UNTIL recently, Buliisa sat in her quiet location, with her sparse population, engaged in pastoralism and fishing, totally unattractive to anyone looking to make money.
But now treasure hunters are scrambling to get a piece of the district because it is sitting on most of the estimated 3.5 billion barrels of oil deposits discovered in Uganda.
The district is equally excited, but has some concerns. Oil is coming, but at what cost to the environment? Will the huge cost to the environment and health of the people, plus wildlife be worth it all? Are investors going to harvest their money and leave Buliisa a barren, deranged and toxic land waste, unusable and dangerous?
According to Dr. Aryamanya Mugisha, a private consultant and the former head of the National Environment Management Authority, the biggest concern currently is oil waste.
Mugisha explains that oil waste includes solids from underground, which are removed as machines bore through the rocks, additives in form of chemicals which are used during drilling and, at a later stage, the residues from the petroleum processing.
He says: "Oil has been discovered in one of the most ecologically sensitive areas globally. The Albertine rift has a chain of forests, lakes such as Albert shared by Uganda and DR Congo and the Nile, a trans-boundary river across some of the ecologically delicate areas.
And yet, Uganda's capacity to manage oil waste is unknown and, most likely, weak." NEMA acknowledges this weakness.
As a precaution, the Government watchdog on the environment decided to establish oil collection centres to contain waste in isolated areas.
Over the last three years, the mud cuttings and liquid waste coming from oil wells were ferried to Kisinja in Hoima, Ngala in Buliisa, Bugungu and Rutangi near Packwach, as well as Mpundu in Rukungiri, which were reserved as collection centres for the oil waste.
The regulating bodies such as NEMA argued that it was easy to monitor the oil waste at collection centres than to keep it scattered.
NEMA's executive director, Dr. Tom Okurut, came up with a decision to bury the oil waste at specifi c collection centres in pits dug out of the earth and lined with thick plastic materials.
He explained that the waste would be treated with lime or cement to avoid leaching and contamination of underground water and soil as an additional precaution.
In 2012 alone, according to Ernest Rubondo, the head of the petroleum exploration and production department, the amount of money budgeted for investment in oil waste management by the companies operating in three exploration areas, 1, 2 and 3A in 2012, is $15.8m (about sh40b).
Shifting waste from the oil wells to the waste collection centres is also costly to the environment.
"As waste is transported to the collection centres, a lot of fuel is burnt, releasing emissions that contribute to global warming," a source told New Vision, adding that the noisy vehicles racing on the dusty roads also cause disturbance to the human population and wildlife. "All this would have been avoided."
Okurut conceded that the investment cost was a little high, but while regulators may have over-stated the problem of oil waste, taking precaution as a principle is right and it is applied world over.
"If you look at Nigeria and the pollution of Ogoni land, it is not that they did not know what would happen, but they understated the problem," says Okurut.
"It is costly to human life and the environment if we make a reckless decision."
Right now, however, managing oil waste, even before real production begins, is proving expensive.
However, Okurut says, it was because the waste came from different wells, drilled at different times.
In future, this will not be an issue, according to Okurut, because the regulators are encouraging the oil companies to recycle waste on site in order to reduce its amount.
By doing this, a source within UWA says, costs will reduce, but NEMA is still concerned about the potential risks associated with oil waste disposal.
The Government proposed that a private company, a different one from the generators of the oil waste (oil companies), should manage the oil waste under the supervision of NEMA.
So far, NEMA has licensed 10 private companies interested in dealing in oil waste.
Lurking in the shadow of the debate on oil waste disposal, is a population that has been starved of information concerning oil waste.
As NEMA was planning to relocate the waste which has been piling at the collection centre to its final resting ground, the communities in Buliisa, led by environmental activists, were insisting that the waste should not be buried in their backyard.
At the beginning of this year, NEMA was seeking consent to establish a graveyard for oil waste in Buliisa. But the community refused.
They were not sure the waste would not pollute their soil and water, even after assurances that the walls of the pits were concretised.
They argued that concrete eventually became degraded, leading to leakages into water and soil.
The local people in Buliisa are interested in information, especially about how oil will affect their region. However, the Government's effort to create awareness about benefi ts, dangers and risks from oil in order to have informed debates remains inadequate, according to Robert Ddamulira, a manager at World Wide Fund for Nature.
"The Government has tried to organise meetings with communities and civil society organisations, but this is not effective because the expected impact has not been felt yet.
This is the right time to get the population informed before oil extraction starts," says Ddamulira.
He insists that communities must be sensitised about the expectations, impact and opportunities, adding that if communities are left with false expectations, it could lead to conflicts in future.
Some experts argue that while it was necessary to leave nothing to chance, the dangers of oil waste were overstated.
Apart from a few drilled wells, which had excessive lead, a heavy metal that causes cancer and impairment of the brain among children, the rest of the waste was largely non-hazardous.
This, NEMA chief Okurut pointed out, was established after conducting tests in reputable laboratories in the US, UK and Norway.
If that is true, the waste should have been buried a long time ago at a much lower cost and with less fuss. But every passing day, the cost of storing the oil waste increases.
Worse still is that toxic waste was mixed with harmless waste.
Experts say the investment cost, which is part of the recoverable cost from oil proceeds, would have been minimised if the non-toxic waste was not taken to the collection centres.
