Scientists explore oil wealth in Lake Malawi

May 10, 2005 02:00 AM

For many years, analysts have speculated about the potential for valuable mineral deposits in Lake Malawi, but mineral explorers had not undertaken a survey. Part of the problem was that Malawi could not afford the expensive, highly capital intensive research itself, and was seeking interested investors to uncover any deposits of oil and gas.
Now a new project to plumb the depths of the lake has been announced to determine the quantity and quality of any reserves in the bedrock of the lake. The Lake Malawi Drilling Programme will involve the US National Science Foundation, the chief financier, to collaborate with the German-based International Scientific Drilling Programme in exploring the lake up to a depth of 500 metres. They will be searching for hydrocarbons that are associated with mineral deposits and will then provide critical information about the prospects of any treasure buried underneath the surface.

The survey could not have started at a more opportune time, if one looks at Malawi’s narrow economic base. The country has relied heavily on the tobacco industry since the days of colonial British rule for its revenues, and with a vociferous anti-smoking lobby spearheaded by the World Health Organisation, the industry is headed for tough times, which would spell tough times ahead for Malawi.
US experts are leading the survey team, which also comprises German scientists and the Malawi government’s Department of Geological Survey (GSD). US team leader Chris Scholz says Malawi, which has been importing oil and gas until now, stands to make a lot of money from its natural resources.
"The research is not for oil only. Any discovery of gas or minerals would enhance Malawi’s economic potential," Scholz said.

Japan, another willing investor, has since donated geological equipment to Malawi worth $ 1.3 mm, which local authorities say will boost the country’s mining sector. This is a view shared by the department of Mines, Natural Resources and Environment, which commissioned the multi-million dollar drilling Atomic Absorption Spectrometer.
The drilling tool can also be used for borehole drilling and civil engineering works, which means that apart from the day-to-day operations of the department of mining and geological surveys, it can be hired out to other institutions to generate income for the department.

The geo-scientific information gleaned through this survey will help experts to understand Malawi’s mineral resources endowment, especially industrial minerals, building stones, sand, gravel, fertilizer and metallic minerals. The acquired data will also include Malawi’s landslide history and potential earthquake flooding, swelling and shrinking clays, soluble rocks and any possible underground mining hazards.
In assessing the findings of the survey, the experts will also have to balance such challenges as the potential contaminating of aquatic life and biodiversity of the lake, which is a major source of livelihood for local communities.

Lake Malawi is the largest freshwater body along Central Africa’s Great Rift Valley and is second in size only to Lake Victoria. The lake harbours rare fish species, especially the delicious tilapia of Chambo, not found in any other freshwater body in the world.
Other information which should emerge from the project will be on ground water, shoreline and offshore processes, without destroying the pristine sediment layer discovered by previous environmental impact assessment studies conducted by US universities.

Malawi’s minister for mining, Davis Katsonga, says for Malawi to turn the mining sector into an engine of economic growth, it needs a far greater influx of equipment and technical expertise.
"I’m happy to see Japan coming forward to help Malawi achieve its goals because the sector needs every bit of help it can get to create a vibrant economic hub," enthused the minister.

While Malawi savours its ambitious mineral dreams, Tanzania, Malawi’s northern neighbour, is also eyeing the valuable resources in the lake. It has since started lobbying the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) to reclaim a portion of the lake so it too can benefit from any precious minerals.
Tanzania is basing its argument on the International Maritime Law that provides for sharing of all inland water bodies among surrounding neighbours.

The East African country leans heavily on the history books in referring to a 1958 map of Malawi, which shows the northern tip of the lake owned by Tanzania.
Tanzania alleges that because it was against British colonial rule, preferring to pledge its allegiance to Germany, it was punished by having its portion of the lake reclaimed by Britain in the Second World War and reverted to the custody of Malawi (then Nyasaland, a former protectorate).

Source: Business in Africa
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