World’s largest desert lake, Lake Takuna stirs trouble

[WANJOHI KABUKURU, NAIROBI 23RD/AUGUST/2010] On the hot and sandy northern fringes of Kenya is Lake Turkana which borders Ethiopia. A welcome relief in what is otherwise an extremely humid region.

Lake Turkana also known as the “world’s largest desert lake” is enmeshed between Chalbi desert and Turkanaland, a stunning water mass dubbed by romanticists as “Jade Sea.”

This ‘inland sea’ is at the centre of a row between conservationists and the Ethiopian government.  The bone of contention is the  on-going construction of Gibe 3 Hydro-electric Power Dam on River Omo in Ethiopia. River Omo which is the main tributary of Lake Turkana is right at the delta which defines the Kenyan-Ethiopian border. At the moment Gibe 3 which is 190km away from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is Ethiopia’s heaviest investment.

Gibe III Dam is not just a tale of development versus conservation. Top level international geo-politics and monumental finance are also involved.

Four years ago Gibe 3, left the drawing board to become reality, when the Ethiopian government awarded the tender for the construction of the dam to the Italian construction giant Salini ‘without any bidding process.’ In that same year, long before the earth-movers began work on Gibe 3, Kenya and Ethiopia had entered into a power purchase agreement. The dam partly financed by the African Development Bank (AfDB) was projected to cost $1.7billion, the costs have now escalated to $2.7billion. Thanks for the monies involved Gibe III dam is not a small matter as many would think. It is an issue that has attracted the interest of other capitals namely Tunis (AfDB), Asmara, Cairo, Khartoum, Nairobi, Djibouti, Washington, Paris, Madrid and Rome.

Kenya, Djibouti, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen have all their eyes on Gibe 3 Dam which on completion is expected to produce 1870 mega watts of power. Addis Ababa expects to sell to all these countries who have rapacious appetites for energy to power their economies and also spare some for her domestic needs.

According to conservationists, the construction  of Gibe 3 will impinge on the Omo River’s flood cycle, harming livelihoods and biodiversity all the way into Lake Turkana and interfering with Lower Omo valley’s classification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Africa’s foremost conservationist Dr. Richard Leakey recently told a local TV station K24: “Lake Turkana risks to turn into small water pans with the construction of all the Gibe-related hydro-electric power dams involved in River Omo. And with climate change beckoning we can only imagine the worst for this pristine desert lake, and the inhabitants dependent on the lake’s ecosystem.”

Echoing Leakey’s sentiments the environmental lobby further petition that Omo River is a lifeline of 200,000 indigenous people in southwest Ethiopia and northern Kenya namely,  Rendille, Samburu, Turkana, Elmolo, Dassanach, Ariaal, Oromo and Gabbra.

Ethiopia’s Gibe 3 Dam: Sowing Hunger and Conflict a report by International Rivers, (a global riparian lobby), argues: “The Omo River is a affecting ecosystems and livelihoods all the way down of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in southwest Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Gibe 3 Hydro power Dam, already under construction will dramatically alter the Omo River’s flood cycle, harming livelihoods and biodiversity all the way down to the world’s largest desert lake, Kenya’s Lake Turkana. The Lower Omo Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the home to an estimated 200,000 agro-pastoralists from eight distinct indigenous groups who depend on the Omo River’s annual flood to support riverbank cultivation and grazing lands for livestock.”

Friends of Lake Turkana, International Rivers, Bank Information Center and Campagna per la Riforma della Banca Mondiale and a raft of small community based organisations have all teamed up with scores of both Kenyan and Ethiopian common interest groups to campaign against the dam.

The Ethiopian government has ignored such pleas and stuck to its own Environmental and Social impact Assessment produced by the Ethiopian Electric Power Company (EEPCO), which repudiates all assertions made by the environmental lobby.

The African Resources Working Group (ARWG) a ‘cluster of eight scholars and consultants’ punched holes in the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment report by EEPCO stating that Gibe 3 poses serious dangers such as a recession of the lake’s depth of water and breadth:

“An accurate assessment of environmental and social processes within the lower Omo Basin indicates that completion of the Gibe III dam would produce a broad range of negative effects, some of which would be catastrophic in the tri-country region where Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya intersect. The following are some of the key effects that are predictable from the proposed completion of the Gibe III dam that are either distorted or omitted altogether in the ‘downstream’ EIA produced by Ethiopian Electric Power Company (EEPCO)…The quantitative [and qualitative] data included in virtually all major sections of the report were clearly selected for their consistence with the predetermined objective of validating the completion of the Gibe 3 hydro-dam.”

