As the foreign ministers of Ethiopia and Egypt meet today at Addis Ababa to try to unlock a diplomatic deadlock – one with far greater implications than just diplomacy – over Ethiopia's plans to build a dam on one of the River Nile's major tributaries, a question arises as to whether Ethiopia has become too arrogant in its attempt to rejuvenate its economic growth.
The dam in question is the Grand Renaissance Dam being constructed along the Blue Nile River. If completed, this will be among the largest dams in the world and will join another rising colossus that is also under construction by the Ethiopians along the Omo River – the Gilgel Gibe III Dam. Ethiopia has already started diverting the waters of the Blue Nile as part of the construction process despite protests and thinly veiled threats of 'water wars' coming from the Egyptian government.
Perhaps the strongest sign that water wars are looming between the two countries is that immediately after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in May, Ethiopia announced that it was diverting the waters. What this could mean is that Ethiopia will forge on with their dam unfazed by any contrary opinion – even if their forging ahead threatens to catastrophically alter the existence of millions of people downstream.
Drawing parallels to Egypt's unfortunate situation with that facing Lake Turkana owing to the ongoing construction of Gibe III Dam along the Omo River – which contributes about 90% of all the water of Lake Turkana – one cannot fail to see a pattern of impunity in the Ethiopian Government: a government that will execute hugely disruptive projects without concern for contrary opinion even when such opinion is based on fact.
The repetitive chorus chanted by Ethiopia that the Grand Renaissance Dam will not affect the flow of the Nile, is the same empty rhetoric that has been applied in the case of Gibe III and Lake Turkana yet scientific evidence clearly shows that the Gibe dam will have a disastrous effect on Lake Turkana in Kenya and the Lower Omo Basin in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia also claims that the Grand Renaissance Dam will not be used for irrigation but only for Electricity generation. Nobody should believe that given that that is the same thing they say about Gibe III – and all consequent Gibes planned downstream of this third dam – yet we know that huge tracts of land in the Lower Omo have already been wrestled from indigenous Ethiopian populations and leased out to Asian entities to be converted into sugar and cotton plantations. Only a lunatic would believe that Ethiopia will not use the dam water for irrigation.
What then is the option for Ethiopia, Egypt and Kenya? These three African sisters - and all other nations in the world - should ponder on the big question of water scarcity that is escalating with the increasing severity of the effects of climate change and Africa's burgeoning populations. Currently, Egypt and Ethiopia have a combined population of almost 170-million people and this is projected to increase by another 100-million people by 2050. That can only mean that, climate change notwithstanding, water will definitely become an extremely dear commodity for both nations. Kenya on the other hand has more than 40-million thirsty inhabitants, a significant fraction of whom will be directly affected by the adverse effect of the Gibe III Dam on Lake Turkana.
Better ways of managing shared water and other natural resources are long overdue. If Ethiopia, Egypt and Kenya are to properly harness their water resources, mutually beneficial resource sharing methods have to be thought out and quickly implemented. Respect for the lives and well-being of downstream populations has to be paramount. Impunity has to end.
The biggest challenge to the survival of Lake Turkana has always been the Gibe III Dam being constructed on the Omo River in Ethiopia. A more sinister development downstream is however posing a much graver danger to our lake – the conversion of tribal lands in the Lower Omo Basin in Ethiopia into irrigation fed plantations.
Ethiopia is forcefully evicting tribal people from their ancestral land in the Lower Omo and leasing it out to Asian farming entities to grow sugarcane and cotton in large irrigation-fed plantations. The water to irrigate these massive tracts of monoculture will come from the Omo River, thus further complicating the dire situation that Lake Turkana is in. Lake Turkana draws 90% of its water from the Omo River. With both Gibe III and the plantations taking out water from Omo River before it gets to Lake Turkana, the water level in the 30 meters deep (average) lake could drop by a massive 22 meters. This is recipe for disaster for the lake communities who are already marginalized and perennial recipients of food aid. It will further complicate food insecurity in the region. Not least, the displaced populations in Ethiopia are also food insecure and when their land is taken, their situation can only get worse.
