposing camps have remained insistent on their positions.

On the one side, the Western nations have proposed marine reserves. The United States and New Zealand are proposing to protect the Ross Sea area along Antarctica’s east coast. In some areas, fishing would be banned; in other areas, strict limits would be imposed. But China, Japan, Ukraine, Norway and and Russia, in particular, have shown little interest in an agreement. All have considerable business interests in the region.

Norwegian ships also catch vast quantities of krill off the coast of Antarctica to feed large salmon farms back home. The government in Oslo has little interest in major marine reserves on the southern continent. Norway has considerable influence, as well. The CCAMLR negotiations in Oslo are being led by Terje Løbach, an official at the Norwegian Fisheries Ministry. At the last CCAMLR meeting in Australia, his country was among those that offered the most adamant resistance to creating marine reserves. Participants claim Løbach used his advantage as the leader of the meeting to further the positions of his government rather than seek compromises. The conference in Australia ultimately failed to reach any agreement…

Russian representatives, for example, are leading the opposition against the US-New Zealand proposal for a marine protection area in the Ross Sea area. New Zealand and the US are proposing fishing quotas for the 2.3 million-square-kilometer area. But the Russians feel they have been cheated in the considerations. “They fear that the bear skin will be divided up without them,” one participant said.

Antarctica Conference: Deal Could Preserve Pristine Waters, Associated Press, July 15, 2013

Deforestation in Indonesia: slowdown

Rafflesia

Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is not known as a conviction politician… On the environment, though, Mr Yudhoyono has been uncommonly courageous. In 2009, two years after world leaders met on the island of Bali to agree on a “road map” to slow climate change, Mr Yudhoyono pledged Indonesia to cutting its carbon emissions by at least 26% by 2020. Then, in 2011, he imposed a two-year moratorium on forest-clearing concessions under a $1 billion agreement with the Norwegian government. The money is meant to support a UN programme to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. On May 16th Mr Yudhoyono once again showed his environmental mettle: despite intense pressure from commercial interests, he signed a decree extending the moratorium for two more years.

This is good news for Indonesia’s forests, home to a dizzying diversity of wildlife, from endangered orangutans and rhinos to a Rafflesia that produces the largest flower on earth (1 metre, or three feet, wide). It is also a fillip for global efforts to combat climate change. According to a 2007 study by the World Bank, Indonesia is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases after America and China, mostly because of the destruction of forests and peatlands.

The moratorium excludes concessions leased before May 2011 and does not protect secondary forest. But Frances Seymour, a former head of the Centre for International Forestry Research now at the Packard Foundation in Washington, DC, says that the extension is important because it also identifies threatened peatlands for preservation. Indonesia’s peatlands are a vital habitat, partly because they are huge absorbers of carbon from the atmosphere, just like forests. The forestry minister, Zulkifli Hasan, claims the moratorium has slowed the pace of deforestation to 450 hectares (1,100 acres) a year, down from an annual 3.5m hectares in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That represents a very large cut in the carbon that would otherwise have been released into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Some of the biggest logging and plantation firms are starting to take their environmental responsibilities seriously, too. In February Asia Pulp and Paper, a subsidiary of the Sinar Mas Group, announced an end to all natural-forest clearance—a victory for Greenpeace and other environmental campaigners that had organised international boycotts of its products. Now the firm has opened its concessions to the Forest Trust, an environmental group, to ensure that future plantation development does not take place in forests, including forested peatlands. Its announcement followed a similar commitment in 2011 by Golden Agri-Resources, Sinar Mas’s palm-oil subsidiary.

Some of the old problems still bedevil Indonesia’s efforts to combat climate change. Environmental governance remains weak, the result of a decentralised government and conflicting laws and regulations. The president’s own task-force on climate change often fails to impose its will on ministries determined to defend their fiefs.

The forestry ministry is widely seen as corrupt, even by Indonesian standards, and officials have been caught selling permits to exploit forested areas. National development schemes, such as Mr Yudhoyono’s “master plan” to turn the country into one of the world’s ten biggest economies by 2025, do not always take account of the environmental impact. His government has yet to finalise a reference map of the country’s forests on which everyone can agree. Meanwhile, convincing local leaders of the case for preserving their forests remains a challenge.

The transparency introduced since Indonesia signed the original letter of intent with the Norwegians in 2010 has transformed the conservation debate. A constitutional court ruling on May 16th, for example, allows indigenous people to exercise their traditional rights over a forest. Mr Yudhoyono deserves credit for helping this freer debate to take place.

