Lake Turkana is the world’s largest “desert sea," a vast turquoise ocean in an unremittingly harsh place of wind, heat and dust.
Its waters keep the cattle of semi-nomadic pastoralists alive in times of drought and its fish feed the people.
It is one of the origins of mankind where, according to the fossil record, the earliest human ancestors rose up on two legs and began to walk, and it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yet it is threatened with extinction by Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam which is already around three-quarters built and likely to be completed in 2014.
The Gilgel Gibe III Hydroelectric dam on the Omo River in southern Ethiopia will be 243 meters high. The project is expected to generate up to 1,860 megawatts of energy, and to supply enough water to irrigate 150,000 hectares of agricultural plantations.
The dam is key to the economic future that Ethiopia’s leaders have mapped out for their country. But experts say it will also destroy Lake Turkana just across the border in Kenya.
“The result could be another Aral Sea disaster in the making,” writes Sean Avery, a Nairobi-based hydrologist in a new report published by the Africa Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.
The Aral Sea in Central Asia was one of the world’s largest lakes until Soviet irrigation projects diverted the rivers that fed it, reducing the lake to a tiny fraction of its original size.
For its part, Lake Turkana is slightly salty and shallow.
Only 30 meters deep on average, Avery predicts water levels could fall by 20 meters, turning the lake into two separate, outsized puddles — one fed by the remnants of the Omo, the other by the smaller Kerio and Turkwel rivers.
Salinity levels are expected to rise as the surface area shrinks, making the lake unlivable for fish, hippos and crocodiles and undrinkable for cattle and people.
“Lake Turkana depends on the Omo River for 90 percent of its water,” said Ikal Angelei, director of Friends of Lake Turkana who was awarded the 2012 Goldman Prize in recognition of her efforts to save the lake and the livelihoods of the people who depend on it.
“If you reduce the freshwater coming in you change the chemical composition of the lake,” she told GlobalPost. Up to 300,000 people rely on the lake to survive, she added.
Ethiopia’s government says that once the Gibe III dam is filled up in two and a half years, a constant stream of water will be permitted to flow down the Omo valley and into Lake Turkana.
But Angelei said this will not solve the problem.
“It’s the natural increases and decreases in water flow that allows the ecosystem to survive,” she said.
Fish breeding cycles as well as seasonal farming on the river’s floodplains require times of high and low water.
“The regulation of the natural hydrological river flow cycle will permanently alter the present flood plain's ecology, with catastrophic consequences,” wrote Avery.
Avery’s report also stated that 30 percent of the Omo’s flow was to be diverted for the irrigation of huge new agricultural plantations.
Ethiopia’s government had kept the plantation plans secret until New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch revealed details of the scheme in a report published last year.
The rights group accused the Ethiopian government of “arbitrary arrests and detentions, beatings, and other violence” as it forced indigenous people off their lands to make way for state-run sugar plantations, irrigation canals and processing factories.
“Ethiopia’s ambitious plans for the Omo valley appear to ignore the rights of the people who live there,” said the report’s author, Ben Rawlence.
Angelei says the dam threatens people's rights in Turkana too. Kenya’s government has done nothing to defend them.
The governments of both countries have contentious relations with pastoralist people who are frequently derided as backward and uncivilized.
Their very existence is seen as an affront to the sophistication, modernity and forward-leaning economies that the centralized authorities in Addis Ababa and Nairobi seek to project.
The pastoralist people frequently carry guns and disdain the sedentary life of towns and cities, preferring to move with their animals through the wilds.
Despite the expected impact on its people, successive Kenyan governments have raised only muted objections to the dam.
A parliamentary resolution in August 2011 called for construction to be stopped.
But the resolution was not acted on and was then quietly shelved when, 11 months later, the World Bank provided a $684 million loan for the building of a 1,000 kilometer transmission line that will allow Kenya to benefit from the power generated.
Angelei and others hope the scenario they envisage is a worst-case projection, but fear it is also the most realistic.
