Ethiopian Dam Threatens to Turn Lake Turkana into "East Africa's Aral Sea"

International Rivers
Wednesday, January 9, 2013


Ethiopian Dam and Irrigation Projects Threaten to Turn Kenya’s Lake Turkana into “East Africa’s Aral Sea”

New paper documents impending threat to regional peace and security in volatile Horn of Africa

A new report documents how a dam and series of irrigation projects being built in Ethiopia threaten the world’s largest desert lake, and the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on it. It describes how hydrological changes from the Gibe III Dam and irrigation projects now under construction in the Omo River Basin could turn Lake Turkana in Kenya into East Africa’s Aral Sea (the infamous Central Asia lake that almost disappeared after the diversion of rivers that fed it).

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 the already conflict-ridden Horn of Africa.

Lake Turkana gets 90% of its water from the Omo River. Filling the dam’s reservoir will significantly reduce the lake’s inflow for a number of years. The further impact of water diversions for large irrigated plantations being developed in the Lower Omo could lead to the lake level dropping by as much as 22 meters (the average depth is just 30 meters), the paper reports. The dam will also reduce the flow of sediments, which will “lead to the loss of the ecologically productive floodplain used by wild species, fish, domestic stock and agriculture,” according to the report.

The report’s author states that the impacts to regional peace and security are likely to be severe, and could have global consequences: “The disruptions to the lands, waters, ecology and livelihoods of the peoples in this region will have immediate and substantial political consequences. Local groups displaced from their livelihoods and homelands are likely to seek out resources on the 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.”

International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana are calling for a halt to construction until there is a complete accounting of how the dam and irrigation projects will harm Lake Turkana, and a plan to ensure the lake does not suffer a hydrological collapse.

Gibe III Dam is about half complete, and construction on the sugar plantations is just starting. Hydrologists are calling for a plan to ensure adequate river flows to support Lake Turkana (called “environmental flows”). Jackie King, professor emeritus of the Institute of Water Studies at the University of Western Cape, says: “It is not yet too late to complete a transboundary environmental flow assessment that will allow both countries to see the costs and benefits of a number of options for designing and operating this dam (including a no dam option). The two countries could then negotiate a future development pathway based on these options that both could accept. It would have to be done very soon, before the dam is completed.”

The report describes political interventions that could change this tragedy in the making. For example, China could withdraw from the project to avoid driving a wedge between Kenya and Ethiopia. In July 2010, China’s largest bank, ICBC, approved a loan of $500 million for Dongfang Electric Machinery Corp., a Chinese state-owned company, which intends to provide equipment for the Gibe III project. China Development Bank has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ethiopia Sugar Corporation for a loan of $500 million to finance two sugar factories in the South Omo region. The two Chinese banks are the only international financiers for the dam and sugar projects, which have stirred international condemnation.

Despite the impacts to its own people and the lake, Kenya has agreed to purchase power from the dam, and the World Bank and African Development Bank have both agreed to fund the transmission line that will bring the dam’s electricity to Kenya.

Ikal Angelei, founder of Friends of Lake Turkana and a 2012 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, said: “We are calling on the government of Kenya to respect the rights of its people and halt its involvement in power purchases from Gibe III Dam. We call on the bilateral agencies to recognize the destruction that the dam and large plantations will bring on Lake Turkana, and withdraw budget support for Ethiopia that will underwrite destructive infrastructure.”

Although not directly involved in funding these destructive projects, Western governments do support Ethiopia with aid (it is estimated to accounts for at least half of government spending).

Lori Pottinger, Africa campaigner for International Rivers, says: "Ethiopia could not have built the Gibe III Dam without the budget support it receives from Western governments and the World Bank. These donors have a responsibility to intervene, and help stop the unfolding disaster in the Omo river basin."

There are many “wild cards” in this saga (including the problem of climate change), but one thing is certain, says the author: “The destruction of Turkana, if it proceeds, will become as notorious as that of the Aral Sea, tainting all those who perpetuate it.”


Download Downstream Impacts of Gibe III Dam: East Africa’s “Aral Sea” in the Making?

The report’s author, a natural scientist with many years of field experience in the region, has requested anonymity.

Selected Excerpts:

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. This African crisis is fast becoming an issue that will increasingly engage the international community.

Dam construction will dramatically change the annual flood cycle to the detriment of the lake as well as the Omo floodplain. About two-thirds of the annual flood cycle, and some proportion of the nutrients and sediment, would be curtailed during reservoir filling. After filling, the naturally shaped flood hydrograph will be reshaped into wildly fluctuating hydropower releases on a daily basis that will cause the downstream river to rise and fall each day by a few meters. The substantial reduction of the flood cycle will permanently transform and could ultimately devastate the primary productivity of the lake and its fish, bird, crocodile, lakeshore and other species.  

If dam construction is accompanied by large-scale irrigated plantations, the result for Lake Turkana will be a far more significant drop in water level. The 150,000 ha Kuraz Sugar plantations would alone require 28.2% of the Omo River’s flow – and that is if the scheme achieves 70% water use efficiency, a level highly unlikely in what is a massive, under-capitalized and rapidly implemented effort. More realistic assessments of water use efficiency in these irrigation projects suggest that the lake would reduce to a mere 42% of its current volume and decline 22m in depth (note that the average depth of the lake is 30m). Needless to say, a cycle of dry years and/or impacts of global climate change could severely exacerbate this tragic effect.

The cumulative impact of these developments on the ecosystems and societies of the Lower Omo and Lake Turkana will be severe in the short and medium terms, and potentially catastrophic in the longer term. … The disruptions to the lands, waters, ecology and livelihoods of the peoples in this region will have immediate and substantial political consequences. Starting at local levels, 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.

Local groups displaced from their livelihoods and homelands are likely to seek out resources on the neighbors’ lands in the Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands. Based on the recent history of conflict among local communities in this region, they are expected to react largely through raids and warfare. 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. In fact they are already underway.

In Ethiopia, the destruction of agro-pastoral and fishing livelihoods in the Lower Omo and the coercion necessary to appropriate their lands for plantation agriculture will severely disrupt the lives of an estimated 200,000-300,000 people of a dozen ethnic groups. Effects of similar scale in terms of population size and regional import will happen on the Kenya side of the border, except that here the environmental damage to the lake will impact several dimensions of the broader economy. Nothing will replace current ways of life around the Lake, and because of the loss of access by livestock for watering and grazing the consequences will be felt far inland in this nomadic region.

To enable implementation of its agricultural scheme, Ethiopia has begun resettling 1.5 million people in four regions, despite the disastrous consequences of similar efforts under previous regimes. Reports by human rights groups have documented an absence of consultation and growing resistance on the part of indigenous Omo peoples.

The impoverishment of the wetland and lake ecosystems of Turkana, the Delta and Lower Omo will lead to unpredictable changes in biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services. Especially of concern locally will be the damage to the fisheries. Internationally there will be concern about the loss of much of the world’s largest wild Nile Crocodile population, and the damage to an important staging area for the bird migration routes through the Great Rift Valley between Africa and Eurasia.

Under proposed dam and agricultural development schemes, the Lower Omo will lose most of its large mammal populations as they will lose habitat (including, under current plans, a significant proportion of the existing National Parks), as well as the ability to follow historic migration corridors through plantation land. Furthermore, they will lose most of their food supplies in their remaining areas since these are created by the seasonal floods.

Sixteen prominent academics and experts have endorsed the paper’s findings. Here is what some of them have to say about it:

  • 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.”
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