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.
Lake Turkana is the world’s largest permanent desert lake. Its lunar-like landscape features white dunes, and sparsely populated vegetation. Volcanic in origin, Lake Turkana is the most northerly of the Kenyan Rift Valley lakes, crossing over the border of Ethiopia. The climate is dry and arid, and sudden, violent storms are frequent. Central Island within Lake Turkana is an active volcano with visible vapors. Its extreme terrain and remote location makes it still one of the most wild and untouched regions.
Lake Turkana is home to large populations of Nile crocodiles, hippos, and over 40 different species of fish and venomous snakes. The Turkana region has been a treasure trove of archaeological findings including the skull of the species Homo Rudolfensis. The lake is now internationally recognized, and its national parks declared World Heritage Sites for its use as a stopping point for migratory birds, as a breeding ground for the Nile crocodile, hippopotamus, and snakes, as well as unique floral and fauna species-many of which are not yet well documented.
The Turkana region has been a treasure trove of archaeological findings including the skull of the species Homo Rudolfensis. Lake Turkana is now internationally recognized, and its national parks declared World Heritage Sites for its use as a stopping point for migratory birds, as a breeding ground for the Nile crocodile, hippopotamus, and snakes, as well as unique floral and fauna species-many of which are not yet well documented.
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.
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.