Fishing at Lake Turkana

Gibe III's Impacts on Lake Turkana

Thursday, January 10, 2013

East Africa's “Aral Sea” in the Making?

“If Ethiopia completes the Gibe III Dam and continues to press ahead with large-scale irrigation developments, the result will be a cascade of hydrological, ecological and socio-economic impacts that will generate a region-wide crisis for indigenous livelihoods and biodiversity and thoroughly destabilize the Ethiopia-Kenyan borderlands around Lake Turkana. The long-term effect could parallel what has happened to Central Asia’s Aral Sea, one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters.”

So begins a paper that describes how hydrological changes from the Gibe III Dam and irrigation projects now under construction in the Omo River Basin could devastate Lake Turkana in Kenya. The environmental impacts, which include a huge drop in the lake’s level, could lead to a collapse of local livelihoods, and foment insecurity in an already conflict-ridden region.

Lake Turkana gets 90% of its water from the Omo. Filling the Gibe III dam’s reservoir could significantly reduce the lake’s inflow over a number of years (the dam is more than half complete at this writing). The added impact of water diversions for large irrigated plantations now being developed in the Lower Omo Valley could lead to the lake level dropping by as much as 22 meters (the average depth is just 30 meters). The dam will also reduce the flow of sediments that, according to the author, will “lead to the loss of the ecologically productive floodplain used by wild species, fish, domestic stock and agriculture.”

These environmental impacts could affect up to half a million people, lead to a collapse of local livelihoods, and foment further insecurity in an already conflict-ridden region. The author notes: “The disruptions to the lands, waters, ecology and livelihoods of the peoples in this region will have immediate and substantial political consequences. These will in turn end up having regional consequences that will ultimately be of global importance, given the wider situation in the Horn of Africa.” Those who lose their livelihoods and homelands in the process are “likely to seek out resources on their neighbors’ lands in the Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands. Well armed, primed by past grudges, and often divided by support from different state and local governments, these conflicts can be expected to be bloody and persistent.”

The impoverishment of the wetland and lake ecosystems of Turkana and Lower Omo will impact the region’s biodiversity and

Fish drying racks, Lake Turkana.
Fish drying racks, Lake Turkana.
Jane Baldwin

ecosystem services. Of special concern are the lake’s fisheries, which are the main source of protein for local people (dried fish are also sold, and are a major source of income).  Large mammal populations will lose habitat, food sources and migration corridors.

The report describes political interventions that could hold off or reverse this tragedy in the making. For example, although most international funders have stayed out of the Gibe III project, China’s biggest bank, ICBC, has said it will fund the dam’s turbines. China could withdraw from the project to avoid driving a wedge between Kenya and Ethiopia. Donor governments that support Ethiopia (whose budget is substantially underwritten by the US and EU) could intervene over the projects’ human rights violations and environmental destruction.

The author of the report, a natural scientist with many years of field experience in the region, has requested anonymity. Sixteen prominent academics and experts have endorsed the paper’s findings  (the endorsers' list is at the end of the full paper). Here are some of their comments.

  • Dr. William Oweke Ojwang, assistant director of the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute: “The Omo–Lake Turkana ecosystem is a gift to our heritage. Lake Turkana fisheries have immense socio-economic importance to the country and the region. It would be suicidal for Kenya to ignore the impacts of these developments on this rich ecosystem.”
  • David Turton, a forced-migration expert with the University of Oxford with 40 years’ experience studying the people of the Omo Valley: “This is the most effective statement I've yet seen of the full extent of the disaster looming in the basin.”
  • Alex Awiti, an ecosystems ecologist at Aga Khan University in Nairobi: “This paper offers dispassionate evidence against wrongheaded investments that discount and undermine the ecological basis for sustainable development. I hope its findings will rouse a global conscience to address the fate of the Turkana basin.”
  • David Hales, President of Second Nature and former Chair, UNESCO World Heritage Committee: “This paper raises fundamental issues that must be addressed urgently. It is time for the international community to pay serious attention to the impact on indigenous people in both Ethiopia and Kenya, and the potential loss of irreplaceable components of natural systems whose richness and uniqueness have been recognized as part of the common heritage of mankind through the World Heritage Convention.”

Download the full report

List of Endorsers

  • Dr. Richard Leakey, Turkana Basin Institute, Stony Brook University
    Professor Eric Odada, University of Nairobi, Geology Department, Nairobi, Kenya
    Dr. William Oweke Ojwang, Assistant Director, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, Kisumu, Kenya
    Dr. Alex O. Awiti, Ecosystems Ecologist, Aga Khan University, Nairobi
    Dr. David Turton, Oxford University African Studies Centre
    Robert Goodland, Formerly of World Bank Environmental Dept.
    Dr. Kate Showers, University of Sussex
    Sandra Postel, Director, Global Water Policy Project
    Brian Richter, 
Director, Global Freshwater Strategies, The Nature Conservancy
    Dr. Lyla Mehta, Institute of Development Studies
    Mark Angelo Chair Emeritus, Rivers Institute at British Columbia IT
    Dr. Getachew Begasha, Harper College, Illinois
    Dr. Gregory Stanton, George Mason University, Washington, DC
    Professor David Woodruff, Director, Sustainability Solutions Institute, University of California San Diego
    David Hales, President, Second Nature; former Chair, UNESCO World Heritage Committee
    Dr. Richard Beilfuss, President of International Crane Foundation; Adjunct Professor for the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering and the University of Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique
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