Ethiopia's Gibe III Dam Endangers Kenya’s Lake Turkana

Ikal Angelei
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Lake Turkana is a miraculous anomaly of life-giving water in a parched and unforgiving land. Formed millions of years ago in the tectonic upheavals that created East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, Turkana is the largest permanent desert lake in the world. Extinct volcanoes enclose the horizon, and the heat is so intense that when the blustery wind from Mount Kulal on the eastern shore temporarily ceases and clouds gather overhead, raindrops sometimes evaporate before they even reach the lake. It is called “ghost rain.”

In the Gibe III Affected Area
In the Gibe III Affected Area
This other-worldly scene is bolstered by the world's largest population of Nile crocodiles which survive on another Nilotic ancestor, the giant perch, which in turn feeds on a profusion of blue-green algae. This prehistoric lake has also long been a focus for humans: its shores have revealed the oldest-known fossil remains of Homo habilis. Today, more than a quarter million residents from at least ten tribes have become masters of wresting sustenance from the harsh landscape. Without the lake, life here would be virtually impossible.

But Lake Turkana and its inhabitants now face an environmental catastrophe – and an avoidable one. The lake could start drying up when its main source, the Omo River, is depleted by a huge dam across the border in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Government is planning a series of upstream dams on the Omo River; the most imminent is the Gibe III hydroelectric dam, already two years into construction.

There is no question that Ethiopia needs power. But the irony of the Gibe III dam is that while it threatens the economy of the Turkana region, a large share of its electricity will be sold to consumers in other parts of Kenya. For Ethiopia, the project is a commercial one: they want to make money selling the power elsewhere, not provide power to their own people. For Kenya, it’s a matter of allowing one part of the country to be devastated so that others may get a little more power.

The assault on the Omo River and Lake Turkana by the Gibe dam is projected to result in a drop of seven to ten meters in the lake’s depth in the first five years alone (the lake has already receded by about five to eight meters because of climate change). Resulting changes in the chemical balance of the water threatens the region’s tremendous biodiversity, including large populations of Nile crocodiles, hippopotamus, and over 40 different species of fish and snakes. The riparian forest, one of the last pristine dryland forests in Africa, would also be in grave danger.

The saga of Gibe III Dam is just the latest episode of human pressures contributing to the dying of Africa’s biggest lakes. Lake Chad has nearly disappeared from diversions that stopped its flow, and Lake Victoria has seen major drops in its water levels from dams that let too much water out. Climate change could add several more to the list of dead or dying lakes and depleted rivers across the continent. Losing our precious water resources will make us less able to adapt to climate change.

Endangered People

Turkana’s indigenous communities are highly dependent on the lake for their food crops, livestock grazing and watering, and fishing. Any impacts to the lake’s ecosystem would disrupt the economy, leading to an increase in conflicts in the area. Considering the unstable state of peace in Northern Kenya, such damage to the local economies would invoke a threat to regional stability.

While a power purchase agreement outlining the terms of electricity sales was reportedly signed between Ethiopia and Kenya in 2006, no bilateral agreements on the use of the Omo-Turkana waterway and the dam’s downstream effects to Kenya are publicly known. The 300,000 people who live around Lake Turkana in Kenya were neither informed of the project’s impacts nor consulted on their priorities. Their situation mirrors that in Ethiopia, where the traditional economy of the Lower Omo Valley supports up to half a million people. The Ethiopian dam-affected people – who, like those on the Kenyan side, are largely indigenous peoples leading traditional lifestyles – have heard little or nothing about the project and their options, even though the changes to the Omo will upset the fragile balance of river bank cultivation and herding they maintain, unraveling the valley’s best strategy against food insecurity. Resulting scarcity could quickly lead to violent conflict in one of the most culturally diverse areas of Africa.

Even if Ethiopia’s affected communities organize to object to the plans, the government is notoriously unsympathetic to citizen concerns. In Ethiopia, civil society activists who might normally help raise awareness about such projects or advocate for affected people have been hesitant to join the fray, given their government’s restrictive policies and repressive tendencies regarding NGOs.

The financial backers of the Gibe III Dam may include the African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, the Italian Government and JP Morgan Chase. While the World Bank has refused to consider project funding, they may still consider financial support through loan guarantees. Agence Francaise de Dévelopement, Germany’s aid agency KFW, and the Development Bank of Southern Africa may support the costly transmission line from the Gibe III Dam to Kenya’s national grid.

While such funders require an Environmental Impact Assessment, the one that has been submitted is incredibly sloppy and hopelessly incomplete. Shockingly it does not even mention that the Omo River supplies almost 80 percent of the Lake Turkana waters. It suggests that the dam will regulate the natural flooding cycle of the Omo River, eliminating the seasonal floods critical to downstream farmers. The truncated, artificial flood suggested in the EIA is ill-designed to achieve its purpose. The minimum, environmental flow is based on the single, lowest monthly flow recorded in the driest month, since 1964. There is no mention of how long it may take to fill Gibe III’s massive reservoir, during which time dam operators may only release 25m3/ sec, creating a prolonged dry season up to several years long. Ironically, while the filling of the reservoir alone could drive Lake Turkana to the brink of ecological collapse, the EIA argues that the dam will help restore Lake Turkana, not deplete it. So far, the project has continued despite the huge deficiencies in this official study, but those concerned about the impacts on Lake Turkana intend to bring their case to these agencies.

The project’s lack of transparency in other areas borders on the corrupt. The US$1.7 billion project is the single largest infrastructural work being undertaken in Ethiopia, yet its lucrative contract was handed to Italian construction giant, Salini, based on a questionable exception to Ethiopia’s own procurement rules. The uncompetitive awarding of the contract also contradicts World Bank and African Development Bank procurement guidelines, The World Bank has declared the project ineligible for project lending, unlike the African Development Bank which plans to consider the project despite the contract violation.

But this case is not just the responsibility of outside agencies and the Ethiopian dam planners. The Kenyan government must first and foremost do more to protect the interests of the peoples of northwest Kenya, and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The power purchase agreement with the Ethiopian government needs to be made public. We need to know if the impact on Lake Turkana was even considered before the power purchase agreement was signed. The ministries of Energy, Water, and Northern Kenya must account for their plans to preserve the environment and livelihoods of the region. The members of parliament representing Northern Kenya need to know what is planned, and have a chance to voice their communities’ concerns. The peoples of Lake Turkana must be heard.

The author is with Friends of Lake Turkana.