Lake Tanganyika and the search for Oil

Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo signed a memorandum of understanding in 2016 for joint exploration and development of hydrocarbons in Lake Tanganyika over a period of 10 years by London based Tullow Oil.

Lake Tanganyika (source: Exploring Africa)
“We have signed a memorandum of understanding to exchange experiences in exploration and exploitation of petroleum in Lake Tanganyika,” Congolese President Joseph Kabila told a news conference in Dar es Salaam after talks with Tanzanian President John Magufuli.

“We believe that there is petroleum in Lake Tanganyika.”

Lake Tanganyika straddles the border between Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Zambia, is the world’s second largest by volume and second deepest.

The earliest attempts at evaluating the area’s oil and gas potential date back to the late 1950s in Burundi, which holds only a very small part of the lake’s surface, when a gravimetric prospecting survey was conducted in the basin of the Ruzizi plain. Since then, geological studies happened intermittently. The most consistent development took place in the 1980s, when AMOCO Production Company developed a number of geologic surveys in the area. Following the interpretation of the results, the company signed production sharing agreements with the four neighboring countries between 1984 and 1987. Despite promising indications, AMOCO only developed exploratory work, with a seismic surveys and two exploratory wells that, while unsuccessful, did not rule out the possibility of oil accumulations in the area. By the end of the decade, AMOCO had relinquished all acreage in the lake.

 Zambia is the next country in line to capitalize on its potential resources in Lake Tanganyika. In 2013, the Zambian government announced its intentions to extend the country’s oil and gas exploration areas to Lake Tanganyika. By June 2016, a block was awarded to Tullow Oil.

The 53,200 square kilometers of Block 31 cover the Zambian parts of Lake Tanganyika, as well as Lake Mweru and Lake Mweru Wantipa, to the West, an area nearly completely unexplored. Tullow has pledged to spend at least $69 million during its first two years of exploratory works in the area.

The block offers a good prospect and both the government and Tullow Oil believe on the high potential it represents due to successful explorations on the same region in neighboring countries, Zambia’s Minister of Mines, Energy and Water Development Bwalya Yaluma explained. The exploration phase will also support Zambians to earn technical expertise and the government will ensure that this stage will be transparent and benefit local people, Minister Yaluma added.

While a lot of doubt still surrounds the true potential of Lake Tanganyika for hydrocarbons production, it remains one of the most interesting underexplored areas of the EARS (East African Rift System) today.

 The Tullow Zambia Country Manager, Dr. Mulenga,  said the exploration will cover a expansive area and was granted a ten year exploration licence under the Zambia Petroleum Act.  He also said the exploration will include key stakeholder engagement which will include geologists and the local people.

Dr. Mulenga said Tullow Oil Plc has an excellent track record and made oil exploration in Ghana and made Ghana an oil exporting country, also saying that the Company was instrumental in the exploration of oil in Uganda and Kenya for the two countries to discover that they had oil deposits within their borders.

The Arts, Activism, Education & Research Platform claimed otherwise in its report in 2012 : “Tullow Oil’s foul play in Ghana.”

They wrote that ” Tullow Oil have a reputation of trying to push oil contracts in countries like Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo with terms that are not at all favorable to the local communities. In Ghana, where Tullow have faced comparatively less criticism, the company has fallen short of its stated commitments to corporate responsibility and local development in Africa.”

(Read the entire article here: 

So the question begs, what does this mean for the future of Lake Tanganyika from an ecological standpoint?

Andrew Cohen (University Distinguished Professor Joint Professor, Geosciences and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) says that the biological and economic riches produced by 10 million years of evolution could lie in the balance.

“Rift lake sediments of the type found in Lake Tanganyika are well known among geologists as reservoirs of hydrocarbons, as over millions of years vast quantities of plankton have died and settled on the lake floor.

The consequences of actual production are still unknown. But the recent record of catastrophic oil spills, for example along the Niger River Delta, highlight the critical need for very careful study and environmental planning before production proceeds in fragile Lake Tanganyika.”

According to a 2016 letter published in Science, an oil spill in Lake Tanganyika, for example, which supports more than ten million people, would “markedly affect the health, water supply, and food security of local communities,” and be a “global catastrophe for biodiversity”.

It is indeed a double edged sword, but the finding of natural resources on Lake Tanganyika will in no doubt be profitable for Zambia with lucrative mining contracts being awarded  while also providing jobs for its people.

Zambians overall seem to support the project, hoping for future jobs and education for themselves and their children. Although they are not confident that the actual residents living on the lake will be the ones to receive any benefits as they are mostly fishermen with limited or no tertiary education. They also expressed concerned that a oil spill may terminally effect the fishing industry, hurting those who are the already struggling to support their families.

However, if government implement adequate monitoring systems, regulators to police the industry and equipment needed to react to spills, learning from Ghana’s Tullow Oil Jubilee Field incident in 2011,

(Read article here :

… then the financial benefits will well out weight the possible risk. The Conversation

The survey drones have been seen recently flying low over the lake and things are well under way, and hopefully it will mean a great future for Zambia and its people.


Quoted  and Referenced Sources:








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