Fears over Ethiopian dam’s costly im­pact on en­vi­ron­ment, peo­ple

The East African - - OUTLOOK -

that the dam would cre­ate a pos­i­tive water bal­ance for the lake, with the con­se­quen­tial ir­ri­ga­tion ab­strac­tion im­pact on the lake not taken into ac­count.

There were in­de­pen­dent ef­forts by in­ter­na­tional donors, namely the Euro­pean In­vest­ment Bank and the African De­vel­op­ment Bank, to as­sess the im­pact of the project. But th­ese were gazumped when Chi­nese donors agreed to fund it. The Chi­nese did no in­de­pen­dent en­vi­ron­men­tal or so­cial re­views.

An­other con­tro­versy is that the Omo’s cas­cade of power sta­tions has re­placed the river’s nat­u­ral flow cy­cle with reg­u­lated, man-made cy­cles. Th­ese de­pend on the elec­tric­ity de­mands from the Ethiopian na­tional grid and its in­ter­na­tional con­nec­tions. A con­se­quence of this is that the river’s an­nual floods are smoothed out and the low flows will be in­creased. It has been claimed that this flood man­age­ment is ben­e­fi­cial as floods can lead to loss of life. But peo­ple in Lower Omo de­pend on the an­nual floods, as they tra­di­tion­ally cul­ti­vate the river­banks.

What is its im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment?

There are se­ri­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns. First, Gibe III’S flow reg­u­la­tion and water ab­strac­tions will per­ma­nently al­ter the Omo’s nat­u­ral hy­drol­ogy. This will po­ten­tially de­stroy Lake Turkana’s ecol­ogy and fish­eries.

Sec­ond, Gibe III’S river reg­u­la­tion has en­abled irrigated plan­ta­tion de­vel­op­ment. A po­ten­tial of 450,000 hectares of agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment in the Omo-gibe Basin has been men­tioned. So far, 100,000 hectares from within the Omo and Mago Na­tional Parks and Tama Wildlife Re­serve are be­ing de­vel­oped into sugar plan­ta­tions. And down­stream, 50,000 hectares have been al­lo­cated to a cot­ton plan­ta­tion de­vel­oper. There will be other schemes re­quir­ing water too.

Through ab­stract­ing ir­ri­ga­tion water, th­ese plan­ta­tions will de­plete the Omo river in­flux to Lake Turkana. The lake is al­ready semi-saline, said to be on the salin­ity brink for some species, and de­ple­tion of in­flows will in­crease the salin­ity lev­els. Also, chem­i­cal re­leases from the plan­ta­tions may ad­versely af­fect the lake.

Third, the dams will cause a mas­sive drop in Lake Turkana’s water level. When the Gibe III reser­voir was filled in 2016, it caused the lake to fall two me­tres. The Gibe IV dam, also called Koysha, will be next in the Gibe cas­cade to be built, and this will de­plete the lake by 0.9 me­tres dur­ing its fill­ing, fore­cast for 2020.

In 1996, the Omo-gibe River Basin In­te­grated De­vel­op­ment Plan had fore­cast that the Basin’s water de­mand in 2024 would re­quire 32 per cent of river’s dis­charge, 94 per cent be­ing for ir­ri­ga­tion. This is be­com­ing a re­al­ity, with re­cent stud­ies demon­strat­ing that the lake level could fall 10-20 me­tres. As the lake is on av­er­age about 30 me­tres deep, the po­ten­tial en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences are sig­nif­i­cant.

What of the fu­ture for Lake Turkana?

Warn­ings of en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact have been sounded for decades, with rec­om­men­da­tions of a bi­lat­eral agree­ment be­tween Kenya and Ethiopia be­fore tam­per­ing with the Omo.

Time will tell, but at least there is now a trans-boundary fo­rum bro­kered by Unep al­beit be­lated, and some­what lethar­gic in its progress. It is hoped that this ini­tia­tive will be sus­tained and will crit­i­cally re­view the de­vel­op­ment op­tions and im­pacts.

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