Indonesia’s forests: Logging the good news,Economist, May 25, 2013, at 40

Deforestation in Cambodia: rubber barons and their bankers

cambodia illegal logging--Illegal logging in the Cardamom Mountain, Koh Kong Province, Cambodia, 2007 Image from wikipedia

Along Route 7 in Cambodia’s remote north, dozens of small tractors known as “iron buffaloes” are plying a dilapidated piece of highway. Under cover of darkness, they transport freshly cut timber into nearby sawmills. The drivers wear masks, their tractors fitted with just one dim lamp at the front. Each carries between three and six logs which locals say were felled illegally on or near the Dong Nai rubber plantation, owned by Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG).

Illegal logging and land-grabbing have long been problems in Cambodia. A new report entitled “Rubber Barons” by Global Witness, a London-based environmental watchdog, has highlighted the issue once again. Dong Nai features prominently in the report, which claims that luxury timbers like rosewood, much in demand for furniture in China and guitars in the West, were culled as a 3,000-hectare (7,400-acre) section of forest was illegally cleared.

Global Witness says that local and foreign companies have amassed more than 3.7m hectares of land in Cambodia and Laos since 2000, as governments have handed out huge land concessions, many in opaque circumstances. Two-fifths of this was for rubber plantations, dominated by state companies from Vietnam, the world’s third-largest rubber producer.

The report claims that VRG and another Vietnamese company, HAGL, are among the biggest land-grabbers, and have been logging illegally in both Cambodia and Laos. It says that, through Vietnam-based funds, the two companies have received money from Deutsche Bank, while HAGL also has investment from the IFC, the private-sector arm of the World Bank. The two Vietnamese companies have denied any wrongdoing. Deutsche Bank and the IFC say they are studying the findings.

The report says that the two companies have failed to consult local communities or pay them compensation for land they formerly used. The companies routinely use armed security forces to guard plantations. Large areas of supposedly protected intact forest have been cleared, in violation of forest-protection laws and “apparently in collusion with Cambodia’s corrupt elite”.

Global Witness is urging authorities in Cambodia and Laos to revoke the two companies’ land concessions, which cover 200,000 hectares and are held through a network of subsidiaries. It thinks both companies should be prosecuted.

Logging in South-East Asia: Rubber barons, Economist, May 18, 2013

See also Bankers with Chainsaws

 

Exceeding the Carbon Budget:industry bets that climate policies will fail

coal mine china. Image from wikipedia

Several  reports suggest that markets are overlooking the risk of “unburnable carbon”. The share prices of oil, gas and coal companies depend in part on their reserves. The more fossil fuels a firm has underground, the more valuable its shares. But what if some of those reserves can never be dug up and burned?

If governments were determined to implement their climate policies, a lot of that carbon would have to be left in the ground, says Carbon Tracker, a non-profit organisation, and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, part of the London School of Economics. Their analysis starts by estimating the amount of carbon dioxide that could be put into the atmosphere if global temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C, the most that climate scientists deem prudent. The maximum, says the report, is about 1,000 gigatons (GTCO2) between now and 2050. The report calls this the world’s “carbon budget”.

Existing fossil-fuel reserves already contain far more carbon than that. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in its “World Energy Outlook”, total proven international reserves contain 2,860GTCO2—almost three times the carbon budget. The report refers to the excess as “unburnable carbon”.

Most of the reserves are owned by governments or state energy firms; they could be left in the ground by public-policy choice (ie, if governments took the 2°C target seriously). But the reserves of listed oil companies are different. These are assets developed using money raised from investors who expect a return. Proven reserves of listed firms contain 762GTCO2—most of what can prudently be burned before 2050. Listed potential reserves have 1,541GTCO2 embedded in them.

So companies and governments already have far more oil, gas and coal than they need (again, assuming temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C). Logically, the response to this would be for governments to leave their reserves untouched and for companies to run theirs slowly down, returning more of what they earn to shareholders. Neither of these things is happening. State-owned companies are taking an increasing share of total energy output. And in 2012, says Carbon Tracker, the 200 largest listed oil, gas and coal companies spent five times as much—$674 billion—on developing new reserves as they did returning money to shareholders ($126 billion). ExxonMobil alone plans to spend $37 billion a year on exploration in each of the next three years.

Such behaviour, on the face of it, makes no sense. One possible explanation is that companies are betting that government climate policies will fail; they will be able to burn all their reserves, including new ones, after all. This implies that global temperatures would either soar past the 2°C mark, or be restrained by a technological fix, such as carbon capture and storage, or geo-engineering.Recent events make such a bet seem rational. On April 16th the European Parliament voted against attempts to shore up Europe’s emissions trading system against collapse. The system is the EU’s flagship environmental policy and the world’s largest carbon market.  Putting it at risk suggests that Europeans have lost their will to endure short-term pain for long-term environmental gain. Nor is this the only such sign. Several cash-strapped EU countries are cutting subsidies for renewable energy. And governments around the world have failed to make progress towards a new global climate-change treaty. Betting against tough climate policies seems almost prudent.

