EACOP: An endangered Indian Ocean, oil’s way out of Africa

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: EACOP: A boon or curse for East Africa?

By David Soler Crespo, Soraya Aybar Laafou, Pablo Garrigós

Posted on Wednesday, 7 December 2022 09:44
The coral reefs of Tanga are among the best preserved in the entire western Indian Ocean. Scientists criticise project like EACOP as it is a direct threat to the conservation of these ecosystems and the fishing grounds they host. Photo taken on September 19, 2022 - . (Photo by Pablo Garrigós)

Conservationists in Tanzania's Tanga fear that the construction of the new port in Chongoleani will reduce the habitat of marine biodiversity, amongst which are some of the most ancient fish species in the world and Africa’s healthiest mangroves and coral reefs.

This is part 6 of a 7-part series

It’s 5am at the Deep Sea Market in Tanga. Some fishermen unmoor their boats from the shore whilst others finish loading the latest tools before sailing: net traps, buckets, raffia ropes, nothing remains unchecked.

Once on the sea, fishermen remain patient. A part of the team unrolls the net while, on top of the vessel, others await to haul in the catch of the day. Fishing is the main source of life and food in Tanga.

On the other side of the bay, five kilometers northeast away from the shores of the market, the future port of Chongoleani will be built for one purpose: store and export the oil transported along the EACOP pipeline.

The terminal will cover approximately 72 hectares of land and will have a storage capacity for about 2 million barrels of oil, distributed in four tanks heated to at least 63 degrees Celsius.

Endangering coral reefs

Chongoleani’s infrastructures will be located near ecologically significant marine areas such as the Tanga Coelacanth Marine Park. Boat traffic and offshore activities will affect the entire Pemba Channel conservation area.

The oil-directed activities will endanger coral reefs and mangroves, affecting food supplies for fishing communities.

“Fish depend on coral and mangroves. If there is damage, some species may disappear or have to adapt to other types of the environment,” says Ismael Kimeri, Director of Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI).

Together with EACOP-related projects, high temperatures due to climate change are also a big concern.

“The Pemba Channel is an upwelling area which means that in these ecosystems, Co2 concentrations are different. If the ocean continues to warm up, the upwelling will slow and fish supply will decrease,” Kimeri adds.

Tanzania, September 17, 2022 – A mangrove in the Kwale Marine Reserve on Tanga’s coast and less than 10km from the new terminal of EACOP. Mangroves are internationally recognised as one of the ecosystems that store more CO2, becoming a key ally against climate change. Nevertheless, UNESCO has denounced that “more than three-quarters of mangroves in the world are now threatened”. (Photo by Pablo Garrigós)

An endangered-resilient oasis

The Tanga Coelacanth Marine Park, which stretches along 100km of coastline and includes islands such as Yambe, is home to endangered species such as the coelacanth, one of the oldest fish in the world with more than 400 million years of history.

The fish live between 100m and 200m deep and are intolerant to water temperatures above 23 degrees.

Industrial activity poses an added risk. “The noise from the oil tankers can affect the coelacanths,” says Catherine Msina, manager of the marine park in Tanga.

Fish depend on coral and mangroves. If there is damage, some species may disappear or have to adapt to other types of the environment.

A study led by the Coastal Oceans Research and Development of the Indian Ocean at East Africa (CORDIO) pointed out that although the Pemba Channel in Tanga has one of the healthiest coral reefs so far, all corals in East Africa are still at risk of collapse within a period of 50 years.

The pipeline may be an added problem. “The biggest concern is a spill, which would be catastrophic. The maritime traffic will already affect the corals due to the paint and toxic fuels,” says David Obura, director of CORDIO.

Guardians of the sea

On the ground, conservationists are alert. “We need to worry. If there is an oil spill, there must be a protocol,” says Johnson Mshana, coordinator of projects in the region of the international NGO for Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

“There must be a balance between the economic and environmental agenda. The multiplier impact of the project will be higher in Tanzania because almost 1.200km of the pipeline project will be laid inside our country,” adds Mshana.

Since 2020, Johnson and the WCS team have been working for the conservation of the environment and marine biodiversity in Tanga.

The biggest concern is a spill, which would be catastrophic. The maritime traffic will already affect the corals due to the paint and toxic fuels.

They demarcate protected areas, check the coral’s health and ensure its well-being.

During the demarcation of the buoys that protect coral reefs, Johnson looks away to the future land site of the pipeline outlet in Chongoleani: “You can’t imagine that a whole new port is going to be built there. In a completely green area covered by mangroves,” he says.

The Kwale Marine Reserve, a component of the Tanga Marine Conservation Area, has one of the best-preserved mangrove forests in the region. A few kilometres from this protected area, the EACOP’s terminal will be built and will export more than 216,000 barrels of crude oil per day with oil tankers, putting this precious marine ecosystem at risk. Photo taken on September 17, 2022. (Photo by Pablo Garrigós)

Johnson hopes that EACOP managers, with Total Energies at the head, respect their work as conservationists in the area. “They must take into account the demarcation area and should work outside the marine protected areas,” he adds.

Conservationists’ fear

Along with the coral’s health, the new port poses a threat to the lungs of the coast: mangrove forests.

Humphrey Mahudi from Tanga Coelacanth Marine Park has worked since 2006 on their conservation. With a raffia thread, his team measures their width and registers the appearance of new leaves.

“Most of the mangroves are dying so it’s vital that we control them,” he says.

Conservationists fear that their daily work will be diminished as information is missing.

“People don’t know what they are prepared to receive, even the government doesn’t have the right answer for us about what is going on. This is a big petroleum company and the project might collapse,” says Mike Mlay, the marine park’s boatman.

Despite not knowing its intricacies, environmentalists are conscious that politics is an important weapon when speaking about big projects such as EACOP.

This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu

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