Lake Turkana is the world’s largest “desert sea," a vast turquoise ocean in an unremittingly harsh place of wind, heat and dust.
Its waters keep the cattle of semi-nomadic pastoralists alive in times of drought and its fish feed the people.
It is one of the origins of mankind where, according to the fossil record, the earliest human ancestors rose up on two legs and began to walk, and it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yet it is threatened with extinction by Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam which is already around three-quarters built and likely to be completed in 2014.
The Gilgel Gibe III Hydroelectric dam on the Omo River in southern Ethiopia will be 243 meters high. The project is expected to generate up to 1,860 megawatts of energy, and to supply enough water to irrigate 150,000 hectares of agricultural plantations.
The dam is key to the economic future that Ethiopia’s leaders have mapped out for their country. But experts say it will also destroy Lake Turkana just across the border in Kenya.
“The result could be another Aral Sea disaster in the making,” writes Sean Avery, a Nairobi-based hydrologist in a new report published by the Africa Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.
The Aral Sea in Central Asia was one of the world’s largest lakes until Soviet irrigation projects diverted the rivers that fed it, reducing the lake to a tiny fraction of its original size.
For its part, Lake Turkana is slightly salty and shallow.
Only 30 meters deep on average, Avery predicts water levels could fall by 20 meters, turning the lake into two separate, outsized puddles — one fed by the remnants of the Omo, the other by the smaller Kerio and Turkwel rivers.
Salinity levels are expected to rise as the surface area shrinks, making the lake unlivable for fish, hippos and crocodiles and undrinkable for cattle and people.
“Lake Turkana depends on the Omo River for 90 percent of its water,” said Ikal Angelei, director of Friends of Lake Turkana who was awarded the 2012 Goldman Prize in recognition of her efforts to save the lake and the livelihoods of the people who depend on it.
“If you reduce the freshwater coming in you change the chemical composition of the lake,” she told GlobalPost. Up to 300,000 people rely on the lake to survive, she added.
Ethiopia’s government says that once the Gibe III dam is filled up in two and a half years, a constant stream of water will be permitted to flow down the Omo valley and into Lake Turkana.
But Angelei said this will not solve the problem.
“It’s the natural increases and decreases in water flow that allows the ecosystem to survive,” she said.
Fish breeding cycles as well as seasonal farming on the river’s floodplains require times of high and low water.
“The regulation of the natural hydrological river flow cycle will permanently alter the present flood plain's ecology, with catastrophic consequences,” wrote Avery.
Avery’s report also stated that 30 percent of the Omo’s flow was to be diverted for the irrigation of huge new agricultural plantations.
Ethiopia’s government had kept the plantation plans secret until New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch revealed details of the scheme in a report published last year.
The rights group accused the Ethiopian government of “arbitrary arrests and detentions, beatings, and other violence” as it forced indigenous people off their lands to make way for state-run sugar plantations, irrigation canals and processing factories.
“Ethiopia’s ambitious plans for the Omo valley appear to ignore the rights of the people who live there,” said the report’s author, Ben Rawlence.
Angelei says the dam threatens people's rights in Turkana too. Kenya’s government has done nothing to defend them.
The governments of both countries have contentious relations with pastoralist people who are frequently derided as backward and uncivilized.
Their very existence is seen as an affront to the sophistication, modernity and forward-leaning economies that the centralized authorities in Addis Ababa and Nairobi seek to project.
The pastoralist people frequently carry guns and disdain the sedentary life of towns and cities, preferring to move with their animals through the wilds.
Despite the expected impact on its people, successive Kenyan governments have raised only muted objections to the dam.
A parliamentary resolution in August 2011 called for construction to be stopped.
But the resolution was not acted on and was then quietly shelved when, 11 months later, the World Bank provided a $684 million loan for the building of a 1,000 kilometer transmission line that will allow Kenya to benefit from the power generated.
Angelei and others hope the scenario they envisage is a worst-case projection, but fear it is also the most realistic.
“Lake Turkana is a [UNESCO] protected area but it’s not being protected. It’s a safe zone in drought periods, it supports fishermen and pastoralists, it has traditional and cultural value and is the cradle of mankind, but it is being ignored,” she said.
The Merille militia are suspected to have kidnapped and killed an estimated 11 Turkana men in less than two weeks. It all started with 4 fishermen who were kidnapped on the 1st of August and their bodies later dumped in the lake. These fishermen doubling up as reservists, were allegedly fishing on the Todonyang' border point when the incident occured. These attacks have been linked to competition for natural resources,specifically fishing areas that the respective tribes are dependent on.