ARWG contend in their stinging report: A Commentary on the Environmental, Socioeconomic and Human Rights Impacts of the Proposed Gibe III Dam in the Lower Omo River Basin of Ethiopia.

ARWG further argues:

“Gibe 3 Dam poses serious social and environmental impacts. The project’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, Additional Downstream Study, Environmental and Social Management Plan and Resettlement Action Plan were approved by the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority in July 2008. These documents do not sufficiently acknowledge or assess the project’s impacts. The ESIA documents misrepresent project benefits and risks and are of overall poor quality. Analysis is often simplistic and conclusive statements are consistently made without a reasonable basis. Risks to health and livelihoods of affected communities are particularly poorly addressed. Comprehensive baseline studies have not been conducted. Mitigation measures are inadequate, unrealistic and do not acknowledge the failure of similar mitigation measures in Ethiopia. We believe that the inadequacy of the ESIA documents represents numerous violations of the Bank’s Environmental and Social Assessment Procedures and numerous safeguard policies, including policies on Involuntary Resettlement, Gender, and Poverty Reduction.”

These campaign which has seared Addis Ababa’s eco-record has however not sidetracked Gibe 3 construction which is progressing with no hitches.

On completion Gibe 3 which will be a roller compacted concrete and standing at 240metres height, will be the tallest dam in the continent.

As matters now stand Gibe 3 will be completed on time. Addis is sitting pretty and is least bothered by the environmental lobby? Why?

Hungry for power to turn her “Vision 2030” economic blueprint into reality, Nairobi is one of the key backers of Gibe 3 hence frustrating the environmental lobby. Buttressing Nairobi’s support is the African Union, African Development Bank (AfDB), the powerful regional energy lobby, East  African Power Pool, JP Morgan Chase, European Investment Bank and the Italian government all who have extensive leverage over the environmental lobby.

Friends of Lake Turkana chairperson Ikal Angelei reckons:

“There is no question that Ethiopia needs power. But the irony of the Gibe III dam is that while it threatens the economy of the Turkana region, a large share of its electricity will be sold to consumers in other parts of Kenya. For Ethiopia, the project is a commercial one: they want to make money selling the power elsewhere, not provide power to their own people. For Kenya, it’s a matter of allowing one part of the country to be devastated so that others may get a little more power.”

The environment lobby has submitted two complaints to AfDB but nothing has come out of it. A question asked in the Kenyan parliament in 2009 on Gibe 3 was never answered.

Gibe 3 is yet another example of how conservation and development have always been two strange bedfellows. For as long as species survive conservationists will tend to protect status quo. Development technocrats on the other hand will seek to unfurl nature for the sake of ‘progress’. The debate between development and conservation has been on for eons.  While the players may be different the issues normally remain the same. It is on this note that four years ago, the Ethiopian government faced by a multitude of economic difficulties decided to go ahead with a massive hydro-electric dam construction and in the process punctured environmentalists soft spot.

According to Birdlife International Lake Turkana is an important bird area (IBA) and any drastic changes upstream are bound to affect the ecology of Nile crocodiles, hippopotamus, and over 40 different species of fish and snakes around it, not to mention the numerous bird species:

“Turkana is an extremely important waterbird site: 84 waterbird species, including 34 Palearctic migrants, have been recorded here. Over 100,000 Calidris minuta may winter, representing more than 10% of the entire East African/South East Asian wintering population. As well as supporting many wintering Palearctic migrants, the lake is a key stop-over site for birds on passage. Waterbirds are distributed all around the lake, but the highest densities are on mud and pebble shores; particular concentrations occur in sheltered muddy bays and the Omo delta.”

The polemics informing conservation versus development have been with us for ages, and will continue to be debatable in the future. However regarding Gibe 3, it appears as if development has won. There is no stopping Gibe 3. But will conservationists give up even as Gibe 3 nears completion?