“Lake Turkana is a [UNESCO] protected area but it’s not being protected. It’s a safe zone in drought periods, it supports fishermen and pastoralists, it has traditional and cultural value and is the cradle of mankind, but it is being ignored,” she said.
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.
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...
Kenya's Ikal Angelei has won one of this year's Goldman Prizes, often called the Nobel Prize for environmentalists. Ms Angelei mobilised her community in Turkana - northern Kenya - to try and stop a massive dam from being built in neighbouring Ethiopia. She realised that the projected Gibe-3 dam on Ethiopia's Omo River - which empties into Lake Turkana - could destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people. Ms Angelei told the BBC Africa's Audrey Brown why she kick-started a campaign to get the project stopped and what she and the group she co-ordinates, Friends of Lake Turkana, will do with the $150,000 (£94,600) from the prize.
Ikal was interviewed by the BBC and you can listen to the podcast at the BBC Website
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...
Our Director, Ikal Angelei, has been announced as the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize Reciepient for Africa in recognition of her tireless effort to save Lake Turkana from the dangers of the massive Gibe 3 Dam being constructed in Ethiopia’s Omo River.
In 2008, Ikal Angelei, who also works with renowned anthropologist and conservationist, Dr. Richard Leakey, learned from the distinguished Kenyan of the construction of what will become Africa’s largest dam along the Omo River in Ethiopia. Ikal immediately recognized that the dam would be the death of Lake Turkana and the end of the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of impoverished and marginalized people in the Lower Omo Basin and Lake Turkana regions.
Ikal started her campaign to stop the construction of the dam which had started in 2006. Shortly, she and likeminded individuals formed the Friends of Lake Turkana. FoLT thus became the vehicle that would spearhead the campaign to stop Gibe 3 on its tracks. In the few years that Ikal and FoLT have campaigned against the dam, we have managed to convince several financing organizations, including the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank not to fund the construction of Gibe 3 – which is 40% complete – and convinced the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to issue a communiqué calling for a stop in the construction of Gibe 3. The Kenyan Parliament also passed a resolution requiring the government to demand an independent environmental Impact Assessment of the dam.
Ikal continues to trudge on as she is now pushing for the Kenyan government – which is in agreement with Ethiopia to purchase 60% of the electricity generated by the dam – to get out of the power purchase agreement thus make it unjustifiable for China to continue funding the dam owing to the diminished demand. As Ikal always says, “Aluta continua.”
The Goldman Environmental Prize was created in 1989 by civic leaders and philanthropist Richard N. Goldman and his wife Rhoda H. Goldman to support individuals struggling to win environmental victories against the odds. It is meant to inspire ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the world. The phenomenal Prof. Wangari Maathai – RIP – won this Prize in 1991.
Read more about Ikal’s achievement in this blog post by Peter Bosshard of International Rivers, key supporters and partners of FoLT.
Learn more about the Goldman Environmental Prize in their website.
Exactly two years ago to the month, I wrote a commentary entitled, "The Dam and the Damned: Gilgel Gibe III Ethiopia" focusing on the impact of "development" in the Omo River Basin (ORB) in southern Ethiopia. In that commentary, I echoed the deep concerns voiced by various international human rights and environmental organizations over the ecological impact and cost of that dam on the lives of indigenous populations.
I also made it a special point to express gratitude and appreciation to "the great international human rights organization that have created so much international awareness on the precarious environmental situation in the Omo River Basin." I am even more profoundly grateful to International Rivers, Human Rights Watch, the Oakland Institute, Survival International and the Africa Resources Working Group two years later for the extraordinary work they continue to do to save the environment and the indigenous people in the ORB. For years, these organizations have been in the forefront of the race to save Ethiopians damned by the Gilgel Gibe III hydroelectric dam.