For the past two years residents of the Todonyang' area near the Kenya-Ethiopia border have been forced to find refuge elsewhere in a bid to avoid the constant attacks. With ongoing projects such as the Gibe III dam and the planned irrigation projects to follow threatening the very existence of the lake, it begs the question. How much is the government doing to protect its citizens and the resources they are dependent on?
Recent reports have brought attention to the fact that a number of GSU officers have been sent to protect the border points. Marines have also been deployed in the area, according to a statement by the Turkana North DC,Eric Wanyonyi.
The Turkana and Merille tribes reside on their respective sides of the borders and share Lake Turkana,as a common source of food and water. However, the attacks are being made on Kenyan property. Lake Turkana,aside from being the World's largest dessert lake, is also home to nutritious and abundant fish stocks.
Additionally, three deltas around the Lake,which are considered Kenyan territory, have been occupied by armed raiders in a case similar to the Migingo islands. The Kenyan fishermen have been displaced as a result. The waters around these deltas are key breeding sites for fish giving the Merille militiamen an upper hand at access to the fish. The Kenyan government is making efforts to reoccupy the land according to Erick Wanyonyi.
This is just the beginning of what the two governments will be dealing with in the coming years, considering the many threats to both the natural resources and the functions that they play for the people. The killings are a very sensitive issue that needs to be handled with urgency and tact from both the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments.
It is not only a competition for resources but major issues like security and coexistence are affected. If it is not handled with the utmost care, the repercussions could be severe to say the least. In many countries around the world,natural resources go beyond the border points of states and sometimes the lines are blurred but solutions are found to suit both parties and encourage peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence.
The Ethiopian government,through the Omorate DO Chumere Yerar promised to be committed to addressing the conflict between the Turkana and Merille along the common borders. The Ethiopian authorities stated that they found the boat stolen by the militia. The militia are yet to be captured by the authorities and more effort needs to be put in this cause so as to make an example of the perpetrators and discourage further incidents of this nature.
The Kenyan government,on its part should take this very seriously as a security threat and apply the necessary measures to protect its countrymen. There has been very little security in the area in light of the fact that this is not the first time the Turkana are being killed by a community from accross the border. Security is a vital step in the conservation and proper equitable use of natural resources that transcend physical borders.
Efforts aimed at communication between the two countries through both the elders and other authoritative figures are said to be underway. The relationship between Kenya and Ethiopia is under strain as a result of the killings and solutions should be found sooner than later, in ensuring peaceful coexistence between the two communities in conflict.
Kenyan government finally recognizes that Lake Turkana is in danger of disappearing due to the reduction in inflow of the Omo River as a result of the Gibe III dam construction and irrigation projects in Ethiopia. Cabinet secretary in the ministry of Sports, Arts and Culture, Dr. Hassan Wario, stated categorically that they plan to hold talks with the Ethiopian government.
The talks will be aimed at averting any harmful impact on the lake by ensuring that the water from the dam is allowed to flow back into the Omo River, hence continue to supply water to Lake Turkana, instead of diverting the water to irrigation schemes in Ethiopia.
The ongoing dam construction and impending irrigation projects are predicted to reduce the water levels of Lake Turkana by 33 feet. This places the heritage site in danger of being put on the endangered list. It could also compromise the Lake’s status as a world heritage site.
Silting is likely to occur leading to the depletion of fish stocks, which will affect the livelihood of those dependent on the Lake for food. The Lake supports 48 species of fish.
The Jade Sea, as it was known for several years, has great significance for its contribution to the evolution theory. With the discovery of the Turkana boy, it was placed on the map and is a key site for those interested in the origin of mankind.
The efforts made by Friends of Lake Turkana are finally beginning to bear fruit. The recognition of the danger faced by the lake, albeit, 5 years later, is a step in the right direction for the Kenyan government. We can only hope that the talks prove fruitful and that the two governments, having sustained a long standing friendship since independence, can come to a suitable agreement that preserves the interest and rights of both Kenyan and Ethiopian citizens.
China has made great efforts to support poverty reduction in Africa, and likes to present itself as a friend of the African people. But loans for contentious dam and irrigation projects now threaten to pull China into an explosive regional conflict between well-armed groups in Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
The Lower Omo Valley in south-west Ethiopia and Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya are marked by a harsh climate and unique, fragile ecosystems. They are home to 12 indigenous peoples, one of the largest remaining wildlife migrations, and some of the earliest remains of the human species.
The region is currently being transformed by one of Africa's biggest and most controversial infrastructure ventures. Once completed, the Gibe III hydropower project will dam the Omo River to generate electricity with a capacity of 1,870 megawatts. It will also allow the irrigation of 2,450 square kilometres of sugar plantations, which are currently being developed on indigenous lands and in national parks.
