China has made great efforts to support poverty reduction in Africa, and likes to present itself as a friend of the African people. But loans for contentious dam and irrigation projects now threaten to pull China into an explosive regional conflict between well-armed groups in Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
The Lower Omo Valley in south-west Ethiopia and Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya are marked by a harsh climate and unique, fragile ecosystems. They are home to 12 indigenous peoples, one of the largest remaining wildlife migrations, and some of the earliest remains of the human species.
The region is currently being transformed by one of Africa's biggest and most controversial infrastructure ventures. Once completed, the Gibe III hydropower project will dam the Omo River to generate electricity with a capacity of 1,870 megawatts. It will also allow the irrigation of 2,450 square kilometres of sugar plantations, which are currently being developed on indigenous lands and in national parks.
The dam and irrigation projects have been debated for many years. Reports commissioned and prepared by the African Development Bank, International Rivers, the World Heritage Committee and the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority have documented their impacts on the fragile ecosystems of the Lower Omo River and Lake Turkana, the 500,000 indigenous people who depend on them, and the unique cultural heritage of this cradle of humankind.
A new scientific study published by the NGO International Rivers explores the social and environmental impacts of the project in 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. The study confirms that Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, almost completely depends on the inflows from the Omo River, and that the lake's unique ecosystems and fisheries are closely linked to the river’s annual flood cycle.
The dam and sugar plantations will affect this ecosystem in several ways. 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 two metres. The sugar plantations will divert at least 28% of the Omo River’s annual flow, and lower the lake's water level by at least 13 metres. Read more...
Photo: Jane Baldwin via International Rivers
A new report documents how a dam and series of irrigation projects being built in Ethiopia threaten the world's largest desert lake, and the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on it. It describes how hydrological changes from the Gibe III Dam and irrigation projects now under construction in the Omo River Basin could turn Lake Turkana in Kenya into East Africa's Aral Sea (the infamous Central Asia lake that almost disappeared after the diversion of rivers that fed it).
The environmental impacts, which include a huge drop in the lake's level, could lead to a collapse of local livelihoods, and foment insecurity in the already conflict-ridden Horn of Africa.
Lake Turkana gets 90% of its water from the Omo River. Filling the dam's reservoir will significantly reduce the lake's inflow for a number of years. The further impact of water diversions for large irrigated plantations being developed in the Lower Omo could lead to the lake level dropping by as much as 22 meters (the average depth is just 30 meters), the paper reports. The dam will also reduce the flow of sediments, which will "lead to the loss of the ecologically productive floodplain used by wild species, fish, domestic stock and agriculture," according to the report.
The report's author states that the impacts to regional peace and security are likely to be severe, and could have global consequences: "The disruptions to the lands, waters, ecology and livelihoods of the peoples in this region will have immediate and substantial political consequences. Local groups displaced from their livelihoods and homelands are likely to seek out resources on the neighbors' lands in the Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands ... 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."
International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana are calling for a halt to construction until there is a complete accounting of how the dam and irrigation projects will harm Lake Turkana, and a plan to ensure the lake does not suffer a hydrological collapse.
Gibe III Dam is about half complete, and construction on the sugar plantations is just starting. Hydrologists are calling for a plan to ensure adequate river flows to support Lake Turkana (called "environmental flows"). Jackie King, professor emeritus of the Institute of Water Studies at the University of Western Cape, says: "It is not yet too late to complete a transboundary environmental flow assessment that will allow both countries to see the costs and benefits of a number of options for designing and operating this dam (including a no dam option). The two countries could then negotiate a future development pathway based on these options that both could accept. It would have to be done very soon, before the dam is completed."
The report describes political interventions that could change this tragedy in the making. For example, China could withdraw from the project to avoid driving a wedge between Kenya and Ethiopia. In July 2010, China's largest bank, ICBC, approved a loan of $500 million for Dongfang Electric Machinery Corp., a Chinese state-owned company, which intends to provide equipment for the Gibe III project. China Development Bank has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ethiopia Sugar Corporation for a loan of $500 million to finance two sugar factories in the South Omo region. The two Chinese banks are the only international financiers for the dam and sugar projects, which have stirred international condemnation.