The various international organizations have done invaluable work by raising public awareness and undertaking advocacy campaigns to bring international attention to the ecological disaster taking place in the ORB. Over the years, they have all issued meticulously prepared field reports, research and policy analyses and other scientific and statistical reports documenting the effect of the "development programs" of the regime in power in Ethiopia on the lives and livelihoods of the people of the ORB. They have all sought to advocate and mobilize international public opinion to bring sanity to the madness of Gibe III dam, the flagitious leasing of tribal lands in the Basin for sugar and rice plantations for the export sector and to stop the forced resettlement ("villagization") of indigenous communities.
In my 2012 commentary, I also publicly lamented the fact that Ethiopians, particularly those of us in the Diaspora, have been standing on the sidelines with arms folded as the various international human rights and environmental organizations groups were running a steep uphill race to save Ethiopians in the ORB. We have been silently watching them doing all of the heavy lifting for us. At the time, I pleaded with all Ethiopians to "join and help international human and environmental rights organizations help us, and engage in vigorous environmental activism of our own." I appealed for the "creation of our own environmental civil society organizations, particularly in the Diaspora, to ensure that Ethiopia's rich and diverse ecosystem is preserved and protected today and for future generations." I also warned, "If we fail to do that, we will all find ourselves in the same position as the people of the Omo River Basin who are damned by the dam."
It is painful for me (frankly, I am ashamed) to admit that two years after I wrote that commentary, we are still on the sidelines watching while the international human rights and environmental organizations are still doing all of the heavy lifting for us and keeping up the race to save our people. I find myself asking the same questions over and over, without answers: Is it fair to have the international human rights and environmental organizations do all of the heavy lifting for us in the ORB? When these organizations show so much care and concern for our people and our country, why are we so manifestly unconcerned? Why is that we do not join and support the organizations speaking up for our people? Why is it that we do not come to the aid of these organizations and defend them against the slings and arrows of a vicious regime which slanders them and scandalizes their good works? Would we be as passive and silent if the same environmental crimes and crimes against humanity were being committed in the name of "development" in other parts of Ethiopia? Are we manifestly unconcerned about the people of the ORB because they are marginalized ethnic minorities? Could it be that we are ashamed of the people of the ORB because they do not look "modern" like the rest of us, or are a "backward civilization" as the late Meles Zenawi once called them? How can we justify to future generations that they owe their legacy of environmental conservation and protection of the indigenous peoples of the ORB to the tireless efforts of international organizations? I ask my readers to think about these questions.
I think it is only fair that we should at least financially help those organizations who are helping us. There is no reason why we cannot demonstrate our support to them as they fight for the rights of our people in the ORB. We should be standing with them and not standing on the sidelines watching them.
The clear and present danger posed by the Gilgel Gibe III dam to the people of the ORB
The Gibe III dam poses a clear and present danger to the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians in the ORB including the Bodi, Karo, Muguji, Mursi, Nyangatom and Dasanech, among others, who have survived for millennia practicing what is called "flood retreat agriculture". At the end of the rainy season, the flooded land near the river banks provides rich silt for raising a variety of crops including sorghum, maize and beans. The very existence of these Ethiopians depends on the cyclical flooding season. The Gibe III dam will fundamentally disrupt the natural downstream flow by damming the river upstream for electricity production for export. Experts have convincingly argued that the water volume on the Omo River will be permanently reduced as a result of diversion of water for the dam reservoir and irrigation of sugar plantations. This will make flood retreat agriculture virtually impossible for the people living in the Basin. In August 2012, the world renowned conservationist and paleoanthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey challenged the self-serving Gibe III "scientific" studies minimizing the ecological effects of the dam and predicted, "the dam will produce a broad range of negative effects, some of which would be catastrophic to both the environment and the indigenous communities living downstream."
"Developing" the Omo River Basin
In late January 2011, Meles Zenawi gave a speech in Jinka, South Omo. It was vintage Meles– bombastic, bitter and full of bluster. He promised the sun and moon to the people trapped in the "backward civilization" of the ORB. He pledged to take them out of the stone age and into the modern age by making the region "an example of rapid development." He assured them that the "dam on the Omo River [will] eliminate flood, create a huge irrigation system and give pastoralists a sustainable income and a modern life."