The dam and irrigation projects have been debated for many years. Reports commissioned and prepared by the African Development Bank, International Rivers, the World Heritage Committee and the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority have documented their impacts on the fragile ecosystems of the Lower Omo River and Lake Turkana, the 500,000 indigenous people who depend on them, and the unique cultural heritage of this cradle of humankind.
A new scientific study published by the NGO International Rivers explores the social and environmental impacts of the project in detail, and examines the knock-on effects of the impending ecological crisis on the security of the volatile border region of Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan. The study confirms that Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, almost completely depends on the inflows from the Omo River, and that the lake's unique ecosystems and fisheries are closely linked to the river’s annual flood cycle.
The dam and sugar plantations will affect this ecosystem in several ways. The dam will interrupt the annual flood of the Omo River, which sustains the agriculture, grazing lands and fisheries of the region. The filling of the Gibe III reservoir will lower the water level of Lake Turkana by two metres. The sugar plantations will divert at least 28% of the Omo River’s annual flow, and lower the lake's water level by at least 13 metres. Read more...
Photo: Jane Baldwin via International Rivers
A new report documents how a dam and series of irrigation projects being built in Ethiopia threaten the world's largest desert lake, and the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on it. It describes how hydrological changes from the Gibe III Dam and irrigation projects now under construction in the Omo River Basin could turn Lake Turkana in Kenya into East Africa's Aral Sea (the infamous Central Asia lake that almost disappeared after the diversion of rivers that fed it).
The environmental impacts, which include a huge drop in the lake's level, could lead to a collapse of local livelihoods, and foment insecurity in the already conflict-ridden Horn of Africa.
Lake Turkana gets 90% of its water from the Omo River. Filling the dam's reservoir will significantly reduce the lake's inflow for a number of years. The further impact of water diversions for large irrigated plantations being developed in the Lower Omo could lead to the lake level dropping by as much as 22 meters (the average depth is just 30 meters), the paper reports. The dam will also reduce the flow of sediments, which will "lead to the loss of the ecologically productive floodplain used by wild species, fish, domestic stock and agriculture," according to the report.
The report's author states that the impacts to regional peace and security are likely to be severe, and could have global consequences: "The disruptions to the lands, waters, ecology and livelihoods of the peoples in this region will have immediate and substantial political consequences. Local groups displaced from their livelihoods and homelands are likely to seek out resources on the neighbors' lands in the Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands ... Well armed, primed by past grudges, and often divided by support from different state and local governments, these conflicts can be expected to be bloody and persistent."
International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana are calling for a halt to construction until there is a complete accounting of how the dam and irrigation projects will harm Lake Turkana, and a plan to ensure the lake does not suffer a hydrological collapse.
Gibe III Dam is about half complete, and construction on the sugar plantations is just starting. Hydrologists are calling for a plan to ensure adequate river flows to support Lake Turkana (called "environmental flows"). Jackie King, professor emeritus of the Institute of Water Studies at the University of Western Cape, says: "It is not yet too late to complete a transboundary environmental flow assessment that will allow both countries to see the costs and benefits of a number of options for designing and operating this dam (including a no dam option). The two countries could then negotiate a future development pathway based on these options that both could accept. It would have to be done very soon, before the dam is completed."
The report describes political interventions that could change this tragedy in the making. For example, China could withdraw from the project to avoid driving a wedge between Kenya and Ethiopia. In July 2010, China's largest bank, ICBC, approved a loan of $500 million for Dongfang Electric Machinery Corp., a Chinese state-owned company, which intends to provide equipment for the Gibe III project. China Development Bank has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ethiopia Sugar Corporation for a loan of $500 million to finance two sugar factories in the South Omo region. The two Chinese banks are the only international financiers for the dam and sugar projects, which have stirred international condemnation.
Despite the impacts to its own people and the lake, Kenya has agreed to purchase power from the dam, and the World Bank and African Development Bank have both agreed to fund the transmission line that will bring the dam's electricity to Kenya.
Ikal Angelei, founder of Friends of Lake Turkana and a 2012 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, said: "We are calling on the government of Kenya to respect the rights of its people and halt its involvement in power purchases from Gibe III Dam. We call on the bilateral agencies to recognize the destruction that the dam and large plantations will bring on Lake Turkana, and withdraw budget support for Ethiopia that will underwrite destructive infrastructure."
Although not directly involved in funding these destructive projects, Western governments do support Ethiopia with aid (it is estimated to accounts for at least half of government spending).