Despite the impacts to its own people and the lake, Kenya has agreed to purchase power from the dam, and the World Bank and African Development Bank have both agreed to fund the transmission line that will bring the dam's electricity to Kenya.
Ikal Angelei, founder of Friends of Lake Turkana and a 2012 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, said: "We are calling on the government of Kenya to respect the rights of its people and halt its involvement in power purchases from Gibe III Dam. We call on the bilateral agencies to recognize the destruction that the dam and large plantations will bring on Lake Turkana, and withdraw budget support for Ethiopia that will underwrite destructive infrastructure."
Although not directly involved in funding these destructive projects, Western governments do support Ethiopia with aid (it is estimated to accounts for at least half of government spending).
Lori Pottinger, Africa campaigner for International Rivers, says: "Ethiopia could not have built the Gibe III Dam without the budget support it receives from Western governments and the World Bank. These donors have a responsibility to intervene, and help stop the unfolding disaster in the Omo river basin."
There are many "wild cards" in this saga (including the problem of climate change), but one thing is certain, says the author: "The destruction of Turkana, if it proceeds, will become as notorious as that of the Aral Sea, tainting all those who perpetuate it."
Learn more about ICBC's role in Gibe III
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Download Downstream Impacts of Gibe III Dam: East Africa's "Aral Sea" in the Making?
The report's author, a natural scientist with many years of field experience in the region, has requested anonymity.
If Ethiopia completes the Gibe III Dam and continues to press ahead with large-scale irrigation developments, the result will be a cascade of hydrological, ecological and socio-economic impacts that will generate a region-wide crisis for indigenous livelihoods and biodiversity and thoroughly destabilize the Ethiopia-Kenyan borderlands around Lake Turkana. The long-term effect could parallel what has happened to Central Asia's Aral Sea, one of the planet's worst environmental disasters. This African crisis is fast becoming an issue that will increasingly engage the international community.
Dam construction will dramatically change the annual flood cycle to the detriment of the lake as well as the Omo floodplain. About two-thirds of the annual flood cycle, and some proportion of the nutrients and sediment, would be curtailed during reservoir filling. After filling, the naturally shaped flood hydrograph will be reshaped into wildly fluctuating hydropower releases on a daily basis that will cause the downstream river to rise and fall each day by a few meters. The substantial reduction of the flood cycle will permanently transform and could ultimately devastate the primary productivity of the lake and its fish, bird, crocodile, lakeshore and other species.
If dam construction is accompanied by large-scale irrigated plantations, the result for Lake Turkana will be a far more significant drop in water level. The 150,000 ha Kuraz Sugar plantations would alone require 28.2% of the Omo River's flow – and that is if the scheme achieves 70% water use efficiency, a level highly unlikely in what is a massive, under-capitalized and rapidly implemented effort. More realistic assessments of water use efficiency in these irrigation projects suggest that the lake would reduce to a mere 42% of its current volume and decline 22m in depth (note that the average depth of the lake is 30m). Needless to say, a cycle of dry years and/or impacts of global climate change could severely exacerbate this tragic effect.
The cumulative impact of these developments on the ecosystems and societies of the Lower Omo and Lake Turkana will be severe in the short and medium terms, and potentially catastrophic in the longer term. ... The disruptions to the lands, waters, ecology and livelihoods of the peoples in this region will have immediate and substantial political consequences. Starting at local levels, these will in turn end up having regional consequences that will ultimately be of global importance, given the wider situation in the Horn of Africa.
Local groups displaced from their livelihoods and homelands are likely to seek out resources on the neighbors' lands in the Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands. Based on the recent history of conflict among local communities in this region, they are 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.
In Ethiopia, the destruction of agro-pastoral and fishing livelihoods in the Lower Omo and the coercion necessary to appropriate their lands for plantation agriculture will severely disrupt the lives of an estimated 200,000-300,000 people of a dozen ethnic groups. Effects of similar scale in terms of population size and regional import will happen on the Kenya side of the border, except that here the environmental damage to the lake will impact several dimensions of the broader economy. Nothing will replace current ways of life around the Lake, and because of the loss of access by livestock for watering and grazing the consequences will be felt far inland in this nomadic region.