With a vengeance, Meles demonized and lashed out at the environmental and human rights organizations urging care and caution in the construction of the Gibe III dam and protection of the way of life of the indigenous people. He characterized them as naysayers and doomsayers "who want to block our freedom to use our rivers, and to save our people from poverty." He called them malicious obstructionists. "They are creating huge propaganda... They are blocking us from getting financial loans from abroad to finish the project." He ridiculed them as "best friends of backwardness and poverty... who don't actually do anything tangible." He virtually called them self-absorbed racists because "all they want is keep the pastoralists as a tourist attraction" and keep the people of the ORB "a case study of ancient living for scientists and researchers."
Meles and his henchmen have gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the environmental devastation that has occurred and continues to occur in the construction of the Gibe III dam and the "development" of the Basin. In July 2008, two years after construction began on the dam and international human rights and environmental organizations began sounding the alarm, Meles directed his "Environmental Protection Authority" to issue the Gibe III Environmental Social Impact Assessment. That report was a shameless whitewash which rubber-stamped Meles' pigheaded decision to forge ahead with the project. It was full of boldfaced lies. It unabashedly concluded that the reservoir area for Gibe III is unfit for human habitation because it is infested by deadly mosquitoes and tsetse flies (which cause "sleeping sickness"). It claimed, "There is no settlement in the future reservoir area and settlements are concentrated on the highland in areas outside the valley... There is very little farming activity around the Omo valley bottom lands. ... The population living within the proposed dam and the reservoir areas are not in close proximity to the UNESCO designated heritage site. No visible archaeological remains, which have scientific, cultural, public, economic, ethnic and historic significances, have been observed in the area and dam sites."
Meles' way of "modernizing" the "backward" people of the ORB was to turn over the Basin to Saudi Arabian and other foreign investors and his buddies. Meles announced in his speech that his "government is planning, and working hard to establish, a 150,000 hectare sugarcane development in this area starting this year." Sure enough, according to IC Magazine, "A Saudi Arabian tycoon Al-Moudi, with close links to the top-level Ethiopian leadership [was] allotted 10,000 hectares for a rice plantation. His massive project has done considerable damage to the local environment, which includes a national park and wildlife habitat, and local communities that have lived in their homelands for many generations."
Meles announced that five sugar factories will be built in the ORB by the Omo Kuraz Sugar Development project. According to "Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency", "Mesfin Industrial Engineering (MIE) signed ETB 3 billion ($162.2 million) worth contracts with state-owned enterprises to deliver machineries for the Tana Beles Integrated Sugar Development Project and the Kuraz Sugar development projects in the Amhara region and the Omo Valley..." MIE is "also producing railroad tracks for the Dire Dawa-Addis Ababa railway project and finalizing preparations to deliver the same for the Djibouti through Afar to Northern Ethiopia railway line."
In June 2011, UNESCO concluded that "GIBE III dam is likely to significantly alter Lake Turkana's fragile hydrological regime, and threaten its aquatic species and associated biological systems" and "urged the State Party of Ethiopia to immediately halt all construction on the GIBE III dam [and not] damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage located on the territory of another State Party."
In Meles "development" plans, the impoverished and defenseless people of the ORB get the shaft while his filthy rich friends became super-filthy rich. According to one environmental study published in January 2014, "Construction of the Kuraz Sugar plantations (projected to cover 161,285 hectares) and accompanying infrastructure, including sugar processing factories and resettlement villages, has started in advance of completion of the Gibe III. The Kuraz Sugar plantations, plus additional area identified as suitable for cultivation (47,370 hectares), could eventually require over 50% of the Omo River inflow, depending on irrigation efficiency."
