By Diana Nabiruma
In the wee hours of June 19, 2019, I we left Kampala for Kikuube district. I travelled with work colleagues.
We travelled to Kikuube and thereafter Hoima district to participate in the public hearings on the Kingfisher oil project’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) study report.
The public hearings were organised by the Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU) in partnership with NEMA.
The hearings, which were held in Kikuube and Hoima districts respectively, were aimed at enabling NEMA ascertain that the information contained in the ESIA was accurate in addition to enabling the public submit their views.
The public’s views would assist NEMA in making a decision as to whether to issue an environmental certificate for the Kingfisher project, which is located on the shores of Lake Albert, or not.
I made some observations while in Kikuube and Hoima. These observations left me worried for the communities in the Bunyoro oil region in particular and Ugandan citizens at large.
I had a bit of a cold when we left. During our stay in the districts, the cold disappeared.
When I returned to Kampala however, the cold returned with a vengeance.
We first had to drop my work colleagues to Buwaate, which is near Kiira. When we were in Kungu, I got a painful wound in my nose.
The cold, which must have been soothed by the fresher air in Kikuube and Hoima district, had returned!
By the time we reached Ntinda on the way to my home, my chest had tightened and I was in pain. A mixture of the cold and pollution from car fumes had sparked off an allergic episode.
AIR POLLUTION AND ALLERGIC DISORDERS
How are the public hearings, my allergies and oil related? Because there is a link between oil production, oil consumption and respiratory illnesses.
The incidence of allergies and asthma in developing countries including Uganda is on the rise.
A 2018 study, Asthma and Allergic Disorders in Uganda: A Population-Based Study Across Urban and Rural Settings, showed that there was a “a high prevalence of allergic disorders in Uganda”. The researchers concluded that the disorders were expected to increase.
Well, per the above-mentioned study which was conducted by John Hopkins University in collaboration with Makerere Lung Institute, and ACCESS Uganda, urbanisation was identified as the “primary driver of asthma and the strongest risk factor for any allergic illness [including allergic rhinitis and eczma]”.
The study examined 1,308 adults over the age of 35 and it found that while 9.8% of the sampled urban population had asthma, only 4.3% of the rural population did.
The study also found that the prevalence of allergic rhinitis and eczma was higher in urban population than in rural ones.
While 16.4% and 9.9% of the sampled urban population suffered from allergic rhinitis and eczma respectively, 7.8% of the sampled rural population suffered from both the above diseases.
A 2019 study, Prevalence and factors associated with asthma among adolescents and adults in Uganda: a general population based survey, agreed with the above findings.
A total of 3,416 participants over the age of 12 were surveyed and the study found that urbanisation among other factors was associated with asthma.
Why is urbanisation associated with allergic disorders such as asthma, allergic rhinitis and eczma? Pollution from car fumes among other sources has been blamed. Car fumes contain carbonmonoxide, carbondioxide, nitrogendioxide, sulphurdioxide, ozone, benzene and other compounds.
The above compounds have been linked to allergic disorders. For instance, ozone, nitrogendioxide, sulphurdioxide and soot exposure have been linked to worsening asthma symptoms.
The above compounds irritate the lining of the nose, throat and lungs, inflame the lining of the airways, reduce lung capacity and cause discomfort in breathing among others.
On the other hand, carbonmonoxide is a known poison that can kill with long-term exposure. It is linked to lightheadedness, confusion, dizziness, headache, weakness, confusion, disorientation and other symptoms which are seen in patients such as myself that suffer from allergic rhinitis.
Car fumes are generated from the burning of diesel and petrol. Burning of other fossil fuels results in the release of the above compounds as well.
OIL, ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERNS
In the ESIA report and during the Kingfisher ESIA public hearings, CNOOC (U) Ltd revealed that roads are going to be upgraded, the populations of Hoima Kikkube will increase, air pollution from car fumes and emergency flaring (burning of fossil fuels) are anticipated.
Urbanisation, increased motorisation and combustion of fossil fuels are among the risk factors for increased allergic disorders. The above factors are going to be at play in the Bunyoro oil region where the Kingfisher and Tilenga oil projects are located.
It is noteworthy that in oil producing countries such as the U.S. and Ecuador, adult onset asthma and other respiratory diseases have been reported. Potentially dangerous pollutants have also been found near oil and gas installations.
The population and especially communities near oil production facilities in Uganda are at risk of inhaling pollutants from oil and gas production activities. This increases their risk to respiratory diseases and allergic disorders.
The communities are largely poor and would have to rely on Uganda’s public health system to be treated.
Imagine Uganda’s limping health system being further burdened! I don’t want to sound morbid but truth be told, lives would be lost!
What can be done? Countries such as the UK, U.S., the Netherlands and others are increasingly promoting a clean energy system that promotes environmental conservation, health, gender equity and others.
Kiira Motors was invested in producing electric vehicles which are cleaner but they moved on to producing petrol cars. It would be best if the company invested its money and efforts in producing electric cars.
Further, government should promote investment in clean energy over oil. Yes, it’s said that oil will generate government revenue among other reported benefits.
However, government should look to promote the health and wellbeing of its people. We should promote life and sustainable economic activities such as tourism over oil monies.
Government should also promote environmental conservation through progressively investing in clean energy. Uganda was after all chosen to lead the global campaign on biodiversity conservation ahead of the Global Convention on Diversity that will take place in 2020. We can’t be the ones destroying the environment through oil exploitation.
The writer is the Senior Communications Officer of Africa Institute for Energy Governance.