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By Survival International:

Lower Omo boy. Courtesy Survival International

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.



The World Heritage Centre and IUCN have jointly decided to inscribe the Lake Turkana Parks heritage site into the List of World Heritage in Danger. This decision is awaiting approval by the World Heritage Committee during their 36th session at St. Petersburg, Russia, June 24 till July 6, 2012.

The decision is based on findings of the joint mission visit to Lake Turkana 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 larger developments in northern Kenya. The joint team concludes that these dangers are severe enough to place the Lake Turkana heritage site in the danger list.

Gibe 3 Dam and associated irrigation plans is the biggest danger to the lake. Gibe 3, according to the official Ethiopian website for the project, is 50% complete and it will take 3 years to fill up once completed. During this 3-year period, the water levels on Lake Turkana will reduce by 1.65 to 4m above normal flactuation levels according to joint team's models. But this is not the biggest problem. According to the team's assessment:

After filling is complete and if no water would be extracted from the Omo river downstream of the dam, normal river flow volumes would return to the lake, but it could take 12 years for the lake to return to its equilibrium level. Thus the impact of filling may last 15 years in total. The drop in water levels will move the shoreline of the lake significantly, particularly in the northern part of the lake where two components of the property are located (estimated at 2-3 km minimum at a drop of 1.65 m). This significant drop in lake levels could result in increased salinity and in likely impacts on wildlife which depends on the riparian flood plains and wetland habitats along the lake’s shore for food and breeding as well as on fish stocks as a result of the drying out of major fish spawning areas, such as Ferguson’s Gulf and the delta of the Omo River)

There will also be direct impacts of reduced oscillation due to the dams flood control capacity. Cummulative irrigation projects in the Lower Omo will complicate this matter further. For instance "the Kuraz sugar development is already under construction and there are plans to convert 278,000 ha of land along the river to sugar plantations and other agricultural developments using irrigation. The African Development Bank study cites the Omo-Gibe basin master plan in which irrigation developments by 2024 would use 16% of the basin’s water and calculates this would lead to a reduction in lake level of 8.4 m. This is a significant hydrological change to the lake."

The World Heritage and IUCN team cites many other reasons for inscribing Lake Turkana into the danger list. You can read the section on Lake Turkana in their report which can be downloaded here. Lake Turkana is on page 11 of this PDF document.

The Gibe hydroelectric project is one of a series of damming projects that have been undertaken by the Ethiopian government. The project is a public-private partnership planned as a 25 year national energy master plan of Ethiopia. The planned increase in power generation, however far exceeds domestic needs with the surplus which is estimated at 50 percent being exported to the neighboring countries including Kenya which the Ethiopian Electric Power Company (EEPCo) predicts to export 500MW to.

Download Gibe III Fact sheet and other documents here to obtain more background information pertaining to the Gibe III project.

The Gibe III threatens the biodiversity, livelihoods, and development of Northern Kenya, yet these potential risks have not been taken into account in the project planning by the Government of Ethiopia. The project has been opposed by local and international environmental and human rights groups and advocates. However, it was ultimately approved based on an incomplete Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that did not adequately take into account the perspectives of indigenous communities around Lake Turkana.

To find out more about the threats the Lake faces with its construction, click here

Despite the potential impacts of the dam on the lake’s ecosystem and livelihoods, Ethiopia has continued to pursue the project without an adequate environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) or proper consultation with the Lake Turkana Basin communities. FoLT is therefore working to bring attention to the impacts which Gibe III Dam will have on the Lake Turkana region and peoples and to find lasting solutions to this social injustice.

Visit our news or blog pages to read articles to learn more about our activities to oppose the Gibe III project.


By Ellie Peters (BA, ’13), 2012 Nicholas School Undergraduate Communications Intern

Ikal in TurkanaDURHAM, 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... 


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

filmmakers John Antonelli and Will Parrinello

Globally there has been an increase in concern over the environmental degradation and the need for greater environmental protection and management.

All ecosystems of the world are potentially affected by man’s activities, but wetlands are especially fragile and often neglected. Wetlands are neither well understood nor appreciated and have been increasingly under natural and human pressures in all parts of the globe and especially in Africa.

The GIBE III project is one of a series of damming projects that have been undertaken by the Ethiopian government. The Gibe III hydroelectric project on the Omo River is a public-private partnership planned as a 25year national energy master plan of Ethiopia. The planned increase in power generation, however far exceeds domestic needs with the surplus which is estimated at fifty percent being exported to the neighboring countries including Kenya which the Ethiopian Electric Power Company (EEPCo) predicts to export 500MW to.

The Omo River is a transboundary river that contributes at least 80 percent of the waters of Lake Turkana. Its terminus is at northern end of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, and most of the Omo Delta is in Kenya. A sharp reduction in the Omo’s downstream flow volume would cause a significant retreat of Lake Turkana.

