Oil Pipeline Through the Serengeti?

Plans for an oil pipeline from Uganda to Tanzania’s Indian Ocean port of Tanga raises threats for the Serengeti ecosystem. 

The impact of such an oil pipeline on the Serengeti would be catastrophic. 


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New roads, railways, and pipelines are expected to crisscross Africa in the coming decades as massive new development takes shape. The Serengeti is in the middle.

In 2006 Uganda discovered oil, lots of it, in the lake region of its Great Rift Valley. Located in the southwest corner of the country, southeast of Lake Albert, it is reportedly one of the largest oil fields in Africa.

The oil fields are leased in three equal parts to outside companies, Tullow Oil from the UK, Total Oil from France, and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). In 2012, Tullow also discovered oil in Kenya’s northern Turkana district. Although not nearly as large, its fields are still enough to make significant income for Kenya.

An early plan to develop this resource, called LAPSSET, merged the export of the oil from Uganda and Kenya and oil from neighboring South Sudan, and possibly Ethiopia, into one pipeline that would exit at a massive new Indian Ocean port near the island of Lamu. This combined effort would have all countries and companies sharing in the investment, risks, and rewards.

But now, low oil prices and geopolitical issues have complicated the picture. Ethiopia has decided to export north through the Red Sea port of Djibouti. South Sudan is in chaos. And the terrorist group, Al Shabab, now allied with ISIS, continues to be a threat in northern Kenya and Somalia.

Note: Another route through Kenya to its southern port of Mombasa (not shown on the map) has been proposed, but there are said to be substantial problems with congestion at the Mombasa port and the cost to purchase land en route, especially in Nairobi.

An Oil Pipeline Through Tanzania

All this was evidently a factor in the recent decision by Uganda to export oil to the south through Tanzania. A loose agreement was signed in November 2015 between the two countries. In February of 2016, the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, met with the new president of Tanzania, John Magufuli, and the two emerged with the announcement of an oil pipeline from Uganda to the Tanzanian port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean Coast.

Whether this agreement sticks is still to be determined. But should the pipeline go through Tanzania, it could be a threat to the Serengeti and other ecosystems along the route.

The length of such a pipeline is the single biggest factor in its construction cost and subsequent transport cost of oil. If this were the sole issue, then a route from Uganda, across Lake Victoria, across the Serengeti, and onward to the coast would be the shortest path. This distance, by some estimates, would be about the same as the northern route through Kenya.

But a complicating factor is crossing Lake Victoria and the cost of laying a pipeline under water, and heating it. Uganda oil is thick and needs to be heated to a temperature of 50C (120F). Unless diluents are somehow used, there will need to be heating stations at fixed intervals. Heating under the lake would present a problem for both construction and maintenance.

Pipeline Location – Critical Issue for the Serengeti

The impact of such an oil pipeline on the Serengeti would be catastrophic and end the migration. The pipeline and accompanying road would be a barrier for migrating wildlife and a high risk area for oil spills.

Heating of the oil to the required temperature means that the pipeline could not be buried in the ground. It would have to lay on the surface, a soft “cotton” soil that would risk shifting, breaking the pipe. There would even be more risk if the pipeline were somehow elevated on supports. The Serengeti and areas to the east in the Crater Highlands are seismically active with earthquakes in the 6 point range. The risk of a spill would be unacceptably high.

A route along the southern end of Lake Victoria and to the south of the Serengeti would avoid a devastating impact on the Serengeti. It would also avoid an underwater oil spill into the shallow Lake Victoria that could destroy fisheries and leak downstream into the Nile River.

It would allow for regular heating stations, be in areas that maintenance crews could access, and avoid international protest and loss of tourism.

Waiting to hear more

News reports have said that the pipeline would be started in mid-2016. Construction materials would be brought in through the port of Tanga. There has been no word on the routing of the pipeline as yet.  Some news articles say that the pipeline will be 1120 Km, others that it will be 1400 Km. The shorter route would necessarily mean a more direct route across the lake and through the Serengeti.

What happens now?

We are closely watching this new development. Serengeti Watch was instrumental in bringing a court case against the proposed Serengeti highway. The case in established a good precedent against any action that would endanger the Serengeti ecosystem. An oil pipeline would certainly be as or more destructive than a commercial highway. Any attempt to construct such a pipeline across the Serengeti would immediately revive legal action in the East African Court of Justice. We are confident that it would also result in a huge international backlash against the plan.