Environmental Impact Assessment – Proposed oil exploration in Virunga’s Lake Edward: a fishes’ perspective

Proposed oil exploration in Virunga’s Lake Edward: a fishes’ perspective

August 29, 2013 / by

This quest post by Kevin Smith of the IUCN Global Species Programme responds to Susanne Schmitt’s request for information to strengthen the freshwater arguments of WWF’s Campaign to keep oil exploration out of the Virunga World Heritage Site. Dr. Susanne Schmitt recently wrote for this blog, describing how WWF are campaigning for SOCO International, who own oil exploration licence for ‘Block V’ which covers a large part of the Virunga National Park and Lake Edward, to stay outside the park boundaries. WWF have highlighted the high biodiversity value of the lake, and others in the region, but it is often hard to find a central data resource with information on the biodiversity present (other than birds and mammals) – as would be needed in support of any Environmental Impact Assessment conducted.


IUCN, through its work on freshwater biodiversity assessments in Africa (including all species of fishes, molluscs, dragonflies, and crabs), has however, made large amounts of data freely available to help inform decision making processes such as these. Our data can be accessed in a number of ways, from the online ESRI powered ‘Freshwater Biodiversity Browser’ (Figure 1) which lets the user query any sub-catchment in Africa to identify which species of fish, mollusc, dragonfly, crab or aquatic plant is found within it, or with a smart phone using the ESRI Arc GIS app* (Figure 2). The app is the same as the desktop version but allows field workers to use their location (through gps on the smart phone) to query what freshwater biodiversity may be in the sub-catchment they are standing in. The species data all links back to the IUCN Red List, where you can find out more information on the conservation status of the species, and download the species distribution data.


Figure 1. IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Browser (African freshwater species so far), allows the user to identify what species (with information on Red List status, utilisation, threats etc) are in every sub-catchment across Africa.


Figure 2. Freshwater Biodiversity Browser, allows the user to identify what species are in the sub-catchment they are located in the field.

Of the approximately 80 fish taxa in Lake Edward and the closely connected Lake George, the majority are from the family Cichlidae (including haplochromines) most of which are found nowhere else in the world (Snoeks 2000) and so are effectively “irreplaceable”. Using data from the IUCN Red List assessments along with their range information the distribution of threatened species within the immediate Lake Edward and George basin can be shown (Figure 3). Currently there are no globally threatened fish species within Lake Edward, or within the Block V oil concession area, (at least at the time of the assessments in 2006!). The threatened species of the basin are found in the Ruwenzori river systems or within Lake George and the Kazinga Channel. These species are primarily threatened by pollution from mining activities. However, the high levels of endemicity within Lake Edward cannot be ignored (Figure 2). The species flock of Lake Edward may not yet be threatened, but any impacts in the future to Lake Edward, or its upstream catchment (covering almost the entire ‘Block V’ area) would more than likely impact those endemic (irreplaceable) species possibly causing them to classified as threatened or even extinct.


Figure 3. The number of threatened freshwater fish species in the immediate Lakes Edward and George basin


Figure 4. The number of freshwater fish species endemic to the immediate Lakes Edward and George basin

The impacts to freshwater biodiversity itself, although very important, is not the only aspect that need to be considered when assessing the likely impacts of development upon freshwater systems. The links between biodiversity and ecosystem services need to be identified and considered, even if this is only possible for the most the obvious services (provisioning e.g. food). There are many other fish species within Lake Edward and its basin that are not endemic but play a crucial role in human livelihoods and food security. A recent IUCN study on the values of freshwater fish of Africa’s Albertine Rift (which uses the Red List assessments), found that 60% of fish species within the wider Albertine Rift lakes are important for human use primarily as either food, or for the aquarium trade (Carr et al. 2013). The report also noted that fishing not only provides the cheapest source of animal protein, it is a major source of income for those living near water bodies in Uganda and the DRC (Lakes Albert and Edward), and particularly for the most destitute of people (ADF 2003). However there are indications that fish populations are declining, for example, people living around Lake Edward [in the DRC] have begun cultivating crops to lessen the impact of declining fish stocks (Alinovi et al. 2007).

We therefore need to make informed decisions regarding the future of any development within the Lake Edward basin (not just the Virunga National Park), and this needs to adequately incorporate any potential impacts to biodiversity and human society, it cannot just be based on the profits and dollar ‘benefits’ from the development. The age old excuse of “but there is no information to do this…” is no longer valid for Africa. However, there are many similar developments planned throughout the world and it is all the more important that such data are made available for the globe’s freshwater ecosystems. Unfortunately, it is currently unavailable for more than 50% of the world’s wetlands and a lack of funding is hindering efforts to fill this information gap. We can’t expect to have sustainable development if there is no baseline information set on freshwater biodiversity. We can broker deals, improve governance structures etc. but all needs to be underpinned by sound information on the biodiversity that enables these ecosystems to function sustainably.

All of IUCN’s freshwater biodiversity data (see the Biomatrix), including datasets produced as part of our participation in the Biofresh Project such as global freshwater shrimp assessments, New Zealand freshwater biodiversity assessment, and global freshwater turtle distributions will be included in the Biofresh Freshwater Biodiversity Atlas along with other non-biodiversity freshwater related data.

For more information on IUCNs work on freshwater biodiversity contact – Kevin Smith (Kevin.Smith@iucn.org) or William Darwall (William.Darwall@iucn.org)

*note: search for ‘Freshwater Biodiversity Browser’ within the ESRI App

ADF (2003) Multinational. Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Lakes Edward and Albert Fisheries (LEAF) Pilot Project. Nile Equatorial Lake Subsidiary Action Program (NELSAP). Nile Basin Initiative. Agriculture and Rural Development Department.

Alinovi, L., Hemrich, G. and Russo, L. (2007) Addressing Food Insecurity in Fragile States: Case Studies from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Sudan.

Carr, J.A., Outhwaite, W.E., Goodman, G.L., Oldfield, T.E.E. and Foden, W.B. 2013. Vital but vulnerable: Climate change vulnerability and human use of wildlife in Africa’s Albertine Rift. Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission No. 48. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. xii + 224pp.

Snoeks, J. (2000) How well known is the ichthyodiversity of the large East African Lakes? Advances in Ecological Research 31: 553–565.

Source: BioFreshBlog