To enable implementation of its agricultural scheme, Ethiopia has begun resettling 1.5 million people in four regions, despite the disastrous consequences of similar efforts under previous regimes. Reports by human rights groups have documented an absence of consultation and growing resistance on the part of indigenous Omo peoples.
The impoverishment of the wetland and lake ecosystems of Turkana, the Delta and Lower Omo will lead to unpredictable changes in biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services. Especially of concern locally will be the damage to the fisheries. Internationally there will be concern about the loss of much of the world's largest wild Nile Crocodile population, and the damage to an important staging area for the bird migration routes through the Great Rift Valley between Africa and Eurasia.
Under proposed dam and agricultural development schemes, the Lower Omo will lose most of its large mammal populations as they will lose habitat (including, under current plans, a significant proportion of the existing National Parks), as well as the ability to follow historic migration corridors through plantation land. Furthermore, they will lose most of their food supplies in their remaining areas since these are created by the seasonal floods.
Sixteen prominent academics and experts have endorsed the paper's findings. Here is what some of them have to say about it:
This press release was issued by Lori Pottinger of International Rivers.
A new study conducted by Dr Sean Avery and released by the African Study Centre reveals a much grimmer picture of the impact of the building of Gibe III Dam on the Omo River and associated large scale irrigation-dependent plantations in Ethiopia would have on the Lake Turkana and Lower Omo Basins. The report shows how Gibe's regulation of the flow of the Omo will alter the annual flood regime upon which the agro-pastoralists of the lower Omo depend for their livelihoods and how it will, coupled with the abstraction of Omo water for large-scale irrigation will alter the hydrological inflow patterns to Lake Turkana, directly impacting the ecology of the world's largest lake.
This is the second comprehensive study of the impact of Gibe on the hydrology of Lake Turkana and Lover Omo that the Nairobi-based consultant hydrologist and civil engineer, Dr Sean Avery, has conducted. Dr Avery previously carried out the only comprehensive assessment of the impact of the dam on Lake Turkana and Lower Omo - commissioned by the African Development Bank (AfDB) - but that was before the full scale of planned irrigation-dependent large scale plantation development was known.
A few months after the AFDB report was submitted, the full extent of planned irrigation development in the lower Omo became clearer, with the announcement that the state-run Ethiopian Sugar Corporation would soon begin developing 150,000 hectares of irrigated sugar plantations. It became necessary to conduct a new study to consolidate the previous findings with the new information.
Dr Avery's new report is now available to download from the website of the University of Oxford's African Studies Centre. We have placed the links to the two volume report and an executive summary here. You can also read Dr Avery's first report in the Documents Downloads section of our website.
The Climate Change debate will be clossing in two days and African youth representatives have been following the proceedings. They have been sending out regular updates and we at FoLT, who have been agitating for protection of Lake Turkana and the people of Lake against the vagaries of climate change, will share these updates here. Here is our first update.
It just hit 2am and everybody’s looking at each other with a wee bit of anger. Everyone’s tired obviously. Mugs of coffee are scattered all over the table. Thus far the negotiations have centred on two fronts; on one side there is a conglomerate of state parties who do not want to push through the agreements and another struggling to do the complete opposite.
One of the issues that have caused quite some uproar is the position of the U.S, yes Obama’s U.S and New Zealand concerning accounting. Basically they have refused to advance the accounting rules, hence stalled the negotiations concerning common accounting. It is like throwing the spanner in the works. Essentially, common accounting is crucial in terms of quantifying emission reduction.
Annex 1 countries are still not coming out clearly and transparently concerning their targets. Common accounting rules are important in assessing progress towards the goals set out in addition to evaluating the effort that is put in realizing this ambition. These rules are crucial in strengthening the international carbon markets. The lack of commitment therefore shown by some of the Annex 1 countries jeopardizes the robustness of the carbon markets mechanism. The countries which are hindering the development of the common accounting rules make it very difficult to realize the targets that have been set, of less than 2 degree warming and a significant reduction in emissions. This also has an effect on the issue of surpluses. As alluded to in our earlier brief, the issue of surpluses is crucial and sensitive. In spilling the surpluses to the second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, countries would not have to account much for their emissions since the shift will focus in buying emission permits. That is an eventuality we do not want to even consider.