Lori Pottinger, Africa campaigner for International Rivers, says: "Ethiopia could not have built the Gibe III Dam without the budget support it receives from Western governments and the World Bank. These donors have a responsibility to intervene, and help stop the unfolding disaster in the Omo river basin."
There are many "wild cards" in this saga (including the problem of climate change), but one thing is certain, says the author: "The destruction of Turkana, if it proceeds, will become as notorious as that of the Aral Sea, tainting all those who perpetuate it."
Learn more about ICBC's role in Gibe III
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The report's author, a natural scientist with many years of field experience in the region, has requested anonymity.
If Ethiopia completes the Gibe III Dam and continues to press ahead with large-scale irrigation developments, the result will be a cascade of hydrological, ecological and socio-economic impacts that will generate a region-wide crisis for indigenous livelihoods and biodiversity and thoroughly destabilize the Ethiopia-Kenyan borderlands around Lake Turkana. The long-term effect could parallel what has happened to Central Asia's Aral Sea, one of the planet's worst environmental disasters. This African crisis is fast becoming an issue that will increasingly engage the international community.
Dam construction will dramatically change the annual flood cycle to the detriment of the lake as well as the Omo floodplain. About two-thirds of the annual flood cycle, and some proportion of the nutrients and sediment, would be curtailed during reservoir filling. After filling, the naturally shaped flood hydrograph will be reshaped into wildly fluctuating hydropower releases on a daily basis that will cause the downstream river to rise and fall each day by a few meters. The substantial reduction of the flood cycle will permanently transform and could ultimately devastate the primary productivity of the lake and its fish, bird, crocodile, lakeshore and other species.
If dam construction is accompanied by large-scale irrigated plantations, the result for Lake Turkana will be a far more significant drop in water level. The 150,000 ha Kuraz Sugar plantations would alone require 28.2% of the Omo River's flow – and that is if the scheme achieves 70% water use efficiency, a level highly unlikely in what is a massive, under-capitalized and rapidly implemented effort. More realistic assessments of water use efficiency in these irrigation projects suggest that the lake would reduce to a mere 42% of its current volume and decline 22m in depth (note that the average depth of the lake is 30m). Needless to say, a cycle of dry years and/or impacts of global climate change could severely exacerbate this tragic effect.
The cumulative impact of these developments on the ecosystems and societies of the Lower Omo and Lake Turkana will be severe in the short and medium terms, and potentially catastrophic in the longer term. ... The disruptions to the lands, waters, ecology and livelihoods of the peoples in this region will have immediate and substantial political consequences. Starting at local levels, these will in turn end up having regional consequences that will ultimately be of global importance, given the wider situation in the Horn of Africa.
Local groups displaced from their livelihoods and homelands are likely to seek out resources on the neighbors' lands in the Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands. Based on the recent history of conflict among local communities in this region, they are expected to react largely through raids and warfare. Well armed, primed by past grudges, and often divided by support from different state and local governments, these conflicts can be expected to be bloody and persistent. In fact they are already underway.
In Ethiopia, the destruction of agro-pastoral and fishing livelihoods in the Lower Omo and the coercion necessary to appropriate their lands for plantation agriculture will severely disrupt the lives of an estimated 200,000-300,000 people of a dozen ethnic groups. Effects of similar scale in terms of population size and regional import will happen on the Kenya side of the border, except that here the environmental damage to the lake will impact several dimensions of the broader economy. Nothing will replace current ways of life around the Lake, and because of the loss of access by livestock for watering and grazing the consequences will be felt far inland in this nomadic region.
To enable implementation of its agricultural scheme, Ethiopia has begun resettling 1.5 million people in four regions, despite the disastrous consequences of similar efforts under previous regimes. Reports by human rights groups have documented an absence of consultation and growing resistance on the part of indigenous Omo peoples.
The impoverishment of the wetland and lake ecosystems of Turkana, the Delta and Lower Omo will lead to unpredictable changes in biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services. Especially of concern locally will be the damage to the fisheries. Internationally there will be concern about the loss of much of the world's largest wild Nile Crocodile population, and the damage to an important staging area for the bird migration routes through the Great Rift Valley between Africa and Eurasia.
Under proposed dam and agricultural development schemes, the Lower Omo will lose most of its large mammal populations as they will lose habitat (including, under current plans, a significant proportion of the existing National Parks), as well as the ability to follow historic migration corridors through plantation land. Furthermore, they will lose most of their food supplies in their remaining areas since these are created by the seasonal floods.
Sixteen prominent academics and experts have endorsed the paper's findings. Here is what some of them have to say about it:
This press release was issued by Lori Pottinger of International Rivers.