Meles Zenawi's "modernization" of the ORB was a windfall for his buddies, but it literally left the people of the Omo River Basin high and dry. Meles' vision for the ORB and its people was, "what's good for the 'Saudi Arabian tycoon Al-Moudi' and 'Mesfin Industrial Engineering' is good enough for the people of the Omo River Basin." That is how Ethiopians in the Omo River Basin got sold down the river!
The continuing race to save the Omo River and indigenous people
Last week, International Rivers released a video on the environmental risks to the Omo River valley and severe and irreversible damage that could result to the people and ecosystem of the valley if the dam and thoughtless "development" projects concocted by the regime in power in Ethiopia continue unrestrained. It is a video worth watching as it clearly explains the clear and present danger facing the ORB.
There is little scientific doubt that Gibe III dam and the irrigation diverting water on the Omo River poses a clear and present danger to the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya. Studies have shown that by ending the river's natural flood cycle, harvests, grazing lands, river banks and fisheries extending to Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, would be destroyed. The dam will devastate the unique culture and ecosystems of the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana, both recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Experts fear that "Gibe III could destroy the fragile ecosystem for an additional 300,000 people downstream in Lake Turkana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which gets up to 90% of its water from the Omo River."
It is particularly important for Ethiopians to understand the scope of the environmental damage and the human cost of the dam in the ORB. I specially urge my Ethiopian readers to view the Amharic version of the International Rivers video by clicking HERE or on the picture below.
USAID and Donors Assistance Group in Ethiopia (a/k/a those who "see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" in the race to save the people of the Omo River Basin)
The official position of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Development Assistance Group's (DAG) (a consortium of 26 donors) in Ethiopia has been to stonewall any questions of human rights abuses in the ORB. Stated bluntly, their official response could best be characterized as: "We see no evil, hear no evil and say no evil about human rights violations in the Omo River Basin."
In October 2010, a few days after Human Right Watch released its report on the abuses of aid in Ethiopia, USAID and DAG issued a statement denying the "widespread, systematic abuse of development aid in Ethiopia. Our study did not generate any evidence of systematic or widespread distortion." In 2012, USAID reported that it "did not find evidence to support claims [of human right violations] during its visit to South Omo." In a letter dated January 17, 2014, Dennis Weller USAID, current Mission Director in Ethiopia stated that his agency and "other donors have been monitoring the situation in South Omo" and that "the main finding from these trips is that there are no reports of widespread or systematic human rights abuses. Our observations do not support assertions... that the resettlement processes are accompanied by systematic and widespread human rights abuses."
Interestingly, Weller's comments brushing off human rights abuses in the ORB are in stark contrast to his predecessor Thomas Staal's. In an interview Stall gave before his reassignment to Bagdad in October 2010, he made the stunning admission that "with respect to political participation, we have not done a good job. Specifically, with respect to the election that took place two years ago, we have not done much to promote democracy... This is a hard situation that causes us to despair." No reason for Weller to "despair" over human rights abuses in the ORB!
The official position of USAID and DAG with respect to human rights abuses in the ORB could be reduced to two basic propositions: 1) The reports by international human rights and environmental organizations concerning forced evictions, villagization, resettlement, denial of access to subsistence land, beatings, killings, rapes, imprisonment, intimidation, political coercion, and the denial of government assistance are all fabrications and lies. 2) Even if the reports are accurate, they document anecdotal and isolated incidents which do amount to "systematic and widespread human rights abuses".
USAID's denial of "systematic and widespread human rights abuses" in Ethiopia should not surprise anyone. For years, USAID has taken shelter behind the empty phrase "systematic and widespread human rights abuses". When Meles Zenawi declared in 2010 that his party had won the parliamentary elections by 99.6 percent, USAID found no "systematic and widespread human rights abuses". When the Meles regime was committing crimes against humanity in Gambella and Ogaden regions, USAID transformed itself into USA In Denial. When hundreds of top opposition political figures, activists, civil society leaders, journalists, dissidents, bloggers, human rights advocates were jailed, USAID's response was, "No systematic and widespread human rights abuses". Nope! Nyet! Nien! Pray tell, what exactly is "massive and systematic human rights violations"? Does USAID mean, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic"? Perhaps for USAID a single human rights violation in the ORB is a tragedy but the wholesale violation of the human rights of the people in the Omo River Basin is a statistic?!