The theme of today’s World Environment Day celebrations is THINK.EAT.SAVE – Reduce your Footprint. It is all about consumption and food wastage and their impact on the environment. Is the conversion of tribal lands and destroying natural habitats to create room for sugarcane and cotton plantations a product of the increasingly wasteful consumption that is beating our environment to its knees? As far as the carbon footprint of these plantations is concerned, we can go as far as to add to the increase of greenhouse gases generated by airplanes and other fossil fuelled vehicles that will transport the agricultural product to the market in developing and emerging nations.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), every year 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted or lost. This volume of waste is more than the total net production of Sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, 1 in every 7 people in the world go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die daily from hunger. Also, approximately 98% of the world’s hungry live in developing nations including Kenya and Ethiopia.
Given the above statistics, one would wonder why the Government of Ethiopia would even think of forcefully evicting thousands of starving and already marginalized indigenous people from their ancestral land in order to create plantations that will produce cash crops for export to the already wasteful developed and emerging world. One would also wonder why the Government of Kenya would not engage in diplomatic negotiations with Ethiopia to halt these developments and instead support local communities to develop multiple small-scale projects that will reduce environmental impact and maintain ecosystem integrity.
Kenya is expected to buy up to 60% of the power generated from Gibe III. It is, perhaps, not surprising that it will close its eyes and sacrifice the people of Lake Turkana in order to feed its power-hungry electricity grid in the name of development. It would appear that a half-million odd people are a small collateral damage in the quest to quench the thirst of millions of power consumers.
Today is a day for the world to pause and reflect on their consumption and wasteful habits. It is a day to think about the future of the blue planet that we call home. For us, it is a day to remind our governments, and everyone, that we need our environment to survive. We need to give this land back to the future generations – who trustingly lent it to us – in as good a state as, if not better than, the way they lent it to us.
In an unfortunate twist, the World Heritage Committee has rejected recommendations by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Heritage Centre to inscribe the Lake Turkana National Parks into the list of World Heritage in Danger.
During their 36th meeting at St. Petersberg in Russia, the World Heritage Committee turned down the recommendation to inscribe the Lake and 3 other Heritage Sites into this list despite the looming doom that is to come from the building of Gibe 3 Dam in Ethiopia together with other developments in Kenya and Ethiopia. The IUCN expressed great disappointment following this decision.
"We are disappointed that the committee has not inscribed any of these threatened sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger this year," said Tim Badman, director of IUCN's World Heritage Programme, referring to Kenya’s Lake Turkana, Cameroon’s Dja Biosphere Reserve, Russia’s Virgin Komi Forests and the Pitons Management Area in the Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia.
Ikal Angelei, activist and founder of the Friends of Lake Turkana, who have been fighting to save the lake and its people, also expressed great dissatisfaction saying, “It is a sad day for Lake Turkana and our people,” and adding that the inscription of the lake’s parks would have given it the prominence it desperately needs to survive the unrelenting onslaught of bad developments. "It must take a lot for UNESCO to consider a place to be in danger if Turkana did not make the list!" said Ms. Angelei. Ms. Angelei won the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa earlier this year in recognition of her efforts to save Lake Turkana.
The IUCN decision to propose the lake into the World Heritage in Danger list was based on findings of the joint mission visit to Lake Turkana by the IUCN and the World Heritage Centre in March 2012 that identified the dangers posed by Gibe 3 Dam construction and associated irrigation fed plantations and dams in the Lower Omo basin, oil exploration, pressure from poaching and livestock grazing and impacts of other large developments in northern Kenya.
The Friends of Lake Turkana have been campaigning against Gibe 3 Dam and in the few years they’ve been doing so, they have managed to stop the African Development Bank from funding the Gibe III Dam in spite of strong Ethiopian pressure. The World Bank and the European Investment Bank also walked away recognizing that the project would violate their social and environmental safeguard policies. Other big would be financiers have also been convinced to withdraw their funding for the now half complete dam delaying the $1.7 billion project by several years.
The joint team concluded that these dangers are severe enough to place the Lake Turkana heritage site in the danger list. "These four sites face significant threats to their values, from threats including major infrastructure projects, the extractive industry and property speculation," said Badman. The World Heritage Committee ignored these arguments and failed to inscribe the precious property.
The 36th meeting of the committee started in June 24 and ends on July 6 this year. This is the second year in a row that the committee has rejected the inscription of the Russian property, the Virgin Komi Forests, into the list. It is still unclear why the committee rejected the proposed decisions to accord these important resources that additional protection.