Lake Turkana on the Death Bed

The lake has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of the Nile croc­o­diles, and the largest num­ber of the Nile Perch and ti­lapia fish species; its cen­tral is­lands are a breed­ing area for birds which mi­grate from Europe dur­ing win­ter and is the only re­main­ing desert la

Diplomat East Africa - - Table of Contents - EDGAR NYANDONG re­ports

Fears that Ethiopia’s de­ci­sion to con­struct the gi­ant Gibe III Dam would have a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on the ecol­ogy and en­vi­ron­ment around Lake Turkana have come to pass.

The US$1.7 bil­lion (Sh155.9 bil­lion) hy­dropower project which be­gan in 2006 is re­port­edly 90 per cent com­plete and is pro­jected to de­liver more than 1840 Megawatt (MW) of power on com­ple­tion. The fact that the Kenya gov­ern­ment plans to pur­chase some of the power from Ethiopia has si­lenced en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and the Turkana com­mu­nity whose liveli­hood hangs in the bal­ance due to the dry­ing up of the lake.

Among those who have been vo­cal about the dam project is Mr Gideon Lion Lepalo, the Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of Save Lake Turkana Cam­paign Project. Speak­ing ex­clu­sively to Diplo­mat East Africa he said, “In my opin­ion, if Kenya was vo­cal enough on this is­sue from the word go, we could not have got to where we are right now.

“I as­sume that for Ethiopia to be abra­sive and tell every­body else off, Kenya must have some­how got­ten sucked into the project by be­ing promised cheap power.”

Though the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the dam is not new, it would ap­pears Nairobi has re­signed it­self to the fact that it can do noth­ing about the project de­spite pres­sure from en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist in Ethiopia, Kenya and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

But the Kenya gov­ern­ment can no longer blind it­self to the fact that the Gibe III might just sound the death knell for the lake, push­ing the dis­ad­van­taged re­gion fur­ther into poverty.

Ac­cord­ing to Lepalo, the lake pro­vides a source of liveli­hood the lo­cal com­mu­nity and is also an en­vi­ron­ment haven which should be pro­tected. He warns that if the lake dries out, the en­vi­ron­ment around it will die too.

“Lake Turkana is spe­cial in so many as­pects. It is the only re­main­ing desert lake in the world and there is a fos­sil site where the re­mains of the first man were dis­cov­ered in Si­biloi. It is also a United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion (UNESCO) her­itage site, be­sides be­ing an in­tri­cate en­vi­ron­ment be­cause there is nowhere else in the world where you have sev­eral nat­u­ral fea­tures side by side.

“The Chalbi Desert is in the same vicin­ity and there are com­mu­ni­ties which are not touched by civil­i­sa­tion, among them the El molo, which is be­lieved to be the small­est eth­nic com­mu­nity in Kenya. It is a fish­ing com­mu­nity and re­lies solely on this lake for their sur­vival,” ex­plains Lepalo.

Lake Turkana is also said to have the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of the Nile croc­o­diles, and the largest num­ber of the Nile Perch and ti­lapia fish species, and more than 42 other fish species. The lake’s cen­tral is­lands are a breed­ing area for birds which mi­grate from Europe dur­ing win­ter.

Of con­cern to those living along the River Omo Delta (in Ethiopia) and fur­ther down into Kenya, is the dam’s in­ter­fer­ence in the river’s nat­u­ral flood cy­cle. The Omo River, which is the only per­ma­nent river feed­ing Lake

The Author­ity has blamed the drop on the Gibe III con­struc­tion which has ef­fec­tively blocked the sup­ply of wa­ter to the lake by the Omo River

Turkana, floods in Au­gust or Septem­ber of ev­ery year, and with the con­struc­tion of the big­gest dam in Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa near­ing com­ple­tion, ac­tivists like Lepalo be­lieve that it could spell an end to the sur­round­ing nat­u­ral re­sources.

Ac­cord­ing to the lobby group, Friends of Lake Turkana, the an­nual flood­ing pat­tern of the Omo River is vi­tal to the south­ern com­mu­ni­ties in Ethiopia be­cause they de­pend on the floods for their agri­cul­ture, es­pe­cially maize and sorghum. They have also de­vel­oped eco­log­i­cal prac­tices such as al­ter­nat­ing be­tween pas­toral­ism, fish­ing and cul­ti­va­tion to pro­tect their en­vi­ron­ment. In ad­di­tion, the river floods pro­vide fer­tile silts that nur­ture their plants.

