How Chinese Loans Could Fuel Regional Conflict in East Africa

Peter Bosshard
Pokot cattle herder in Northern Kenya
Pokot cattle herder in Northern Kenya
Alison M. Jones for

China has made great efforts to support poverty reduction in Africa, and likes to present itself as a friend of the African people. A new report warns that its loans for the Gibe III Dam and irrigation projects on the Omo River now threaten to pull China into an explosive regional conflict between well-armed groups in Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

We have covered the looming impacts of the Gibe III Dam and the sugar plantations that are linked to it on the fragile ecosystems of the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana and the 500,000 indigenous people who depend on them in this blog for several years. A new scientific study which International Rivers has just published explores the social and environmental impacts of the project in more detail, and examines the knock-on effects of the impending ecological crisis on the security of the volatile border region of Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan.

Based on a report prepared by hydrologist Sean Avery for the African Studies Centre of Oxford University, the paper analyzes how the dam and sugar plantations will affect the unique ecosystems of the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana. The dam will interrupt the annual flood of the Omo River, which sustains the agriculture, grazing lands and fisheries of the region. The filling of the Gibe III reservoir will lower the water level of Lake Turkana by 2 meters. The sugar plantations will divert at least 28 percent of the Omo River’s annual flow, and lower the lake’s water level by at least 13 meters.

With a more realistic assessment of the water demand of the plantations, the African Studies Centre report estimates that Lake Turkana will lose more than half of its current volume, and its water level will drop by 22 meters. This could split the lake in two, and would likely turn the water in the Southern half so saline that it becomes undrinkable. The new paper concludes that “the long-term effect will parallel what has happened to the Aral Sea in Central Asia,” which was almost sucked dry by cotton plantations, turning the region into a toxic wasteland.

Along the shores of Lake Turkana
Along the shores of Lake Turkana
Alison M. Jones for

The indigenous peoples of the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana are extremely poor, but well-armed. They have a long history of resource conflicts over water, fisheries, and grazing land. According to the new report, these conflicts will escalate and may spiral out of control if the dam and irrigation projects are completed.

The report warns: “Local groups displaced from their livelihoods and homelands will seek out resources on the lands of their neighbors in the Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands. Based on the recent history of conflict among local communities in this region, they can be 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.”

Once the projects are completed, the Northern shore of Lake Turkana will retreat from Ethiopia into Kenya. Peoples such as the Dassanech will have to follow the shoreline into Kenya in order maintain their access to the lake. The shrinking of Lake Turkana will also remove a buffer between the peoples of the Western shore, particularly the Turkana, and inhabitants of the adjacent shore such as the Gabbra.

Such migrations and conflicts will likely push people into the disputed Ilemi Triangle between Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia, across the Ugandan border, and into the Borana region east of Lake Turkana. Groups of displaced people will also seek refuge in urban slums and rural famine camps, which will breed their own violence and despair. The author warns of “inflamed cross-border tensions” between Kenya and Ethiopia at a time when oil has been found near Lake Turkana, and when Ethiopia is looking for better integration with Kenya for access to the sea.

After 2006, the Ethiopian government tried to raise funds for the multi-billion dollar projects on the Omo River from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and other international financiers for several years. Due to the controversy, none of these funders got involved. Only the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) stepped forward and in August 2010 approved a loan for a Chinese $500 million turbine contract for the Gibe III Dam. In September 2012, the China Development Bank (CDB) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ethiopia Sugar Corporation for another loan of $500 million for the construction of sugar factories in the Lower Omo Valley.

The Gibe III Dam and the sugar plantations will threaten World Heritage Sites in the Lower Omo Valley and near Lake Turkana. In June 2011, the UN World Heritage Committee called on the Ethiopian government to “immediately halt all construction” on the dam, and encouraged the Chinese financiers “to put on hold their financial support” until the Committee’s next annual meeting in June 2012. Neither the Ethiopian government nor ICBC heeded this call.

Ethiopia is an important friend and partner of China – but so is Kenya. Once the dam and irrigation projects are complete, China may find itself at the center of an escalating conflict, which does not serve its interests in the region. “The destruction of Turkana, if it proceeds, will become as notorious as that of the Aral Sea, tainting all those who perpetuate it,” the scientific paper warns.

The completion of the multi-billion dollar project in the Lower Omo Valley depends on international funding. Neither ICBC nor the CDB have so far disbursed their loans. Now that the likely social, environmental and security impacts of the projects have become evident, the Chinese government should reconsider its interests in the region, and ask its banks to withdraw their support for a social and environmental disaster in the making.

An extended version of this commentary appeared, in English and Chinese, on chinadialogue.