"World over, oil companies make money out of environmental concerns related to oil. They know people are scared and the more they complicate things, the more money they make out of the operations related to safe disposal of oil waste," a source, who did not want to be named, said.
But Aryamanya Mugisha insists that the oil waste is toxic and says it was proved at local and international laboratories.
He adds that there was hope that Providence, a US company that had proposed to treat the oil waste before it was returned to the environment, would step in, but due to unclear reasons, the company did not.
He ran for money, but reaped hatred:
Douglas Oluoch is a peasant in Purongo, Nwoya district, in the western arm of the rift valley. As oil exploration activities started in the nearby oil-rich Murchison Falls National Park fi ve years ago, Oluoch was asked to give a portion of his land to bury some oil waste.
For sh750,000 from Heritage Oil and Gas, a deep hole was dug and stuff was buried in there. Now residents believe he has brought a curse to their village. "My neighbours say I betrayed them," he says. "I did not know the implications of the oil waste, but the good thing is that my neighbours have forgiven, and not banished me from the village."
Villagers resolved to ban anything harvested from Oluoch's land, including water from a borehole that used to serve the entire village and Paraa Primary School, wich has about 500 pupils.
Simon Okony, a neighbour, says they are worried that Oluoch could have brought the village a curse. The district council has also resolved that the oil waste be removed and re-buried elsewhere.
Oluoch has also abandoned the part where the oil waste was buried, fearing that crops could be contaminated with materials that could cause cancer. Sadly, the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), which is mandated to secure a clean and healthy environment, has not produced the results of tests they conducted in 2009.
Dr. Tom Okurut, the executive director of NEMA, says generation of waste is inevitable, but that it was being managed responsibly.
"We are going to send a team there to test the water. We have not been to this site for some time, but we give guidance to the oil companies and I do not think the water in that village was affected. I think the biggest problem is fear, which shall be allayed once we increase our awareness campaigns," Okurut explained.
Lioness found dead near oil well:
Recently, a lioness was found dead near an oil well in Murchison Falls National Park. When samples from the carcass were tested at the analytical laboratory in Wandegeya, Kampala, the results were worrying - the lioness, which died at Buffalo oil well, had lethal amounts of phenol.
The report from a Government chemist also pointed out that phenol, a chemical that may cause rapid poisoning, is used in the drilling processes.
Dr. Tom Okurut, who heads the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), said the lioness might have died of poisoning, but contested the source of the poison because the follow-up tests on samples from the waste water turned negative.
"If the lioness died of poisoning at the oil well, why is it that no other animal has died from similar poisoning? The lioness was probably poisoned from elsewhere and then died near the oil well," Okurut explained.
Andrew Plumptre, the director of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, argued that lions that are poisoned by communities do not die far from the area of poisoning. In this case, the lioness was killed deep inside the park, where the nearest community is 40km away at Pakwach.
Andrew Mubiru, the senior Government analyst who conducted the test, recommended further investigations on the site and collection of representative samples of the surrounding oil drill waste.
This, he pointed out, was important for a comprehensive report on the source of phenol or any other contaminants that may be harmful to wildlife. Okello Obong, the head of Murchison Falls National Park, said though the findings were not conclusive, oil is one of the threats to the protected areas.
Lions are listed among the big five with elephants, buffaloes, leopards and hippos. Uganda Wildlife Authority and Wildlife Conservation Society are counting the lions in the park and, so far, they have counted 60.
The team is remaining with the area stretching from Purongo to Karuma in the northern part of the park. Dr. Panta Kasoma, a conservationist, said the incident had exposed claims by environmental agencies that wild animals could not access oil wells. "They said these areas were secured, but how did the lioness get into the oil well site?" asked Kasoma.
The oil wells in Murchison are located at the heart of Buligi sector, which is part of the Nile delta, where River Nile joins Lake Albert. The areas of the delta are among the richest habitats for wildlife.
Okurut conceded that there were problems with the enclosures around the oil wells. "The fence is strong enough to keep out many of the animals, but strong animals like elephants break through the fence, creating a way for other animals to access the oil drill well," he explained.
Conservationists blame authorities for being more interested in large animals and ignoring the small ones.
When Tullow Oil was reached for a comment, they referred New Vision to NEMA.
Is NEMA ready for the waste?
In performing its work, NEMA partners with institutions like the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the Directorate of Water Resources Management, the National Forestry Authority, Directorate of Environmental Affairs.
Others are the Directorate of Physical Planning and Land use, the Department of Fisheries Resources and the districts in the Albertine Graben.
According to NEMA chief Okurut, their preparedness can be measured by their ability to assess the environmental impact, the tools available for this work, the prevailing legal regime and support of Parliament for new relevant bills. "We already have the environmental sensitivity atlas for the Albertine Graben, which shows the general impact on the region's biological and water resources, cultural sites, forests, wetlands, soils and settlements.
"We have developed tools like the environmental monitoring plan, the compliance and monitoring strategy, the capacity needs assessment, waste management guidelines and environment impact assessments, which help us to continuously monitor changes in the environment."
A strategic environmental assessment is being carried out and is expected to be completed by December, according to Okurut. On the legal front, Okurut says there are some laws that need amendment and the review of some has been initiated, so as to include the aspects of oil and gas. The review will be completed in March next year.
He adds: "NEMA has subjected all current oil and gas activities to environmental impact and Social Assessment. We have carried out onsite inspections."