PR – Turkana’s “Forgotten People” Call for Halt to Ethiopia’s Imminent Water Grabs

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Berkeley, US: International Rivers is today publishing a report and video with voices from Lake Turkana, which tell an emotional story of a people facing a major crisis.

The world’s largest desert lake – Lake Turkana in Kenya – is at imminent risk from upstream water grabs that will dramatically reduce the lake’s main water supply, shrink the lake, and kill off ecosystems and productive fisheries. Some 300,000 of the world’s poorest people depend on the lake for their survival. The imminent filling of Ethiopia’s Gibe III Dam and other water grabs on the Omo River will mean the difference between marginal livelihoods and famine for most. International Rivers calls on the Ethiopian government and its donors to ensure sufficient downstream water flows before closing the Gibe III Dam gates.

Esther Epoet lives in Kenya and depends on Lake Turkana for her survival.
Esther Epoet lives in Kenya and depends on Lake Turkana for her survival.
Photo by Narissa Allibhai/International Rivers

Ethiopia is building huge dams and plantations in the Omo River Valley, displacing its own people in addition to causing lost livelihoods in Kenya. Gibe III Dam (now nearing completion) is one of Africa’s largest hydropower projects. The filling of its reservoir will take an estimated three years and reduce water flows by up to 70% in the Omo River.

The associated expansion of water-intensive sugar and cotton plantations poses an even greater threat: if current plans described by the Ethiopian government move forward, hydrologists estimate the lake level could drop between 16 and 22 meters. The average depth of the lake is just 31 meters. "These water grabs will disrupt fisheries and destroy other ecosystems upon which local people depend," comments Lori Pottinger, International Rivers' Africa Campaigner. "Local people have not been consulted about the project nor informed about its impacts on their lives."

The new International Rivers report – called Come and Count Our Bones: Community Voices from Lake Turkana on the Impacts of Gibe III Dam – is based on interviews with more than 100 people in communities around Lake Turkana. “Once the dam is operating, everything people feed on will disappear. Starvation will take over,” said pastorialist Rebecca Arot.

Kenya is planning to purchase electricity from Gibe III, and the World Bank is supporting the transmission line from the dam to Kenya. In spite of losing livelihoods and food security, the downstream victims of the Omo River water grabs are unlikely to receive any benefits from the power production. “We cannot eat electricity. What we require is food and income for the Turkana community,” said Christopher Eporon Ekuwom of the Turkana County Government’s Ministry of Pastoral Economy & Fisheries.

“The lake is like our farm,” one pastoralist told International Rivers. “The life of this place is fish . . . if this lake was not there, the fish would not be there, and life in this place would almost be impossible,” said a local businessman.

The Ethiopian government has thus far failed to acknowledge the impacts of its Omo developments on Lake Turkana. The Kenyan government has not publicly requested protection for the lake from water diversions. Turkana residents who were interviewed had many messages for these two governments.

The Ethiopian government and its infrastructure development plans are highly dependent on aid from Western governments, China, the World Bank, and other international institutions. International Rivers calls on Ethiopia and its donors to avert this human-made humanitarian disaster, stop water grabs from the Omo River and make sure the Gibe III Dam is only operated with sufficient downstream flows to sustain ecosystems and livelihoods in the Lower Omo Valley and around Lake Turkana.

Media contacts: 

Peter Bosshard, Policy Director, +1 (510) 848-1155 ext. 320,, @PeterBosshard

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