The fact of the matter is that USAID and others who visited the Omo region in January 2012 were provided compelling "audio recordings of the interviews conducted in several Lower Omo communities." These recording "leave no room for doubt that the donor agencies were given highly credible first-hand accounts of serious human rights violations during the field investigation [undertaken by USAID and the Development Assessment Group] and that they have chosen to steadfastly ignore these accounts."
U.S. Congress joins the race to save the people of the Omo River Basin
In July 2013, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) included language in Senate Bill 1372 imposing certain certification requirements in the administration of U.S. aid in Ethiopia. The Leahy language was adopted in the "Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014" which passed both houses on January 3, 2014. Section 7042(d) of the Act requires the U.S. Secretary of State to "certify to the Committees on Appropriations that the Government of Ethiopia is implementing policies to — (i) protect judicial independence; freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion; the right of political opposition parties, civil society organizations, and journalists to operate without harassment or interference; and due process of law; and (ii) permit access to human rights and humanitarian organizations to the Somali region of Ethiopia." It further requires that U.S. ''Development Assistance' and 'Economic Support Fund' that are available for assistance in the lower Omo and Gambella regions of Ethiopia shall— (A) not be used to support activities that directly or indirectly involve forced evictions; (B) support initiatives of local communities to improve their livelihoods; and (C) be subject to prior consultation with affected populations." The law requires the "Secretary of the Treasury to instruct the United States executive director of each international financial institution to oppose financing for any activities that directly or indirectly involve forced evictions in Ethiopia." It seems the international human rights and environmental organizations that have been campaigning to protect the ORB and Gambella ecosystems and indigenous peoples have been right all along!!
Where are Ethiopians in the race to save the ORB and the indigenous people?
The titular prime minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn, is said to be knowledgeable about water development and sanitation. He reportedly held a "graduate assistantship" at Arba Minch Water Technology Institute. He is also said to come from "an Omotic community which forms the principal population group in Ethiopia's Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region." It is reasonable to suppose that Hailemariam would take both personal and professional interest in the environmental destruction and human cost of "development" in the ORB. Unfortunately, Hailemariam has repeatedly declared the he "will strive to carry on Meles' vision to transform the country", and by the same token oversee the destruction of the ORB ecosystem and the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in the Basin.
I admit it is a complete exercise in futility, but I urge Hailemariam and his regime to learn from the tragedy of Lake Oroumieh in Iran. That lake has shrunk by 80 percent in 10 years as a result of damning rivers and irrigation projects. The response of the Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, to the environmental disaster was "to form a team and to invite scholars to help find solutions."
I have no reason to believe that Hailemariam and his crew care much about Lake Turkana in which the Omo River empties or the environmental damage in the ORB. I know that a regime afflicted by the arrogance of ignorance will not invite scholars and experts in the field to seek long-term solutions. I expect the regime leaders will repeat like a broken record their Pollyannish rhetoric about the ORB and demonizing condemnation of all who urge caution and care. Regardless, I find it a historical imperative to register the fact that Hailemariam and Co., have a legal duty to mitigate the environmental disaster and human catastrophe in the ORB. After all, they must understand that "Truth will not remain forever on the scaffold, nor wrong forever remain on the throne."
What about Diaspora Ethiopians? Will they join the race to save their fellow Ethiopians damned by the Gibe III dam? Will they stand up and speak up for the voiceless, defenseless, powerless and helpless people of the ORB? Will they stand up and be counted with the people of the ORB or abandon them because they are a "backward civilization" as Meles Zenawi called them? Will they join International River, Human Rights Watch, Survival International and the Africa Resources Working Group in the heavy lifting and uphill fighting to save the Omo River Basin and its indigenous people? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I will be doing what I always do: Carry water (though not from the Omo River) for those doing the heavy lifting and uphill fighting!
"Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights/3 and international human rights law." United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 61/295.
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
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.
I would first like to take this moment to honor the efforts and inspiration by the last Kenyan to win this award in 1991, Nobel Laurette Late Prof Wangari Maathai for her efforts through which she linked the day to day struggles and conflicts around the world to how man related with nature; a philosophy best understood by many communities around the world.
I would like to thank the Goldman Family and the Goldman Environmental Prize Staff and all those who nominated me. The situation in Turkana is not a unique one, all around the world governments are destroying environments in the name of development both nationally and regionally, all in the name of geo-politics. We are witnessing as governments destroy the environment to increase their GDP's. And while we appreciate the need to develop, meet Millenium goals by 2015, we agree that we all have to solve the current problems of access to energy and access to employment; we however cannot achieve these at the expense of the environment especially with the availability of alternatives and the reality of climate change.
It’s been 3 years of struggle to defend our environments, a journey that started with one person and one step, but grew to the Omo Basin- Lake Turkana family. Car breakdowns, fatigue that surpassed hunger, threats and abuses, appreciation and recognition, all these and more have been part of this journey. Along this journey I met lots of people both within and outside this country, those who opened up their homes to us, those who joined us in this struggle, those who shared their experiences, mentored me through the journey and even shared their meals.
Ladies and gentlemen, my acceptance and receipt of this award and honor would be not be complete without paying tribute to the Great Chief Chopper and his desendants who are the protectors of Anam Naruko. The many gallant men and women who have made this milestone a reality, the staff and board of Friends of Lake Turkana, the Lake Turkana communities, the men and women who joined us on the streets demonstrating, signing court petitions or seeking redress through political representatives; to our partners both within country and outside the country. Our donors who believed in us to support our efforts, Dr Richard Leakey, Turkana Basin Institute and all scientists affiliated to the institute and to my family and loved ones who offered support, comfort, wisdom and motivation, and most of all the love to make it all worthwhile.
I must admit that I am humbled, honored, and at the same time excited to receive the Goldman Environmental Award. I feel a deep emotion and pride for the honor of having been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa 2012. A deep personal feeling and pride; for the values of the community and the people to which I belong. I consider this Prize, not as an award to me personally, but rather as one of the greatest conquests in the struggle for environmental justice and for the rights of communities.
Early this year our Prime Minister visited us in Turkana where we discussed the government's role in destroying Lake Turkana by signing on to buy power from Ethiopia, all he could say is “Angelei you cannot go on fighting neighboring countries”. A week later, our president, together with the president of South Sudan and Prime Minister of Ethiopia, stood at the coast of the country where our president publicly declared support for the Gibe 3 dam despite our concerns.
He ignored Parliament; He ignored the Omo Basin Communities; He ignored the Lake Turkana Communties.
With the reality of climate change and the destruction of our ecosystems that have served humanity for thousands of years evident before our very eyes, i remember the words of the strong musician and freedom fighter Miriam Makeba “Freedom is not given to you, you must take it”, a call to everyone of us to stand up and take our freedom; the freedom to protect and conserve our environment. To the governments who are compromising the environment in the name of development, we are telling you “ you cannot wish us away”.
To all the unsung heroes and heroines working to protect the delicate balance of nature and sustainability all over the world, you are an example of courage and solidarity, heroes who chose to fight for humanity, whose convictions led them to offer the ultimate sacrifice and suffer purges in their own countries and around the world; who take part in all the important social struggles of their day. Indeed, the environmental crisis is daunting. The work will not be easy. But take heart. To the Omo tribes in Ethiopia and all other peoples around the whorld who struggle for the protection of their environments, has seen some lose their lives or end up in prison, my heart bleeds for you, but at the same time my belief in the struggle gives hope if not to us, to the generations that come after us. As Martin Luther King told us, the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice. We shall overcome. I know that from personal experiences and experiences of those that have gone before us.
