Community Voices from Lake Turkana

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

“We don’t accept this. We disagree with whoever is planning this. We will never agree to it. Once the dam is functional, everything people feed on will disappear. Starvation will take over.”    - Rebecca Arot, Turkana Pastoralist 

The people of Lake Turkana in Kenya are facing catastrophic changes from upstream developments in Ethiopia. In the years since Ethiopia began building the Gibe III Dam on the Omo River, there has been little effort to understand and document the concerns of the downstream communities that will be badly affected by this huge project. In addition to the changes the dam will bring to the lake’s water levels, the dam is also supporting a massive conversion of indigenous land to large, irrigated plantations. These projects are being built with no transparency or consultation with affected people, and little chance they will be compensated for their losses. International Rivers decided to send a field researcher into the Turkana communities to hear what people have to say about the situation and help bring their opinions into the ongoing dialogue.
Women's focus group singing a message
Women's focus group sings their message about their concerns.
Narissa Allibhai
In September 2014, Narissa Allibhai, a sustainable development researcher and native of Kenya, traveled to Lake Turkana to interview individuals and groups around the lake who will be directly impacted by these projects. Narissa's work for International Rivers adds a highly personal layer to our previous work about the impacts of Gibe III on marginalized people in Ethiopia and Kenya. As she travelled along the western and southern edges of Lake Turkana, she talked with men and women, young and old, and people who support themselves through many different means. All were concerned about the possible consequences of the dam and irrigated plantations for themselves, for their children, for their culture and communities, and for the lake itself. 
The result of this fieldwork is a video – Community Voices from Lake Turkana – and a report – "Come and Count Our Bones" – which give us a chance to directly listen to the concerns of those living around Lake Turkana. These people have survived in a harsh environment with grace and ingenuity for generations, but one thing they can't survive without is water. Decision makers need to hear their voices and stop taking their lake away from them. 

In her own words: An interview with Narissa Allibhai, Field Researcher

Sugar plantations in the Lower Omo
Sugar plantations in the Lower Omo
F. H.

What did you learn from being in these communities?

I was struck by seeing firsthand how indigenous peoples can have resources simply grabbed from them. It made me feel angry because it’s just not right. These people have been living here for generations, and then someone from another place comes in to take away the resources they’ve stewarded for so long . . . it doesn’t make sense. I came away scared and apprehensive because I knew that once the Gibe III and agricultural projects are completed, people are going to really suffer, including people I spoke with. 

What do you hope people will get out of reading the report and watching the video?

I ask people to hear the voices of those who have been custodians of this lake for generations, and realize that they have been wronged and are limited in what they can do about it. These people need their fellow countrymen and the international community to step up urgently and save the world’s largest desert lake! 

Is there anything people can do to help with this work to publicize the true costs of the Gibe 3 and irrigated plantations?

We need to raise awareness about this issue in Kenya and internationally. I ask people to share the video and the report through email, twitter, facebook, or any social media, and to use their contacts to talk about what can be done. 

Kenyans should tweet to their MPs that they are concerned about the Gibe III dam and Lake Turkana as well as to our Cabinet Secretary of the Environment, Judi Wakhungu, and our President, H. E. Hon. Uhuru Kenyatta. 

@JudiWakhungu – Prof. Judi Wakhungu

@UKenyatta – H.E. Hon. Uhuru Kenyatta

Learn more about Narissa Allibhai's impressions of Lake Turkana and its people on her blog.