The markets are [also] mispricing risk by valuing companies as if all their reserves will be burned. Investors treat reserves as an indicator of future revenues. They therefore require companies to replace reserves depleted by production, even though this runs foul of emission-reduction policies. Fossil-fuel firms live and die by a measure called the reserve replacement ratio, which must remain above 100%. Companies see their shares marked down if the ratio falls, even when they pull the plug on dodgy, expensive projects. This happened to Shell, for example, when it suspended drilling in the Arctic in February….

At the moment neither public policies nor markets reflect the risks of a warmer world.

Energy Firms and Climate Change: Unburnable Fuel, Economist, May 4, 2013, at 68

Gated Rainforests: the militarization of conservation

Epulu_River_Ituri

The  Epulu  village  in the Democratic Republic of Congo is situated inside a nature reserve in the Ituri rainforest, an area covering 5,000 square miles that is supposed to be off limits to hunters and gold prospectors. A militia, led by a former elephant poacher called Paul Sadala, has terrorised communities inside the reserve since 2012, employing methods brutal even by the grisly standards of this part of the world.

“The attacks were absolutely terrifying,” said Justin Oganda, a representative of the residents of Epulu who remain displaced in Mambasa, about 50 miles away. By the end of that day in June, the militiamen had murdered, raped, burned people alive and even eaten the flesh and heart of one of their victims. “To have killed so many people, to burn them alive, the cannibalism … Mentally they cannot be normal,” Oganda added.

As ever with Congo, it is not just a simple tale of victims and villains. Sadala, who goes by the nom de guerre Morgan, and his “Mai Mai Morgan” gunmen are thought to have powerful supporters in the security forces who enable their lucrative illegal trade in ivory and smuggled gold. Some local people with an eye on the gold in the ground beneath their feet tacitly support Morgan, who improbably also likes to be called Chuck Norris. “There is complicity between [Morgan] and certain elements within the army,” said Jefferson Abdallah Pene Mbaka, the MP for Mambasa. “With the support of certain army authorities [Mai Mai Morgan] have increased their poaching activities. The sale of ivory is organised by these figures in the army.” Many people in the region believe soldiers have orders not to arrest Morgan.

Morgan’s principal targets are those who operate and police the Unesco-recognised world heritage site known as the Okapi wildlife reserve, or by its French acronym, RFO. The laws of the reserve forbid the hunting of endangered species, especially elephants and okapi, and the exploitation of its gold reserves….The suspicion is that at least some of Morgan’s booty winds up 280 miles south-west of Epulu, in the hands of the Congolese army. At the end of 2012 the United Nations group of experts on Congo issued a report that accused Congolese general Jean Claude Kifwa in the provincial capital, Kisangani, of giving “arms, ammunition, uniforms and communication equipment to Mai Mai Morgan in exchange for ivory”….

Despite the brutality of the attacks, many reserve dwellers express sympathy for Morgan, with some even confessing to outright support for him. “I am behind Morgan,” said an 18-year-old in a small village not far from Epulu who refused to give his name. “Because Morgan is here the rangers cannot patrol and we are free to dig for gold. But I wouldn’t support him if he came here and burned our homes.”  Most people, however, have a more nuanced position, saying that although revolted by his methods, they support his stated desire to see the size of the reserve reduced and more rights given to locals to hunt and dig.  “The forest is where we find what we need to survive,” said Matope Mapilanga, the leader of a Pygmy community on the edge of the reserve. “[The park authorities] have cut our land, there is now a part we cannot access. It has worsened in the last few years, since the RFO got bigger. We would prefer that the people of the RFO weren’t in our forest. We feel like the big non-governmental organisations and the rangers have privileged the animals over the people.”

The conservationists remain unconvinced, though. “The people who say they support Morgan are just those people who want to dig gold and exploit timber,” said Robert Mwinyihali, the project leader for Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) work in the Ituri rainforest. WCS has given financial backing to the park rangers and the Congolese Wildlife Authority’s work in the reserve. “There are laws in Congo about the exploitation of resources,” said Mwinyihali. “These people can either respect those laws, or they can ignore them and commit criminal acts.”  WCS and GIC’s support for the park rangers has led to accusations that they are partly responsible for the militarisation of the conflict. However, Mwinyihali said the biggest problem was the absence of effective intervention by the Congolese state, which meant NGOs and the park rangers had had to fulfil roles that should be the government’s responsibility: for example, bringing in armed guards to track Morgan. Bernard Iyomi Iyatshi, the director of park rangers, complained about a lack of government funds for his anti-poaching operations.