A new study conducted by Dr Sean Avery and released by the African Study Centre reveals a much grimmer picture of the impact of the building of Gibe III Dam on the Omo River and associated large scale irrigation-dependent plantations in Ethiopia would have on the Lake Turkana and Lower Omo Basins. The report shows how Gibe's regulation of the flow of the Omo will alter the annual flood regime upon which the agro-pastoralists of the lower Omo depend for their livelihoods and how it will, coupled with the abstraction of Omo water for large-scale irrigation will alter the hydrological inflow patterns to Lake Turkana, directly impacting the ecology of the world's largest lake.
This is the second comprehensive study of the impact of Gibe on the hydrology of Lake Turkana and Lover Omo that the Nairobi-based consultant hydrologist and civil engineer, Dr Sean Avery, has conducted. Dr Avery previously carried out the only comprehensive assessment of the impact of the dam on Lake Turkana and Lower Omo - commissioned by the African Development Bank (AfDB) - but that was before the full scale of planned irrigation-dependent large scale plantation development was known.
A few months after the AFDB report was submitted, the full extent of planned irrigation development in the lower Omo became clearer, with the announcement that the state-run Ethiopian Sugar Corporation would soon begin developing 150,000 hectares of irrigated sugar plantations. It became necessary to conduct a new study to consolidate the previous findings with the new information.
Dr Avery's new report is now available to download from the website of the University of Oxford's African Studies Centre. We have placed the links to the two volume report and an executive summary here. You can also read Dr Avery's first report in the Documents Downloads section of our website.
The Climate Change debate will be clossing in two days and African youth representatives have been following the proceedings. They have been sending out regular updates and we at FoLT, who have been agitating for protection of Lake Turkana and the people of Lake against the vagaries of climate change, will share these updates here. Here is our first update.
It just hit 2am and everybody’s looking at each other with a wee bit of anger. Everyone’s tired obviously. Mugs of coffee are scattered all over the table. Thus far the negotiations have centred on two fronts; on one side there is a conglomerate of state parties who do not want to push through the agreements and another struggling to do the complete opposite.
One of the issues that have caused quite some uproar is the position of the U.S, yes Obama’s U.S and New Zealand concerning accounting. Basically they have refused to advance the accounting rules, hence stalled the negotiations concerning common accounting. It is like throwing the spanner in the works. Essentially, common accounting is crucial in terms of quantifying emission reduction.
Annex 1 countries are still not coming out clearly and transparently concerning their targets. Common accounting rules are important in assessing progress towards the goals set out in addition to evaluating the effort that is put in realizing this ambition. These rules are crucial in strengthening the international carbon markets. The lack of commitment therefore shown by some of the Annex 1 countries jeopardizes the robustness of the carbon markets mechanism. The countries which are hindering the development of the common accounting rules make it very difficult to realize the targets that have been set, of less than 2 degree warming and a significant reduction in emissions. This also has an effect on the issue of surpluses. As alluded to in our earlier brief, the issue of surpluses is crucial and sensitive. In spilling the surpluses to the second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, countries would not have to account much for their emissions since the shift will focus in buying emission permits. That is an eventuality we do not want to even consider.
Essentially the U.S and New Zealand wanted to maintain the status quo by not wanting to further enhance the common accounting rules.
South Africa took a different view from the two “fossil giants” preferring the advancement of the rules to enhance transparency and accountability.
Canada have not expressed a favourable position regarding finance and are increasingly being recognized as “COP 18 villains” together with Russia, Ukraine, Poland New Zealand among a few others.
Norway have been making massive steps towards contribution towards efforts to reduce emissions, however, it has been found that they have not reduced their emissions because extraction and consumption of oil and gas has increased hence they have been put to task about it.
The up-shot is that there is a desire and urgency to enhance a 2nd commitment period with regard to the Kyoto Protocol. However, there are some Parties which are less than willing to see this through. They are less than transparent when it comes to commitment to a 2nd post Kyoto period.
Violent land grabs in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley are displacing tribes and preventing them from cultivating their land, leaving thousands of people hungry and ‘waiting to die’.
As the world prepares to raise awareness of the issues behind poverty and hunger on October 16 (World Food Day), Ethiopia continues to jeopardize the food security and livelihoods of 200,000 of its self-sufficient tribal people.
Tribes such as the Suri, Mursi, Bodi and Kwegu are being violently evicted from their villages as Ethiopia’s government pursues its lucrative plantations project in the Valley.
Depriving tribes of their most valuable agricultural and grazing land, security forces are being used brutally to clear the area to make way for vast cotton, palm oil and sugar cane fields.
Cattle are being confiscated, food stores destroyed, and communities ordered to abandon their homes and move into designated resettlement areas.