If It Happens In The US Then It Happens In Africa

On January 9, 2014, a potentially dangerous chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane (MCHM) (MCHM is used in processing coal) spilled out of 17 storage tanks into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia (USA), just under 2 miles from the city’s only fresh water intake.

 elkriver

An estimated 10,000 gallons of MCHM leaked into the river causing 300,000 residents of the area to go without water for over a month.  President Obama declared this a federal emergency and US National Guard troops delivered bottled water to residents to sustain them through the rest of the clean up.

Bloomberg Businessweek has an excellent account of the event along with the background of corporate negligence and lack of regulatory oversight that contributed to yet another environmental disaster.

Although chemical spills happen every day (literally…last year we had 3,885 self-reported spills from 76 different publicly traded companies in the US), when one of this magnitude happens, I can’t help but think about what may be happening outside the public’s view in places less accustomed to 24-7 media and accountability.

I make the connection to the energy sector in Africa.

The oil & gas industry is heavily dependent on chemicals through all stages, using and processing compounds that aid in drilling, cementing, completion, and production.  An article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (a federally funded research foundation) notes that “the occupational hazards of exposure to [oil & gas chemicals] has received little attention.”

This is in the US where we have a well-developed environmental protection and public health research framework.  It is no revelation that environmental regulation in resource rich African nations is often unable to match the political clout and professional credibility of the energy industry.  This translates to double standards and unhindered negligent (sometimes criminal) behavior on the part of companies.

Some years ago, I worked as an environmental consultant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I remember talking with a manager of the Environmental Protection Authority who was frustrated by the lack of capacity within his organization.  He told me it was like fighting a battle with one hand tied behind his back.  This is a tough fight no matter whom you face; but particularly when dealing with the well-resourced energy sector.

East Africa is the next big focus for the oil and gas industry.  Significant deposits have been discovered in countries like Tanzania and Uganda.  The concern of the “resource curse” notwithstanding, many people believe that this industry will pay off for the region.  And I agree; I believe it SHOULD pay off!  But, as highlighted, there are characteristics of this industry that can have a negative bearing on the population.

Oil & gas and other resource extraction industries are by no means the only sources of environmental concern. But their contribution to the issue points to a desperate need that countries have to develop their environmental regulation capacities to proactively guide the sustainable development of the extractive industries.

This is the reason I feel very strongly about human capital development on the African continent.  It is the most critical component of Africa’s development process.  Of course, a competitive and well-developed labor pool is central for economic development.  But in the context of sustainability and resource protection, it will help ensure that there is capacity, in organizations like Ethiopia’s EPA, to guard against intended and unintended impacts of an ineffectively regulated private sector.

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2 comments

  1. I want to share this on my Facebook Wall. I come from Uganda a Country not well known for leadership transparency or a fight against high level corruption and where there is excitement about recent oil finds.

  2. In the verge of current East African States weakened enviromental management ,then we should be braced with even more catastrophies as we embrace the discoveries of energy resources in the subcontinent (oil and Gas) which indeed has proven yet another security problem instead of prosperity for the population in many African Countries,The Americas and the Middle East.
    The facts that we have so many problems related to the mismanagements of public funds,Public Education,Agricultural sector and Mining wich happen to be the key drivers to the the East African Country Economy which is fueled by growing levels of corruptions and hence the even deepen gap between the “Rich and Poor”
    With that in mind i wonder how can the enviromental impacts after the the energy dicoveries is in the full offing.
    In Tanzania for instance,the enviromental protections body NEMC has no enough teeth to bite should the findings regarding severe negative impact toward the well establishments or bussiness entities for despites the warning the projects will carry on and the fouls will run on the media for few days and “Thats it”
    Even when the governement minister (Vice President’soffice) in charge of the enviroments entervenes ,a very minister would end up complaining being issued with threats over his/her life!?

    Question is,who are these individuals have such a power tot threaten the country very own enviromental watchdogs!!!?
    If the capacity to well manage the enviroments is enadequates now,what will it be when the big boys from Oil and Gas fully running the shows in the shores of currently serene white beaches sands of East African coast.

    This isnt mentioning number of deep open casts that is left behind un filled
    in recent years in the Tanzania’s Gold Mines accross the country,arguably no anyone seemingly to care about it since the operations is carried on the remotes country sides with the surrounding of the margialised communities..

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