Mwinyihali also accused the Congolese government of doing little to reconcile the park authorities and local communities. As mutual resentment and misunderstanding grows, Morgan and other armed groups are able to exploit the toxic atmosphere and continue their poaching, digging and savage attacks.  “There are no job opportunities created by government investment here,” said Mwinyihali. “This has led to this crisis, where people have no option but to want to dig for gold. This leads to the conflict with the park authorities, and then it is only a small step to people taking up arms and joining militias.”  Despite being a member of the ruling party, Mbaka is an outspoken critic of the government’s policy, or lack of it, in the region. “Swaths of the park are inaccessible, there’s just no infrastructure,” he said. “It’s an absolute scandal, there’s potentially so much wealth here. It also means it is difficult to track and stop men like Morgan.”  Even if Morgan is caught, people fear that his powerful backers in the army will find another militia to continue poaching and stealing gold…

About 70% per cent of the ivory from slaughtered African elephants goes to China, another of the countries warned by Cites. The price of ivory has rocketed. Cites reported that the price more than doubled between 2004 and 2010, from about $300 to $700 (£198 to £462) a kilogramme. An Associated Press investigation in 2010 claimed ivory was being sold in China for $1,800 a kilogramme.

Excerpt, Pete Jones, Gold and poaching bring murder and misery to Congolese wildlife reserve, Guardian, Mar. 31, 2013

How to Divide a Lake: Malawi against Tanzania

Lake Malawi

Over two million families who solely depend on Lake Malawi for their livelihoods are anxiously putting their hopes into an upcoming mediation between Malawi and Tanzania intended to put an end to a longstanding ownership dispute.  The mediation will start March 2013 after both parties agreed in December 2012 to engage the assistance of the Forum for Former African Heads of State and Government, which is chaired by Mozambique’s former President Joachim Chissano.

According to authorities, about 1.5 million Malawians and 600,000 Tanzanians depend on Africa’s third-largest lake for food, transportation and other daily needs. When IPS visited Karonga District, on the shores of Lake Malawi, surrounding communities said they were worried about the increased tension and keen to see a resolution.

Known as Lake Nyasa in Tanzania and Lago Niassa in Mozambique, the disputed water mass is thought to sit over rich oil and gas reserves, according to recent Malawian government reports.  The mineral potential has rekindled a border dispute between Malawi and Tanzania, which has remained unresolved for almost half a century.

The conflict escalated last July when Malawi awarded oil exploration licenses to United Kingdom-based Surestream Petroleum.  And last December, Malawi awarded the second-largest license to SacOil Holdings Ltd. of South Africa, a move that deepened the crisis.  Twice, the two countries tried to resolve the dispute diplomatically, but to no avail.  Both countries are hoping for the best outcome that will settle the dispute, once and for all when mediation begins this month.

Malawi’s first president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, was the first to claim that Lake Malawi was part of the southern African nation. He based his claim on the 1890 Heligoland Agreement between Britain and Germany, which stipulated that the border between the countries lay along the Tanzanian side of the lake.  The treaty was reaffirmed at the 1963 Organisation of African Unity Summit in Ethiopia and was reluctantly accepted by Tanzania.  Malawi’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ephraim Chiume told IPS that their position is based on the 1890 Treaty and that the African Union in 2002 and 2007 upheld the colonial agreement.  “The Heligoland Treaty gave the entire lake to us and this is what forms the basis of our position and proof that we own the entire lake,” said Chiume.

Tanzania’s position is that the treaty was flawed. Tanzania has remained resolute that it owns half of the lake – saying that the border runs through the middle of the lake excluding the section that lies in Mozambique.  Tanzania’s position is that a partition drawn in the middle of the lake, stressing that this is the practice among countries which share water bodies.  “Tanzania has sought recourse to international law, which indicates that borders are generally in the middle of a body of water… Tanzania should therefore own half the lake,” Tanzanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Benard Membe told IPS in a telephone interview.  Membe said that the treaty was flawed because it denied Tanzanian’s living on the shores of the lake their given right to utilise proximate water and marine resources to earn their daily living.

These are the positions that Chissano and his two colleagues; former South African President Thabo Mbeki and former Botswana President Ketumire Masire will have to consider.

Meanwhile, the dispute has also brought to the fore the impact oil drilling would have on a fresh water lake blessed with over 2,000 different fish species, which attracts scuba divers the world over. Local environmentalists fear that drilling in the lake will damage eco-tourism and the marine environment affecting the fishing region in the northern part of the country.  “It will endanger the social and economic lives of millions of people directly dependent on the lake for water, transport and most importantly fish for protein,” said Reginald Mumba of Rehabilitation of the Environment — a local environmental non-profit

Excerpts from By Mabvuto Banda,Two Million People Hold their Breath Over Lake Malawi Mediation, Inter Press Service,  Mar. 3, 2013