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?