World Heritage Committee Fails to Protect Lake Turkana

Katy Yan
Lake Turkana fisherman
Lake Turkana fisherman
Photo: International Rivers

Over a dozen World Heritage Sites threatened by planned or existing dams were reviewed at this year’s World Heritage Committee meeting, held in St. Petersburg, Russia. While the Committee’s decisions showed clear recognition of the threat that dam building poses to the natural and cultural heritage embodied by these sites, it failed to protect one of the most dam-threatened properties: Lake Turkana in Kenya.

The recommendation to inscribe Lake Turkana on the List of World Heritage in Danger (a list of properties undergoing “serious and specific dangers”) was made by IUCN, an advisory body to the World Heritage Committee. It was based on findings of a joint visit to Lake Turkana by IUCN staff and the World Heritage Centre in March 2012 that identified the dangers posed by the construction of the Gibe III Dam on the Omo River upstream in Ethiopia, as well as risks from associated irrigation-fed plantations in the Lower Omo basin, oil exploration, pressure from poaching and livestock grazing and other large developments in the basin.

These threats, which have been well documented by the African Development Bank, Friends of Lake Turkana and other NGOs, made Lake Turkana a clear shoe-in for the List of World Heritage in Danger. So when the World Heritage Committee turned down IUCN’s recommendation to inscribe it and three other sites (including one in Cameroon that is also threatened by ongoing dam construction), IUCN’s World Heritage Programme director stated in a press release:

"We are disappointed that the committee has not inscribed any of these threatened sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger this year. These four sites face significant threats to their values, including from major infrastructure projects, the extractive industry and property speculation. Inscription on the Danger List is not a black mark for countries, but a way of drawing attention and providing support to the sites that need it the most.”

Ikal Angelei, a recent Goldman Environmental Prize winner and the founder of Friends of Lake Turkana (see CNN interview at right) – a Kenyan NGO that has been fighting to save the lake and its people from threats such as Gibe III – called the decision “a sad day for Lake Turkana and our people.” She noted that the listing of Lake Turkana could have helped in staving off the onslaught of a number of destructive development projects. Soon after the committee’s decision, the World Bank approved the Eastern Electricity Highway Project, which will connect Ethiopia’s electrical grid with Kenya’s and effectively creates an energy market for the Gibe III Dam.

What motivated the World Heritage Committee to make such a remarkably misguided decision on Lake Turkana is as yet unclear. The official reason is that a monitoring mission to Ethiopia has to be conducted first before it can be added to the endangered list. Since Ethiopia is an active member of the Committee this year (Kenya is not and thus could not nominate the site), it is possible that politics got in the way of this decision. Whatever the case, we hope that Ethiopia will respect the decision – and the Convention of which it is a signatory member – by immediately issuing an invitation to IUCN and the World Heritage Centre to visit the dam site. The field visit should also include as part of its investigation the associated Lower Valley of the Omo, a related World Heritage Site that did not make it onto the agenda this year despite concerns around the forced relocation of thousands as a result of land grabs.

The UNESCO World Heritage Convention was developed to strengthen the protection of sites that have significant cultural and natural values. It recognizes the “fundamental need to preserve the balance” between human and natural systems, and the interdependence of the two. If one component fails – such as a dramatic change in the flow of the Omo River – the whole system, like an ailing human body, could crash.

The Convention also establishes that “the Committee may at any time, in case of urgent need, make a new entry in the List of World Heritage in Danger and publicize such entry immediately” (Article 11). The sooner the Committee understands the gravity of the situation and acts according to their responsibilities, the better. As each day passes and no leadership is shown to ensure the long-term health of Lake Turkana and the Omo Valley region, this living basin draws closer to suffocation.

In order to translate the World Heritage Committe's words into actions, supporting local frontline groups as they hold their governments accountable is more critical than ever. You can support the work of our local partner groups by staying up-to-date on their activities and calls to action.

Summary of Other Key Decisions (see full list here)
CountrySite Name 
Committee Decision Highlights
BrazilIguaçu National Park
Urges Brazil to not authorize the Baixo Iguaçu Hydroelectric Project, which would affect the site shared with Argentina.
ChinaThree Parallel RiversCalls on China to submit all Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports for dams that could affect the property. Requests an invite for a monitoring mission. Urges China not to proceed with site preparation for sites that do not have approved EIAs.
Costa Rica/PanamaLa Amistad Reserves/LaAmistad National ParkExpresses concern that Panama did not invite a monitoring mission and will continue with the Bonyic Dam without consideration of the on-going Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) process. May consider inscribing the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger if the ascertained or potential threats above are confirmed.
IndiaManas Wildlife SanctuaryUrges Bhutan to submit an EIA for the Mangdechhu hydro-electric project, which is proposed and may have negative cumulative impacts in relation to the existing Kurichu Dam.
TanzaniaSelous Game ReserveUrges Tanzania to not issue permits to the Stiegler's Gorge Dam and reminds Tanzania that further action on dam construction could cause the site to be listed on the danger list.
ThailandDong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest ComplexCalls for a halt to construction at the Huay Samong Dam. May inscribe the site on the danger list next year.
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