Gibe III Reservoir Begins Filling, Launching Lake Turkana’s Slow Decline

Lori Pottinger
Gibe III reservoir is filling. Photo: Landsat
Gibe III reservoir is filling. Photo: Landsat

International Rivers has learned that the reservoir behind the huge Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia has begun filling, as revealed by satellite images of the area. The result could be the death of Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, which is almost completely dependent on the Omo River for replenishing its water levels. The dam filling process will reduce the lake’s inflow by about two-thirds, for an estimated three years.

Rebecca Arot, a Turkana pastoralist, told International Rivers last year: “We don’t accept this. We disagree with whoever is planning this. We will never agree to it. Once the dam is functional, everything people feed on will disappear. Starvation will take over.”   

Compounding the impacts of the dam is the unsustainable trend of water grabs for irrigated plantations. Many thousands of indigenous people are being pushed off lands they have used for generations; their cleared lands are being planted in thirsty crops such as cotton and sugar, primarily for export.

As documented in past expert analyses by hydrologist Dr. Sean Avery, Dr. David Turton and others, the changes to the river flow from these developments will have grave impacts on people and ecosystems throughout the basin.

Ethiopia has repeatedly and deliberately ignored the ways that Gibe III Dam and associated irrigation schemes will affect downstream livelihoods and Lake Turkana. The Government appeared to acknowledge that there might be impacts by stating at last year’s World Heritage Committee meeting that it would analyze the impacts of the dam and irrigated plantations on Lake Turkana (a World Heritage Site). They promised to deliver the report by February, but at this writing, the World Heritage Centre told us it has no update on the status of this report.

Kenya’s government, too, seems to be taking a “see no evil” approach; there have been no public pronouncements about the need to address this impending water crisis, no announcement of a plan to seek compensation for residents of Turkana, or even meet with them to discuss the impacts of these upstream developments. We recently documented the concerns of Turkana people about the upstream water developments; you’ll find their testimony in "Come and Count Our Bones," a heartfelt and moving film and report.

Information about the fate of people on the Ethiopia side of the watershed is harder to come by, as repression is high and people fear speaking out about their concerns. A trusted source shared this update on how Omo peoples are faring: “The Kwegu are starving. At the Omo riverbank cultivation sites, south of the dam, the sorghum didn't grow at all this year; it seems the dam has interrupted flood-retreat agriculture. The Kwegu are in a dire situation. The sugar company has cleared the bush in areas of Northern Mursiland. They are destroying trees that hold beehives used by the Kwegu. North of the dam, harvests are very good for the people who deserted the government’s resettlement villages.” A report from a field visit last year by a photographer who is documenting the lives of Kara women gives a first-hand look at the land and water grabs' impact on the Kara people. 

A Kara woman who visited the dam on a government-sponsored field trip said: “I went to see the dam along with other Omo people. It is huge. I was scared. The water behind the dam is huge. I was really sad. There will be no water for us. When this river comes high it brings food for us. If we lose our river, no option, we will die. All the crocodiles and fish will die. Everything will die.”

While the people of the Omo are already seeing changes in river flow, it will take longer for the hydrological changes to Lake Turkana to be felt, but they will be dire and longlasting. The Omo River contributes approximately 90% of Lake Turkana’s inflows. Water levels in the lake are expected to drop approximately 2 meters during the first 2-3 years of the dam filling. Reservoir filling will virtually erase the seasonal flow changes in the river, which are vital for Lake Turkana’s ecosystem functions. The floods provide a cue for fish spawning, inundate productive habitat for young fish, and bring nutrients and fresh water into the lake.

The pace of change coming to the Omo basin and Lake Turkana is rapid and unrelenting, with little thought to the negative ripple effects these industrial-scale developments will bring. Ethiopia’s need for development is high, but irresponsible and unjust investments such as those taking over the Lower Omo can only set the nation back. There is a real concern that conflict and hunger will grow for the people who call the area home, as they compete for shrinking natural resources.

The point of no return for the peoples and ecosystems of the Omo and Lake Turkana is fast approaching. Ethiopia should stop the filling of the dam and put all future water abstractions on hold until an integrated water-resources management plan for all the water developments in the Lower Omo is completed. Such a plan should be guided by a legitimate region-wide environmental and socio-economic impact analysis that considers all developments in the region, and involve all affected peoples and civil society.

But because Ethiopia has shown such recalcitrance in addressing the problems these schemes are creating, it seems pressure must come from the donor governments and institutions that support Ethiopia. Now that the reservoir is filling, and no mitigation plans are in sight, donors should not sit idly by while one of their largest aid recipients is spreading hunger and conflict in the region. The consequences of inaction will be a huge unraveling of the good work that aid monies are intended to support.

More information: 

View recent Landsat images of the river backing up behind the dam

Frequently Asked Questions: Lake Turkana at Risk

Download "The Scramble for Water, Land, and Oil in the Lower Omo Valley," a comprehensive look at the many industrial projects that are affecting the Lower Omo and Lake Turkana, by Catherine Fong 


Thursday, February 12, 2015