An assessment of the overall impact of the proposed Gibe III project on the Lake Turkana, in Kenya must begin with the direct impact of the reduced flow into the lake, since the Omo River is the major source of water for Lake Turkana. Reduction in flow volume from reservoir filling would be the primary impact.

Based on a combination of calculations from satellite imagery, and published flow data, it is reasonable to say that the effect of the flow on the Lake Turkana can be established. Therefore, concluding that over the first five years, there would be a loss of about 53.5km3 of water from the lake, corresponding to a drop of about 7 meters. This should be considered as a conservative estimate: an alternative estimate, based on other available data is 10meters.

Using bathymetric data for Lake Turkana, it is possible to predict that the Omo delta and the northern section of the lake will desiccate, and the shorelines would recede to almost the halfway point, southward along the lake. A salinity increase in the lake is likely to severely affect the aquatic salinity of the lake which is already barely portable. Concentrations of the ions in the lake will. The effect of this is increased concentration on fish populations and on the usefulness of the lake for watering livestock and for human consumption will need to be determined. In turn the region’s livelihood systems-particularly those of the Turkana, Dassanech, Rendille., Samburu and other groups in Kenya would be significantly impacted as they are dependant upon recession cultivation, lakeside livestock grazing and watering at the lake, and fishing.

The Omo Delta and northern shoreline area have long provided habitat for a unique abundance of hippopotamus and Nile crocodile, with extraordinary numbers of water birds. This entire area would be the first part of Lake Turkana to undergo major destruction of habitat and wildlife. Consequently, the unique floral and faunal systems of Lake Turkana would likely be threatened with major destruction. The lake is now internationally recognized, including as a World Heritage Site for its abundance of wildlife, as well as unique floral and fauna species-many of which are barely described or understood, from an ecological perspective.


In a remote part of East Africa, the Ethiopian government is furtively transforming a pastoral landscape populated by indigenous agro-pastoralists into an industrial powerhouse of dams and plantations. While the government says these developments are intended to reduce poverty, those on the ground see their land and water being taken from them, their homesteads bulldozed, their choices narrowed. Impacts will be felt all the way to Kenya.

The developments in the Lower Omo Valley pivot on the construction of the hugeGibe III Dam, a hydropower project that also regulates river flows to support year-round commercial agriculture. The dam's reservoir could begin filling in May, bringing major changes to the Omo's flow. A new film by International Rivers, A Cascade of Development on the Omo River, reveals the hydrological havoc that could ensue.

The biggest hydrological risks actually come from what is happening on the land. A government plan to convert hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to irrigated plantations could be devastating to people and ecosystems downstream. Information is hard to come by on these land conversions, so Human Rights Watch (HRW) used high-tech tools to document the changes. HRW's new analysis of satellite imagesreveals that the Ethiopian government continues to clear land used by indigenous groups to make way for state-run sugar plantations in the Lower Omo. The group reports that virtually all of the traditional lands of the 7,000-member Bodi indigenous group have been cleared in the past 15 months. Human rights abuses have accompanied the land grabs.

These massive developments will usurp the vast majority of the water in the Omo River basin, potentially devastating the livelihoods of the 500,000 indigenous peoplewho directly or indirectly rely on the Omo's waters for their livelihoods.

Most significantly, the changes in river flow caused by the dam and the irrigation schemes could cause a huge drop in the water levels of Kenya's Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The lake, which receives 90 percent of its water from the Omo River, is projected to drop by about two meters during the initial filling of the dam. If current plans to create new plantations continue to move forward, the lake could drop as much as 16 to 22 meters. The average depth of the lake is just 31 meters.

The Big Dry Begins
This will be the first year that river flow past the Gibe III Dam is almost completely blocked. Reservoir filling is expected to take up to three years, and during this time the Omo River's annual flow could drop by as much as 70%. After this initial shock, regular dam operations will continue to devastate ecosystems and local livelihoods. Changes to the river's flooding regime will harm yields from flood-recession agriculture, prevent the replenishment of important grazing areas, and reduce fish populations -- all critical resources for livelihoods of local indigenous groups.

In a positive first step, the Ethiopian government has agreed to discuss joint management of the Omo Basin with the Kenyan government. To give this process weight and greater legitimacy, organizers should ensure that affected people are able to directly voice their concerns.

Although the dam seems to be a fait accompli, there are still options for managing the river in a way to reduce the risk that Lake Turkana becomes the planet's next Aral Sea. A process to devise a dam-management system of more natural flows (called"environmental flows") could reduce the worst social and environmental impacts of the dam and irrigation schemes.

To show it is serious about sustainable management of this important lifeline, the Ethiopian government should halt water withdrawals until a cumulative environmental-impact assessment of all developments in the Lower Omo is carried out by internationally reputable experts. Ethiopia should also commit to abiding by the assessment's findings on how much water the river needs to keep Lake Turkana healthy.

