Gibe III Threatens World Heritage Sites

Monday, August 9, 2010

Letter to the Secretariat of the World Heritage Centre (UNESCO)

We are writing to raise concerns about two endangered World Heritage sites. Lake Turkana in Kenya faces significant threats to its environmental health due to the ongoing construction of a large dam being built upstream, the Gibe 3 Dam in Ethiopia. The dam also threatens the cultural landscape of the Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia.

Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, was chosen as a World Heritage site because of its rich ecosystem, whose “diverse bird life and desert environment offers an exceptional laboratory for studies of plant and animal communities.” There is strong evidence that this dam threatens the very characteristics for which it was chosen for this important recognition. The dam will so change the watershed’s hydrological regime that the Lake could end up a shrunken, ecologically unsustainable relic, no longer able to support its current diversity of life (including human communities).

Gibe 3 Dam will also be socially devastating, both in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley (another World Heritage site) and for Kenya’s Lake Turkana communities. We believe it is the most destructive dam under construction in Africa. The project would condemn half a million of the region's most vulnerable people to hunger and conflict.

Numerous outside experts have described how the dam endangers the lake. Here is a summary of some of their key findings:

An April 2010 draft study commissioned by the African Development Bank (attached) reveals numerous hydrological changes that will impact Lake Turkana. The study’s author, Dr. Sean Avery, says that the Gibe 3 Dam “will inevitably cause flows to the lake to diminish … Lake Turkana is dependent on the Omo River for almost 90% of its inflow. The river is the lake’s umbilical cord. If the Omo River inflow is cut, the lake level will fall…”

The dam’s reservoir, which is big enough to store the mean average annual flow of Lake Turkana, will also “forever capture” sediment transported by the river, leading to erosion, changes in water quality, and reduced water tables.  Potential seepage losses through the reservoir could be large. “None of these impacts have been quantified” in project documents, Avery notes.

The filling of Gibe 3’s enormous reservoir, which will require several years, will be catastrophic for the lake, Avery notes. The study states: “The water volume to fill Gibe 3 reservoir would deprive the lake of 85% of its normal annual inflow in one year… The potential impact on the lake is significant. The filling of the dam has the potential to dry up Ferguson’s Gulf, the most productive fishing area of the lake.” In addition to reducing flows to the lake and possibly drying up key fish-breeding grounds, the dam will change the river’s chemistry and sediment levels, both of which will affect fisheries.

The study also details the even greater hydrological changes that could result from plans to exploit the Omo River for irrigation. Planned large-scale irrigation works in the basin have the potential to permanently reduce flows into Lake Turkana by 30% or more. The irrigation plans are, in part, a mitigation effort to compensate farmers downstream of the Gibe dams who will no longer be able to rely on natural flooding to water their crops.

Dr. Avery’s report was commissioned because international funders were unsatisfied with the project authorities’ analysis of the dam’s hydrological impacts on the Lake. Another independent critique by the African Resources Working Group (ARWG), a collaborative of eight environmental and social experts from around the world, found similar concerns about the devastation Gibe 3 Dam would cause and the poor quality of the project’s overall environmental impact assessment. The ARWG report states that “an accurate assessment of environmental and social processes within the lower Omo Basin indicates that completion of the Gibe 3 Dam would produce a broad range of negative effects, some of which would be catastrophic.”

The ARWG report also states:  “Estimates as high as a 10-12 meter drop in lake [Turkana’s] level are realistic; even the most minimal drop in lake level (e.g., 5 meters) would cause cessation of flooding in the Omo delta altogether, and large scale retreat of much of Lake Turkana Radical reduction of Lake Turkana waters, with sharply rising salinity conditions, would lead to a decline of aquatic ecosystems – including fish stocks, the loss of potable water for human populations and livestock, and the destruction of significant commercial interests (fishery, tourism, etc.) at the lake. A possible 50-75% leakage of waters from the reservoir, due to multiple fractures in the basalts at the planned reservoir site, with only a portion of these waters ever re-entering the Omo River system, would produce an even greater reduction of inflow to Lake Turkana.”

Also Under Threat: The Lower Omo Valley
The dam will also bring significant harm to the indigenous peoples living in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley, who depend on the Omo River for their livelihoods. Indigenous people rely on recessional cultivation of food along the riverbanks, as well as livestock herding, for survival. In Ethiopia, an estimated 200,000 people rely on the Omo River’s annual flood either directly for food cultivation or indirectly through food surpluses produced and sold within the isolated, local economy. These ethnic groups rely on the crops produced by the Omo annual flood as part of their fragile system of food security. Critics state that the Gibe 3 Dam would devastate their food production. The Gibe 3 Dam and the associated decrease in water levels and seasonality of flows in the Omo River threaten the continuation of the only two options for survival in this arid environment—there are no alternatives. Ethnic groups affected by the dam include eight distinct indigenous communities: the Mursi, Bodi (Mekan), Muguji (Kwegu), Kara (Karo), Hamer, Bashada, Nyangatom and Daasanach.

Stephen Corry, Director of the indigenous rights organization Survival International, has said: "The Gibe III dam will be a disaster of cataclysmic proportions for the tribes of the Omo valley. Their land and livelihoods will be destroyed, yet few have any idea what lies ahead. The government has violated Ethiopia’s constitution and international law in the procurement process. No respectable outside body should be funding this atrocious project." Other sources note that, when interviewed, people in many villages have never even heard of the Gibe III dam, and many of them did not even know what a dam was. This is an indication of the failure of consultations and informed consent for the indigenous populations.

Both sites could see significant reductions to wildlife populations due to the dam.

Lake Turkana and the Omo Delta are both listed by Birdlife International as Important Bird Areas (IBAs). The lake is critical to a number of species that are at risk. According to World Wildlife Fund, "Lake Turkana has more than 350 species of aquatic and terrestrial birds, and is also an important flyway for migrant birds. Central Island has a breeding population of African skimmers (Rhyncops flavirostris) that nest in banks."

Further, ARWG notes, “Large wildlife populations have been recorded in recent years in the lower Basin, although many have now become severely depleted. Eland, oryx, topi, Burchell’s zebra, hartebeest, lion, leopard, cheetah, elephant, bat-eared foxes, gazelle, gerenuk have long populated the lower Omo Basin’s grassland communities. Riparian forest and woodland areas support a rich wildlife population including hippo, elephant, crocodile, at least three species of primates, kudu, bushbuck, waterbuck leopard, and a wide variety of bird species including fish eagle, goliath heron and dwarf bittern. Omo (and secondary) riverine. upland plains (‘grassland’ or ‘savanna’) and Lake Turkana environments are comprised of ecosystems that have unique resources and features regional in scope and highly fragile.”

We urge the Secretariat to add these two Sites – Lake Turkana Parks and the Valley of the Lower Omo – to its List of World Heritage in Danger, which will send a clear signal to the international community to join efforts to protect these endangered sites.

We thank you for your attention to this matter, and look forward to your reply on this urgent issue. We would appreciate specifically hearing about next steps for putting these sites on the list.


Ikal Angelei
Friends of Lake Turkana

Lori Pottinger
International Rivers