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
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?