A large percentage of Ethiopia's budget comes from Western donors. These donorsmust play a bigger role in monitoring the situation now unfolding in the Lower Omo, and be prepared to put forth sticks along with the carrots if significant progress isn't made in resolving these problems. To turn a blind eye would make them complicit in large-scale human rights violations and environmental destruction.

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Ikal Angelei at Lake Turkana

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

Ikal Angelei with Turkana community

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”.

Sean Avery is a man on a mission. The Kenya-based hydrologist and civil engineer is the leading authority on the hydrological workings of Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, and he's extremely worried about its future.

The cause for his concern is a boom in river-crippling projects being built upstream in Ethiopia, on a river that is the primary water source for the lake. The huge Gibe III Dam and related irrigation developments now under construction in the Lower Omo Valley will regulate and divert large quantities of the lake's inflow into the lake, which could dry up a good portion of this ancient water body and forever change its ecological balance, its thriving fisheries, and the landscape around it. For hundreds of thousands of people who call the lake environment home, these changes could bring a slow death of their livelihoods and communities.

It is hard to believe that the planet could lose another of its big lakes from human hubris, but Lake Turkana is indeed set to become the next Lake Chad or Aral Sea, both of which lie near death from ill-conceived water diversions and dams. If the world allows Lake Turkana to become "Turkana Pond," we will lose a startling emerald jewel of a lake in a vast desert; rich biodiversity that borders on the prehistoric, and unique communities and cultures that reflect back on this distinctive place.

Dr. Avery, who's been visiting Lake Turkana for more than three decades, has spent the past few years steadily documenting how these upstream developments could lead to its ecocide. His latest report, "What Future for Lake Turkana", recently published by Oxford University's African Studies Centre, is a clear-eyed, unyielding, scientifically grounded cry for help.

The irrigation schemes are the wild card. If the government's grandiose plans come to fruition, the lake will certainly die. Avery notes that just one of the irrigated plantations being implemented in the Lower Omo is almost equal to the entire current irrigated area of Kenya, stating: "Irrigation development on this scale will require a huge rate of water abstraction from the Omo... up to 50 percent of the lake's inflow could be abstracted for irrigation alone." He calculates that such abstractions will drop the 30-meter-deep lake's level by 20 meters.

The state-run Ethiopian Sugar Corporation intends to develop 150,000 hectares of irrigated sugar plantations in the Lower Omo. Thousands of agro-pastoralist people are being pushed off their lands and into government villages for these developments, and being told to learn how to become sedentary "modern" farmers. Vast tracts of land have also been taken from existing protected areas. Other lands have been allocated to private investors. The Omo Valley has become the site not just of Ethiopia's largest water grab, but also a vast land grab, where well-connected Ethiopians and international investors are making moves to develop big plantations, mostly for export crops and sugar, while human rights abuses of local people escalate.

Because the consequences of these profligate irrigation abstractions were not mentioned in any of the environmental impact assessments commissioned by the dam builders, Dr. Avery began assessing them in a detailed 2010 report for the African Development Bank. Next he wrote a lengthy and detailed update to this, having gotten new, more shocking information about the extent of irrigation planned for the Lower Omo. Like many strong but "technical" scientific reports, his past reports have not had a wide audience. His new report is targeted for the rest of us: written for non-scientists, shorter, graphically beautiful. It's time for the rest of us to pay attention.

Where to from here?
Sean Avery is not alone in his effort to try to turn this story around. Many academics and activists have been warning of the dire consequences these projects will cause if they continue as planned. A recent article in the Kenyan newspaper The Star quotes veteran archaeologist Dr. Richard Leakey on the risks: "This is a global disaster in waiting. Lake Turkana is going to dry up." Friends of Lake Turkana, a Kenyan NGO, has been campaigning for many years to register local peoples' concerns and stir political action from Kenya. Human Rights Watch, Oakland InstituteSurvival International and my own organization are just a few that have been working to raise awareness on the situation in recent years. UNEP recently launched an effort to bring the two governments together to discuss how to share this important river.

All of these efforts would be nearly impossible without the careful work of the Dr. Averys of the world.

As we reach the knife's edge of decision-making on developments in the Omo, there is still time for Ethiopia to make changes that could save Lake Turkana.

A first step would be to undertake integrated water-resources management planning for the Lower Omo. This would establish the water needs of all stakeholders in the basin (including ecosystems), analyze the carrying capacity of the river in regards to future dams and plantations, and change development plans to meet these needs. Given the likelihood that Gibe III will be completed (it is about 75 percent complete now), the process could also review the potential for environmental flows -- a system for managing the quantity and timing of water flows below a dam to sustain ecosystems and human livelihoods that depend on them.

Such an ambitious basin-management process would require unprecedented cooperation and openness for these two governments. Yet the stakes are so high, the evidence so clear, that it's hard to imagine the impasse will continue, and the blinders will stay on. We'll be watching and waiting from the sidelines, with every hope that Dr. Avery won't, in the end, need to say "I told you so" about Lake Turkana.

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