Essentially the U.S and New Zealand wanted to maintain the status quo by not wanting to further enhance the common accounting rules.
South Africa took a different view from the two “fossil giants” preferring the advancement of the rules to enhance transparency and accountability.
Canada have not expressed a favourable position regarding finance and are increasingly being recognized as “COP 18 villains” together with Russia, Ukraine, Poland New Zealand among a few others.
Norway have been making massive steps towards contribution towards efforts to reduce emissions, however, it has been found that they have not reduced their emissions because extraction and consumption of oil and gas has increased hence they have been put to task about it.
The up-shot is that there is a desire and urgency to enhance a 2nd commitment period with regard to the Kyoto Protocol. However, there are some Parties which are less than willing to see this through. They are less than transparent when it comes to commitment to a 2nd post Kyoto period.
Violent land grabs in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley are displacing tribes and preventing them from cultivating their land, leaving thousands of people hungry and ‘waiting to die’.
As the world prepares to raise awareness of the issues behind poverty and hunger on October 16 (World Food Day), Ethiopia continues to jeopardize the food security and livelihoods of 200,000 of its self-sufficient tribal people.
Tribes such as the Suri, Mursi, Bodi and Kwegu are being violently evicted from their villages as Ethiopia’s government pursues its lucrative plantations project in the Valley.
Depriving tribes of their most valuable agricultural and grazing land, security forces are being used brutally to clear the area to make way for vast cotton, palm oil and sugar cane fields.
Cattle are being confiscated, food stores destroyed, and communities ordered to abandon their homes and move into designated resettlement areas.
Late last month, Kenya's Prime Minister was in Todonyang in the shores of Lake Turkana to launch a Sh 20 billion irrigation project that he predicts will improve food security and nutrition of the local population. Whereas this is a good gesture, there is a gross oversight on the part of the government that the Prime Minister represents - is the source of water they plan to use sustainable?
In his statement, he said that Kenya can achieve what Israel has achieved by farming in the desert in this project nicknamed Furrows in the Desert and covering 10,000 hectares of hot, dry land. He said that Turkana is lucky to have water in the lake. But is this water going to survive the onslaught of bad developments across the border in Ethiopia?
For starters, Ethiopia is building what promises to be one of the largest dam in Africa - the Gibe III Dam. This alone could reduce the flow of the Omo River, which accounts for about 90% of the water inflow into Lake Turkana, and result in a significant drop in the water level of the lake. Some studies have shown that the lake level could drop up to 10m. A drop of as little as 1.6m could result in the shoreline receding by an estimated 2-3km particularly in the northern side. A large drop in water level will be accompanied by marked increase in the water's salinity. The current salinity of the water is about 2332 mg/L and a 10m drop in lake level could increase it to about 3397 mg/L making the water less useful.
The Gibe III Dam is not the only project that threatens Lake Turkana - the largest desert lake in the world - there are more deadly developments downstream. Ethiopia is converting large tracts of land into irrigation fed sugar and cotton plantations in the Lower Omo Valley. These plantations will spread over 445,000 ha of primarily ancestral land. Overall, in the next decade, Ethiopia plans to appropriate up to 16% of the Omo Basin's water and this could result in 8.4m drop in lake level causing the shoreline to recede further and the salinity to increase to dangerous proportions.
With the threats of decreased water and increasing salinity, coupled with the effects of climate change, it is doubtful that this irrigation project will be sustainable in the long run.
Strangely, the Prime Minister and the Kenyan government have not heeded the call to cause the Ethiopian government to halt construction of the dam until a proper Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) is conducted and it shows no significant damage to the lake and that the Lower Omo and Lake Turkana communities can verify that measures are in place to mitigate the impacts that would result from the dam. As a matter of fact, the Kenyan government has openly supported the dam construction and has agreed to buy 60% of the power generated from the dam. The World Bank recently decided to fund a 1000km electricity transmission line to export power into Kenya. Most of the power to be conducted through this massive line will come from Gibe III although the World Bank denies this revelation.
With such a tangled web of water hungry projects across the border, there are doubts that Prime Minister Raila Odinga's pet project for the people of Turkana will remain viable in the long run. Is it going to be another white elephant geared towards reaping votes from an electorate that has suddenly become the most sought after by politicians?