But Ad­dis Ababa’s heavy hand in deal­ing with op­po­si­tion to the gi­ant dam has also come into play. Ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle pub­lished re­cently by the In­ter­na­tional Rivers or­gan­i­sa­tion states that “de­spite the huge im­pacts on vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple and ecosys­tems, NGOs and aca­demics in Ethiopia familiar with the re­gion and the project do not dare speak out for fear they will be shut down by the gov­ern­ment.”

In­deed, at the on­set of the project, the United Na­tions dur­ing the 35th An­nual Ses­sion of UNESCO asked the Ethiopian gov­ern­ment to sus­pend the con­struc­tion of the dam pending an en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ment on its ef­fects on the eco­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­ment of the re­gion. The im­pact as­sess­ment was done only in Ethiopia with­out con­sid­er­ing the dam’s ef­fects on Kenya, and pub­lished long af­ter con­struc­tion be­gan.

Says Lepalo of the eco-frag­ile en­vi­ron­ment; “The whole of north­ern Kenya is a desert and this is the only largest wa­ter mass where the pas­toral­ists can drive their live­stock to drink from as well as peo­ple. If you fac­tor in the evap­o­ra­tion in Turkana and the dam up­stream, in no amount of time this lake will be no more.”

The Na­tional En­vi­ron­ment Man­age­ment Author­ity (Nema) has also warned that wa­ter lev­els in Lake Turkana have dropped by around 30 per cent in the last 12 months. This has re­sulted to salin­ity lev­els ris­ing sharply hence lead­ing to flu­o­ride poi­son­ing for com­mu­ni­ties that use its wa­ters. This kind of poi­son­ing af­fects the bones and is un­treat­able.

The Author­ity has blamed the drop on the Gibe III con­struc­tion which has ef­fec­tively blocked the sup­ply of wa­ter to the lake by the Omo River.

While ad­dress­ing the press re­cently in Naivasha, Chief Re­searcher at Nema, Mr Isaac Elmi said that, “Our stud­ies have shown the lake’s salin­ity lev­els have risen sharply due to mas­sive evap­o­ra­tion against a decline in wa­ter flow­ing in. The only way we can ad­dress this prob­lem is by sup­ply­ing clean wa­ter to the com­mu­ni­ties that rely on the lake.”

As a way to find re­dress, Lepalo sought Par­lia­ment’s help but has been frus­trated by in­ces­sant in­ac­tion from politi­cians he has ap­proached.

“I have pe­ti­tioned Par­lia­ment, and strange enough, for what­ever rea­sons it wasn’t dis­cussed. I don’t know why. The pe­ti­tion is now some­where in the Par­lia­men­tary reg­istry; I gave it to a politi­cian and I don’t know whether it is still alive or dead. In a nut­shell, the pe­ti­tion did not see the light of day in Par­lia­ment,” he says.

Friends of Lake Turkana says that projects such as Gibe III dam are seen to rarely ben­e­fit the com­mu­ni­ties that live around the ar­eas where they are lo­cated, adding that the huge amount of elec­tric­ity that will be pro­duced is for com­mer­cial pur­poses. It will be ex­ported to neigh­bour­ing coun­tries and sup­plied to big com­pa­nies and fac­to­ries.

Cabi­net Sec­re­tary of En­ergy and Petroleum, Davis Chirchir re­cently af­firmed that Kenya plans to buy power from the Ethiopia. But Lepalo be­lieves that the gov­ern­ment should be look­ing to­wards al­ter­na­tive sources of en­ergy like wind and so­lar which can be sourced lo­cally, in­stead of a project he says is putting the al­ready dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties at greater risk of hunger and an­ni­hi­la­tion.

“The Lake Turkana Wind Power Project’s first phase alone which is a com­po­nent of 350 wind tur­bines will gen­er­ate a third of what Kenya needs. The power is nat­u­ral, avail­able, costs less and clean. There is also enough space to put more tur­bines.

“The Euro­pean coun­tries also have an idea of try­ing to put sev­eral so­lar pan­els around the Sa­hara Desert, and then have this elec­tric­ity piped to Europe. You can imag­ine that Kenya has only ex­plored one re­source which is the wind power. So what is the logic of leav­ing this project in our own backyard, and spend so much money...why should we im­port power from across the lake?” poses Lepalo.

In the long run, he as does the In­ter­na­tional Rivers be­lieves that the Ethiopian project could turn out to be a white ele­phant.

“All along we were told that this wa­ter was only go­ing to be used to gen­er­ate power. Now, the other story is that the wa­ter will equally be used by Ethiopi­ans to ir­ri­gate sug­ar­cane, rice and all man­ner of things. Why would they di­vert this wa­ter to again do farm­ing in­stead of just gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kenya

© PressReader. All rights reserved.