Many times people ask me why i do what i do, why we fight for the environment. And taking time before i answer, I reflect on lessons taught to me by my father, i realize that we must trivalize the labor of the past struggle, we must celebrate the gains that have been made while taking inspiration from the struggles to confront the challenges..... and after taking a few moments of silence, I have only one reason why I fight for this environment; I cannot watch as my people struggle for survival only to have scarce water stolen by a government that is supposed to protect them; TO NOT FIGHT IS NOT AN OPTION
With humility and gratitude I accept this award given to me today, While I am not worthy of this honor, I would be lying if I did not recognize that it makes me extremely proud to receive it, for its history and what it means for the commitment to the future of this passionate fight for mother earth as we are reminded by the African proverb that “The earth is not ours; it is a treasure we hold in trust for future generations”.
As the foreign ministers of Ethiopia and Egypt meet today at Addis Ababa to try to unlock a diplomatic deadlock – one with far greater implications than just diplomacy – over Ethiopia's plans to build a dam on one of the River Nile's major tributaries, a question arises as to whether Ethiopia has become too arrogant in its attempt to rejuvenate its economic growth.
The dam in question is the Grand Renaissance Dam being constructed along the Blue Nile River. If completed, this will be among the largest dams in the world and will join another rising colossus that is also under construction by the Ethiopians along the Omo River – the Gilgel Gibe III Dam. Ethiopia has already started diverting the waters of the Blue Nile as part of the construction process despite protests and thinly veiled threats of 'water wars' coming from the Egyptian government.
Perhaps the strongest sign that water wars are looming between the two countries is that immediately after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in May, Ethiopia announced that it was diverting the waters. What this could mean is that Ethiopia will forge on with their dam unfazed by any contrary opinion – even if their forging ahead threatens to catastrophically alter the existence of millions of people downstream.
Drawing parallels to Egypt's unfortunate situation with that facing Lake Turkana owing to the ongoing construction of Gibe III Dam along the Omo River – which contributes about 90% of all the water of Lake Turkana – one cannot fail to see a pattern of impunity in the Ethiopian Government: a government that will execute hugely disruptive projects without concern for contrary opinion even when such opinion is based on fact.
The repetitive chorus chanted by Ethiopia that the Grand Renaissance Dam will not affect the flow of the Nile, is the same empty rhetoric that has been applied in the case of Gibe III and Lake Turkana yet scientific evidence clearly shows that the Gibe dam will have a disastrous effect on Lake Turkana in Kenya and the Lower Omo Basin in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia also claims that the Grand Renaissance Dam will not be used for irrigation but only for Electricity generation. Nobody should believe that given that that is the same thing they say about Gibe III – and all consequent Gibes planned downstream of this third dam – yet we know that huge tracts of land in the Lower Omo have already been wrestled from indigenous Ethiopian populations and leased out to Asian entities to be converted into sugar and cotton plantations. Only a lunatic would believe that Ethiopia will not use the dam water for irrigation.
What then is the option for Ethiopia, Egypt and Kenya? These three African sisters - and all other nations in the world - should ponder on the big question of water scarcity that is escalating with the increasing severity of the effects of climate change and Africa's burgeoning populations. Currently, Egypt and Ethiopia have a combined population of almost 170-million people and this is projected to increase by another 100-million people by 2050. That can only mean that, climate change notwithstanding, water will definitely become an extremely dear commodity for both nations. Kenya on the other hand has more than 40-million thirsty inhabitants, a significant fraction of whom will be directly affected by the adverse effect of the Gibe III Dam on Lake Turkana.
Better ways of managing shared water and other natural resources are long overdue. If Ethiopia, Egypt and Kenya are to properly harness their water resources, mutually beneficial resource sharing methods have to be thought out and quickly implemented. Respect for the lives and well-being of downstream populations has to be paramount. Impunity has to end.