Lake Turkana threatened by Ethiopian dam

Fishermen in Lake Turkana head out for their daily catch/AFP

LOYANGALANI, Kenya, Jun 8 – The fishermen and herders eking out an existence on the shores of the majestic Lake Turkana risk having their way of life destroyed by a giant dam under construction in Ethiopia, their neighbour to the north.

Glittering jade under the scorching sun, Lake Turkana is a fragile jewel in an arid environment already hit by global warming. At 250 kilometres (150 miles) long by 60 kilometres wide at its largest point, it is the world’s biggest desert lake.

“This is a precious lake, an amazingly beautiful one and maybe in 60 years from now you will not see the people here, nor the fish. and you will have a dead lake,” Joseph Lekuton, a local legislator, warns.

Flowing down from the north, the river Omo supplies Lake Turkana with 80 percent of its water. Since 2006, Ethiopia has been building a dam several hundreds of kilometres upstream that will on completion be Africa’s highest.

The 243-metre-high Gibe III dam will create a reservoir covering 210 square kilometres (80 square miles).

In 2006 Kenya, which struggles to cover its energy needs, signed an agreement with Ethiopia to import up to 500 MW produced by the dam.

For the people living around Lake Turkana that was seen as an act of betrayal.

UNESCO — which classes part of the lake as a World Heritage site — condemned the Ethiopian dam project.

China stepped in to finance the project and around 50 percent of the dam has already been built.

Crusading environmentalist Ikal Angelei, who founded the Friends of Lake Turkana pressure group in 2008, estimates that water levels in the lake will go down by two to five metres as the dam’s reservoir fills up and will never return to normal.

“We are really definitely duplicating the Aral sea (devastated since the 1960s when water was pumped out to grow cotton) — building a dam and now putting sugarcane and cotton plantations downstream in the Omo basin, all things that will reduce the amount of water flowing into the lake,” Angelei said.

The surface area of the lake has already shrunk by dozens of metres over the past few years as rising temperatures have led to increased evaporation. That is in a region where temperatures already climb to over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for most of the year.

– ‘Really scary to think what could happen’–

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Fighting between communities for control of watering holes for livestock and grazing land has become more common as water has become scarcer and a year ago Turkana was the area of Kenya hit hardest by the drought and famine that struck East Africa.

“We have adapted to the changes over the years and we have built a sense of resilience but now we have reached a tipping point,” said Angelei, who earlier this year won the prestigious Goldman prize — considered a sort of Nobel prize for environmentalists.

“Should we have an abrupt change, it is really scary to think what could happen,” she went on, raising the spectre of local people becoming dependent on food aid or being herded into displaced camps.

Lake Turkana is “a very fragile ecosystem”, and data on the dam’s potential impact has been limited, according to Achim Steiner, executive director for the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme.

“There is a reason to be concerned [because] the environmental assessment, the hydrological data, the models have not been as public as perhaps some would have wished them to be,” Steiner said.

“If at the end the result of the dam being constructed and operated is that the ecosystem can no longer function the way it had over hundreds or thousands of years, then clearly you have a major disruption, and neither the Kenyan nor the Ethiopian authorities would like it to happen,” Steiner said.

“But these things need to be studied, discussed and assessed in advance, not after the fact.”

Meanwhile, some activists are already resigned to the fact that the dam will be finished and are already looking ahead to what can be done next.

“To be very honest it is only a matter of time before the Chinese release the money to complete the dam… so our next plan of action is to develop something akin to the Nile water basin whereby we would have a stake in what happens upstream,” said Gideon Lepalo, director of the Save Lake Turkana Campaign project.

“I have very good memories of the lake as a child,” he said, adding that it pained him that his children would not have similar memories to hold on to.

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  • lee

    Let me respond to this article point by point, because there are so many absurdities and contradictions.First of all, if the people of Lake Turkana are “eking out an existence” already, doesn’t that tell you they should progress to a lifestyle that is more economically viable? On that note, I don’t understand how receiving 500 MW of abundant – and affordable – electricity from their neighbor, Ethiopia, is an “act of betrayal” and not as one of advancement for the poor.  And who cares about a UNESCO World Heritage Site?  That’s of little consolation to poor Ethiopians (and Kenyans) who desperately need electricity.
    Ikal Angelei admits “We have adapted to changes over the years and we have built a sense of resilience but now we have reached a tipping point ”.  Acknowledging this resilience, it should be no stretch of the imagination that Kenyans would be able to make a transition from a way of life that leaves you at the mercy of nature to one that mitigates and protects you from the effects of it.  
    The article adds that her comment “raises the specter of local people becoming dependent on food aid or being herded into displaced camps.”  And yet it was a year ago that Turkana, as the article mentions, was the “hardest hit by the drought and famine that struck East Africa”.  So the “specter” had already become a reality.  Conflict over water and land already exists.  But if people don’t have to depend on scarce resources – as well as ocassional food aid – then this won’t be a problem.  In the West, we can have running water, electricity, modern infrastructure, sanitation, and so forth, but are we to assume that Turkanans, Ethiopians, and all Africans don’t want the same?  
    Achim Steiner, warns us about the Gibe III dam destroying “a very fragile ecosystem” and adds emphasis by saying “neither the Kenyan nor the Ethiopian authorities would like it to happen”.    If that were the case, the two countries wouldn’t have signed a power agreement; Ethiopia would immediately cease construction of the dam.  And being a true environmentalist, Achim speaks nothing of the “fragile” lives of poor Ethiopians.   He’s worried about “ the environmental assessment, the hydrological data, the models…”  and perhaps some species of fish.  Ethiopians who live in substandard conditions are more concerned with providing a better life for themselves and their future generations.  I’m sorry, but the environmental perspective does not have any moral superiority in this issue.
    And finally, the article wraps up with a very conspicuous statement from the director of Save Lake Turkana Campaign, Gideon Lepalo, “To be very honest it is only a matter of time before the Chinese release the money to complete the dam…” he says “so our next plan of action is to develop something akin to the Nile water basin whereby we would have a stake in what happens upstream,”.  
    What possible “stake” could he be speaking of?  This is a vague threat against Ethiopia’s sovereignty.  I’m really interested to know what this “next plan of action” could be.  If Gideon Lepalo is trying to use the 1929 Nile River Treaty as a point of reference, then he’s out of luck, because that was a long-antiquated colonial agreement, that was not just unfair, but obsolete.   Although, I wouldn’t be surprised.  Another environmental activist group, International Rivers has unashamedly defended Egypt’s so-called right to the Nile (and that means projects that take place in all upstream countries), invoking the 1929 agreement, in opposing Ethiopia’s other dam – the Grand Renaissance.  
    I think it is obvious, these environmentalists and human rights organizations want Africans to be perpetually poor, depending on foreign aid, from cradle to grave, never finding a way out.  They have been running a welfare system for decades.  Basically, they give Africans just enough to survive, but not enough to become economically independent.  Meanwhile, activists can feel good about themselves and how wonderful their paternalism is – as long as Africans remain poor.  And so when they see Africans weening themselves off of foreign aid, they get offended.  

    • Josiah Gaxx Isaboke

      The fact is things are changing fast and we kenyans should learn to change with the times…UNESCO wants this folks to live like they have been living for the last 500 + years so they can have stories to tell to the world and get Aid.you want to give handouts to people forever when they can get out their cocoons into a civilised world that doesn´t have to depend on the ever changing environment…As a Kenyan who keeps seeing this play on and on i say ENOUGH…High five Ethiopia for thinking ahead and maybe this guys should learn to go with the times