Recipe for Lake Turkana's Survival: Just Add Water

Lori Pottinger
Lake Turkana (Photo copyright Jane Baldwin)
Lake Turkana (Photo copyright Jane Baldwin)

In my line of work, you never want to say “I told you so.” Nothing good can come from being right about the ecological destruction, the dismantling of lives and livelihoods, the long-term and basically impossible-to-reverse damages that could have been avoided with proper evaluation of a big dam’s negative consequences. 

Working with local partners and concerned experts, International Rivers has been trying for years to prevent that “I told you so” moment from happening to Lake Turkana in Kenya. The world’s largest desert lake is facing a catastrophic decline caused by dams and water diversions being built upstream in Ethiopia on the Omo River, the lake’s main source of water. The outcome of these developments could be ecological collapse for Lake Turkana, and a huge loss to some 300,000 people who now live near and sustain themselves from the lake. In the Lower Omo, another 200,000 pastoralist people could be pushed off their lands and away from the river to make way for industrial-scale plantations and the Gibe III Dam. This hydrological and social upheaval is expected to increase armed conflict amongst the different groups now competing for natural resources in the region.

While the international profile of this catastrophe-in-the-making is fairly high, it has been less prominent in Kenya itself. International Rivers, Friends of Lake Turkana, and the Rift Valley Institute recently co-sponsored an “experts meeting” in Nairobi to discuss knowledge gaps, and to brainstorm on how best to raise the profile of this urgent situation with the Kenyan public.

International Rivers' Africa team confers with Dr. Sean Avery
International Rivers' Africa team confers with Dr. Sean Avery  

What we learned from our gathering is that there is a surprising lack of information about how much water the plantations and dam filling will actually divert from the Lake, and no effective plan in place to try to mitigate the impacts (if indeed they can be significantly mitigated). Dr. Sean Avery, the lead hydrologist investigating these impacts, told the gathering that irrigation for Ethiopia’s state-run Kuraz sugar plantation alone is expected to result in one-third less water reaching Lake Turkana – an amount equivalent to the water use of 40 cities the size of Nairobi. With the dam set to begin filling by early 2015, there is precious little time to reverse course. The Ethiopian and Kenyan governments recently told the World Heritage Commmittee that they have resumed talks over this shared river and even intend to produce a joint environmental assessment on the Omo developments (relevant statements are between 2:30:20 and 3:26:40 on this video testimony), but the past record of secrecy and misinformation does not bode well for a forthright and inclusive process in addressing this complex water-sharing situation.  

For the next six months, the participants from our meeting will be engaging in a number of activities to raise awareness about threats to Lake Turkana, and try to create a groundswell of concern that will motivate the Kenyan government into action. Friends of Lake Turkana has recently begun a Twitter campaign (#SaveLakeTurkana), and is translating International Rivers’ film about these hydrological risks into the Turkana language. Other participants are seeking meetings with relevant government officials, and creating information campaigns aimed at a broader public. Meanwhile, we are working to raise awareness in the US Government and other donor governments which provide support to Ethiopia about the human and environmental risks associated with the dam and plantations. Our message is resonating, and in early fall, International Rivers will be participating in a hearing of the US Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission to outline our concerns.  

It wouldn’t take a sea change to ensure a healthy future for Lake Turkana – just healthy river flows. We’ll keep you posted on the progress of our joint efforts.

Friday, August 15, 2014