The 1,444 kilometre long East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) being built to evacuate crude oil from the far western end of Uganda at Hoima on Lake Albert to the far eastern end of Tanzania at Tanga port on the Indian Ocean is going to be the world’s longest heated oil pipeline. Whether that is a record to be proud of or a sin to be ashamed of depends on whether you have been listening to the petroleum developers or to the environmental activists who have mounted a spirited campaign against the project over the last couple of years. What is certain, however, is that there is an even greater opportunity to utilize the 1,444 kms corridor to revolutionarize transport in the East African region.
The corridor is already designated and the former occupants of the affected land already compensated. So, besides transporting a singular raw material in one direction, it can also be used to transport all other products in BOTH directions using clean energy.
We are talking about an electric rail running from the Indian Ocean to Lake Albert at the Uganda – DR Congo border. Planning for such an electric rail means that the 1,444 kms corridor would not become a useless ghost when the extraction of crude oil ceases to be a viable economic endeavor in ten to twenty years. Twenty years isn’t a long time – just recall where you were in 2002! Besides, even if the use of fossil fuel persists for a longer time, the oil deposits of western Uganda will be depleted after two or three decades. Therefore, it makes no sense economically to make such huge investments solely on projects whose purpose will cease to exist in the foreseeable future.
Moreover, if it is upgraded to accommodate an electric railway, the Tanga-Hoima corridor wouldn’t just be a Uganda-Tanzania affair, but an East African asset. For it runs close to Burundi, Rwanda, DR Congo and South Sudan (see map). Running along Lake Victoria also means that it is effectively connected to western Kenya. In other words, this corridor actually connects all the current member countries of the East African Community.
So before Tanzania and Uganda even start chest thumping over building the world’s longest heated pipeline (what an honour!), East Africa should be thinking of how to make that already-created corridor useful in the face of the inevitably approaching post-dirty-fuel era.
It is commendable that two African governments could agree on and promote a multi-billion-dollar venture jointly. It shows that African governments can jointly plan and mobilise resources to support an important project. But even as they started their colonial model project to evacuate unprocessed raw materials for processing in the ‘civilised’ world, these two East African states must have known that the industry into which they are underwriting a colossal investment of about $5 billion was already on its death bed. For the climate change warning bell has been tolling very loudly over the past two decades against the extraction and burning of fossil fuels whose carbon emissions are hugely responsible for global warming. It is therefore only logical for East Africans to hope and expect that Uganda and Tanzania are also planning to jointly invest an equal or bigger sum in clean energy for development.
Already, Uganda and Tanzania are ‘separately’ undertaking projects to develop clean transport (call it electric mobility or e-mobility). What we are yet to see is coordination in such projects so as to minimize duplication in deploying scarce resources like money, and contradiction in application of technologies. Two examples strictly in Tanzania and Uganda – the hosts of EACOP – will suffice. Tanzania is working on electrifying hundreds of kilometres of railway – inside Tanzania. That is a hell lot of electricity. But it may not be entirely clean electricity if Tanzania is to generate it using its almost limitless natural gas. On the other hand, Uganda is generating huge amounts of entirely clean electricity (from the running water of River Nile) that it is unable to consume. Yet, Uganda has to pay foreign loans that it incurred to build its dams on the Nile. Uganda also pays (foreign) generating companies for all the power generated even if it is not consumed. Therefore, a compelling reason for East African Community to explore planning the extension of the corridor from Tanga to, say, Kinshasa would be to share the costs of such projects, thereby minimizing the burden on the economies of all member states.
It is worth nothing that new member DRC can generate more power than is needed to electrify all the railways in Africa from a single place – the Inga Falls at Kinshasa. Yes, Inga can do 60,000 Megawatts using old technology and much more using modern techniques. There are a hundred times more iron ore in South western Uganda to build the railway from Tanga to Kinshasa; a hundred times more electricity potential at Inga than is needed to power the railway, and a hundred times more money in terms of minerals along the way to finance the project. By the way, if Kinshasa isn’t readily ready to unlock Inga dam, there is enough potential in the Nile, the world’s longest river, to power the corridor of the world’s longest heated pipeline.
Are the thinkers of East African Community waiting for someone in Washington, Paris or Beijing to suggest these ideas? China is already ‘thinking for Africa’ about the grand highway project. Is East Africa waiting for Beijing or Washington to think about electrifying a clean energy rail artery connecting and opening up the region for us?