By Ellie Peters (BA, ’13), 2012 Nicholas School Undergraduate Communications Intern
DURHAM, NC – Environmental activist Ikal Angelei spoke to a group of graduate and undergraduate students at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment on Friday, Sept. 14, about her efforts to stop the construction of a mega dam that would affect more than 500,000 people living in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Angelei’s work to halt construction of the controversial dam won her a prestigious Goldman Prize in Environmental Activism earlier this year.
Her talk at the Nicholas School was part of the 2012 Environmental Institutions Seminar Series, sponsored by the University PhD Program in Environmental Policy (UPEP) and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Introduced as a “force of one,” Angelei has spearheaded the movement to stop the construction of the Gibe III hydroelectric dam on the Omo River , which provides 90 percent of the water in Lake Turkana. The world’s largest desert lake, Turkana straddles the border of Ethiopia and Kenya and is a vital resource for the fishermen and herders who eke out an existence on its shores...
In an unfortunate twist, the World Heritage Committee has rejected recommendations by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Heritage Centre to inscribe the Lake Turkana National Parks into the list of World Heritage in Danger.
During their 36th meeting at St. Petersberg in Russia, the World Heritage Committee turned down the recommendation to inscribe the Lake and 3 other Heritage Sites into this list despite the looming doom that is to come from the building of Gibe 3 Dam in Ethiopia together with other developments in Kenya and Ethiopia. The IUCN expressed great disappointment following this decision.
"We are disappointed that the committee has not inscribed any of these threatened sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger this year," said Tim Badman, director of IUCN's World Heritage Programme, referring to Kenya’s Lake Turkana, Cameroon’s Dja Biosphere Reserve, Russia’s Virgin Komi Forests and the Pitons Management Area in the Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia.
Ikal Angelei, activist and founder of the Friends of Lake Turkana, who have been fighting to save the lake and its people, also expressed great dissatisfaction saying, “It is a sad day for Lake Turkana and our people,” and adding that the inscription of the lake’s parks would have given it the prominence it desperately needs to survive the unrelenting onslaught of bad developments. "It must take a lot for UNESCO to consider a place to be in danger if Turkana did not make the list!" said Ms. Angelei. Ms. Angelei won the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa earlier this year in recognition of her efforts to save Lake Turkana.
The IUCN decision to propose the lake into the World Heritage in Danger list was based on findings of the joint mission visit to Lake Turkana by the IUCN and the World Heritage Centre in March 2012 that identified the dangers posed by Gibe 3 Dam construction and associated irrigation fed plantations and dams in the Lower Omo basin, oil exploration, pressure from poaching and livestock grazing and impacts of other large developments in northern Kenya.
The Friends of Lake Turkana have been campaigning against Gibe 3 Dam and in the few years they’ve been doing so, they have managed to stop the African Development Bank from funding the Gibe III Dam in spite of strong Ethiopian pressure. The World Bank and the European Investment Bank also walked away recognizing that the project would violate their social and environmental safeguard policies. Other big would be financiers have also been convinced to withdraw their funding for the now half complete dam delaying the $1.7 billion project by several years.
The joint team concluded that these dangers are severe enough to place the Lake Turkana heritage site in the danger list. "These four sites face significant threats to their values, from threats including major infrastructure projects, the extractive industry and property speculation," said Badman. The World Heritage Committee ignored these arguments and failed to inscribe the precious property.
The 36th meeting of the committee started in June 24 and ends on July 6 this year. This is the second year in a row that the committee has rejected the inscription of the Russian property, the Virgin Komi Forests, into the list. It is still unclear why the committee rejected the proposed decisions to accord these important resources that additional protection.
Friends of Lake Turkana founder Ikal Angelei explains how she started the campaign to stop the construction of Gibe 3 dam. From the inspiration by Dr Richard Leakey to the return to Turkana to understand the needs of the people.
This video is produced by award winning Mill Valley Film Group led by filmmakers John Antonelli and Will Parrinello who've produced videos for major outlets from Sundance to Tribeca to Cannes, PBS to the Sundance Channel to MTV. They've been doing this for 25 years and you can see more of their work in their Vimeo Channel