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Emerging issues from Ghana's oil exploration

Ghana discovered its offshore oil and gas Jubilee Field in 2007. By 2010, it had started pumping the first oil – a historic moment. Since then, oil has been produced in commercial quantities, and over the next 20 years it could earn up to US$20 billion in export revenue for the country. It is expected that this will present an opportunity for the growth of the country’s economy, reducing the poverty rate amongst the people living in the coastal towns where the exploration work is carried out. But four years after entry into the oil business, critical issues have begun emerging from communities living close to where the exploration takes place. The sea provides a major source of employment for people living in the coastal towns. They fish to get their daily bread. But recently, their work has virtually halted as a result of the frequent washing ashore of dead whales.

Between August 2013 and December 2014, the carcasses of 23 whales appeared on the beaches of Ghana. Traditionally, in the coastal towns such an occurrence was seen as a sign of a bumper harvest of fish, and the local people celebrated and made merry. They buried the whale and gave it a befitting funeral, just like a human being. This was the practice in the olden days. But the number of dead whales recently has changed people’s ancient beliefs. They are now worried. Whenever a dead whale is washed ashore, they are out of business. They cannot undertake their daily work routines until the mammal has decomposed. In Asanta, a small fishing village of about 2,000 inhabitants located in Ellembele District in the Western Region of the country, more than seven dead whales have appeared. The chief fisherman of the village, Joseph Ebambay, explained in an interview that this development was unusual in the past and blamed it on the oil exploration in the area. “I can say there is a change in the environment, because we are now having oil fields and oil companies running within our deep seas. So, you cannot deny the fact that, as we say, it may be because of the oil find. We may be thinking like that, we may be thinking because of the oil drilling some chemicals fell into the sea and maybe these whales … drink some of the water or whatever it is,” said Mr. Ebambay.

Not only the chief fisherman and his people in the village suspect the oil exploration. At the Department of Marine and Fisheries Sciences at the University of Ghana, Professor P. K. Ofori-Danson, a sea mammal expert, said in an interview that the current rate at which the whales are being washed ashore is something that must be investigated. “The frequency of the occurrence of death is going higher. What new thing have we put there that made it go high? The sound waves inserted into the ocean floor during the exploration are 100 times the sound of a jet plane taking off. So, if you send strange waves to the sea bed, it interferes with [the whales’] echo-location and prevents them from moving, and they are likely to swim to the shallow area of the sea and eventually be washed ashore. So we suspect the oil drilling”, the professor said. The Ghanaian government representative in the area is worried about the rate at which the dead mammals are being found. District Chief Executive, Daniel Eshon said Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not doing enough to help solve the problem, but declined to comment on whether the oil exploration is responsible for the death of the whales or not. “It will interest you to know that if it happens, the EPA people will call and say try and solve this problem, because they think that as the assembly is there ‒ the assembly is the local government in this particular area ‒ so you have to oversee everything. So in this case, most of the time, they rely on me to solve these kinds of issues. But for them … [to] do this kind of post mortem and proper analysis to determine the cause of death of the whale, they will not come,” he said.

Before oil exploration began, an environmental impact assessment was done for the government by the companies involved. In the assessment, it was identified that the exploration could cause some potential threats to marine mammals. But the mitigation measures that were outlined to reduce these threats have not been properly reviewed by Ghana’s environmental authorities. Friends of the Nation, an environmental issue advocacy group, has kept a close eye on the incidents and said in an interview that people in the area have reason to believe that the oil activities are responsible, since it was predicted that it could happen.But the environmental authorities have denied that the deaths of the mammals could be linked to oil extraction. ‘You must have evidence to say so; there has been speculation as to whether the oil activities might be responsible for this, [that] by generating seismic sounds that could disorientate the whales. But recent studies by the International Union for Conservation of Nature have shown that the evidence does not support it,’ maintains Carl Fiati, the EPA’s deputy director of natural resources, marine and costal environment.

Ghana’s environmental authorities are not making any concerted effort to uncover the mystery behind the deaths of the whales. Meanwhile, the migration period of the whales has just begun this year. From August 2014 till March 2015, they will be traversing Ghana’s waters, and probably more of them will be washed ashore, which will continue to disturb communities living along the coast.


Note: This article was first submitted to the Haller Foundation as an unpublished article. It was selected as the 1st Runner Up in the Haller Prize for Development Journalism held in Nairobi-Kenya.

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