Will the World Heritage Committee Stand Up for Lake Turkana?

Peter Bosshard
Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In 1997, the UN recognized Kenya’s Lake Turkana as a World Heritage Site, in line with other global treasures such as the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canyon. The remote desert lake offers a refuge for the world’s largest crocodile colony and numerous other rare animal species. According to the UN, its fossil finds have “contributed more to the understanding of human ancestry than any other site in the world.”

Lake Turkana also offers water, food and livelihood to 300,000 indigenous people living in a barren environment. Yet this precious source of life is now under imminent threat from dam building and sugar plantations in neighboring Ethiopia. Will the UN’s World Heritage Committee take action to defend a unique global treasure?

Lake Turkana depends on the Omo River for 90% of its freshwater inflow. In January 2015, the Ethiopian government closed the Gibe III Dam and started filling its reservoirs. The government and private investors are also using the dam to develop huge sugar and cotton plantations along the Omo River. If the full scheme is realized, the dam and plantations will withhold and withdraw huge amounts of water from the river. Kenyan experts have warned that “the result could be another Aral Sea disaster in the making.”

The World Heritage Committee has warned about the threats to Lake Turkana and has demanded action from the Ethiopian government for many years. In 2011, the Committee expressed “utmost concern” about the proposed Gibe III Dam and urged the Ethiopian government to “immediately halt all construction” on the project. The Committee’s experts also found that Lake Turkana meets the conditions of a World Heritage in Danger – a status which alerts the world community to the potential loss of a global heritage and encourages corrective action. Since 2012, they have repeatedly confirmed this alarming assessment.

The member governments of the World Heritage Committee have so far refused to follow the recommendations of its experts by declaring Lake Turkana a World Heritage in Danger. They have instead urged the Ethiopian government to avert the destruction of Lake Turkana by carrying out a strategic environmental assessment of the projects in the Omo Valley and similar measures. Yet so far, the Ethiopian government has thumbed its nose at the UN body and has not followed any of its recommendations. The World Heritage Committee has rung the alarm bell on many other endangered sites, from the ancient city of Aleppo to Everglades National Park.

On June 28 – July 8, 2015, the Committee meets again for its annual session in Bonn. If it wants to keep up its credibility, it needs to call the Ethiopian government’s bluff and officially declare Lake Turkana a World Heritage in Danger. It needs to denounce the government’s delaying tactics and call on its donors – including the US government and the World Bank – to put pressure on Ethiopia to stop the destruction of a unique source of life and global treasure.

An online petition by International Rivers calls on the World Heritage Committee to stand up for Lake Turkana and declare it a World Heritage in Danger. Sign the petition now.

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