Malawi to develop petroleum legislation amid political tensions

Friday, 31 January, 2014

An article earlier this week in the Malawi Nation once again raises the ongoing thorny issue of rights to what lies beneath Lake Malawi, down the middle of which runs the Malawi/Tanzania border (though Malawi’s stance is that it owns the entire lake). It’s the latest chapter in an ongoing border dispute going back to the 60s; at the end of last year it contributed to violence in both countries, and went to mediation in November, an exceedingly positive development given what had gone before.

There had been a heightening of to-ing and fro-ing about this in recent years, replete with the usual inflammatory comments from ‘leaders’ on both sides who frankly should know better than to say things like “Anyone who tries to provoke our country will face consequences... We will not allow anyone to mess with our country, or try to take away our territory. We will deal with them just as we dealt with Idi Amin” (not that this was the only such statement). for now, though, a more constructive atmosphere seems to have taken hold. Neither country could really afford a war.

It should be noted that the recent spike in the argument may have much to do with potential oil deposits beneath the lake, which rather heighten the stakes for both sides - and raise more immediate concerns of ensuring that any exploration and subsequent drilling benefits local communities (in ways other than simply avoiding armed conflict).

And in that context, Surestream Petroleum Ltd - a company awarded the rights to explore for oil in Malawi - spoke recently at a public hearing organised in the north of the country by the Ministry of Mines. 

During this meeting, locals pleaded that Malawi follow mining legislation properly throughout the exploration process, in order to ensure that any exploitation of the lake provided the maximum possible benefits in order to lift Malawians, and those of the impoverished north in particular, out of poverty.

There was also some local concern of an environmental disaster, in response to which Surestream General Manager Keith Robinson went on record to point out that exploration is still in a very early stage: “We still have to present two more EIAs before reaching the drilling stage,” he said. “It may take years.” He also said that Surestream would only be exploring in non-disp[uted territory on the Maalwi side of the lake, in order to avoid heightening political tensions.

It’s a major concern that those tensions are present to this degree so early in the exploration process, and while it may yet contribute greatly to the development of both Malawi and Tanzania (and Mozambique, whose own lake border is often forgotten in the noise) the potential for damage is high should the lake prove lucrative. 

There is a very great deal invested in both the mediation process and the refinement of Malawi’s  Petroleum Exploration and Production Policy (to be finalised in March with the help of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the University of Dundee in Scotland); here’s hoping that one is successful and the other wise. Watch this space.


IMAGE: Cartoon via