Kenya, Ethiopia in talks over threats to Lake Turkana

February 18, 2017 10:35 am
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Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu says the government had an agreement with the Ethiopian Government, which only allows the use of the water for hydro-power production only and not farming activities/FILE

, NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 18 – Talks are ongoing between the Government of Kenya and Ethiopia over the construction of Gibe 1, 2, & dams which according to human rights defenders, risk drying Lake Turkana.

Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu says the government had an agreement with the Ethiopian Government, which only allows the use of the water for hydro-power production only and not farming activities.

“There is an agreement between Kenya and Ethiopia, and also there is a general agreement in international law that when you have trans-boundary resources, both countries should agree on it,” she stated.

“Development of a trans-boundary resource should not affect the other country. That is the issue there. With Gibe 1, 2 & 3 when it come to generating hydropower, we as a country we do not have an issue because you are simply storing the water and realizing it, but when it comes to agro-chemicals, that has a negative effect and discussion are ongoing with the Government of Ethiopia.”

A report by Human Rights Watch indicates that dropping water levels in Lake Turkana following the development of dams and plantations in Ethiopia’s lower Omo Valley threaten the livelihoods of half a million indigenous people in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Based on publicly available data from the United States Department of Agriculture, Lake Turkana’s water levels have dropped by approximately 1.5 meters since January 2015, and further reduction is likely without urgent efforts to mitigate the impact of Ethiopia’s actions.

Human Rights Watch research based on satellite imagery shows that the drop is already affecting the shoreline of the lake, which has receded as much as 1.7 kilometres in Ferguson Gulf since November 2014.

The gulf is a critical fish breeding area and a key fishing ground for the indigenous Turkana people.

“The predicted drop in the lake levels will seriously affect food supplies in the Omo Valley and Lake Turkana, which provide the livelihoods for half a million people in both Kenya and Ethiopia,” Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch said.

“The Ethiopian government’s moves to develop its resources should not endanger the survival of indigenous people living downstream.”

In 2015, the reservoir behind the new Gibe III dam in Ethiopia began filling.

Water that previously flowed unimpeded into Lake Turkana, replenishing seasonal drops in lake levels, has since been held behind the Gibe III dam according to Human Rights Watch.

In 2015 the annual July-November flood from the Omo River into Lake Turkana, they say it did not occur, resulting in a drop in water levels of 1.3 meters from November 2014.

The very limited artificial release of water from Gibe III in 2016 was not enough to replenish water levels in Lake Turkana, reads the HRW report.

According to HWR, as of January 30, 2017, lake levels were approximately 1.5 meters lower than they were two years earlier according to the data.

People living in fishing communities along Lake Turkana who spoke to Human Rights Watch in August 2016,”were generally aware of the risks posed by Gibe III but largely uninformed about the plantations and the devastating impact they could have on their livelihoods.”

The report by the right group accuses the Kenyan government of doing little to address the impact of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley development, or to press them to take steps to mitigate the damage and to consult with and inform affected communities about the impact of the project.

“The governments of Kenya and Ethiopia should urgently work with these communities to ensure upstream industrial works does not devastate their livelihoods,” Human Rights Watch said.

Ethiopia’s Gibe III dam, which opened on December 17, 2016, is a key component of a massive industrial project in the lower Omo Valley that includes a cascade of water-intensive mega dams, and sugar and cotton plantations.

The sugar plantations have been under development in the Omo Valley since 2011.

Based on Human Rights Watch estimates derived from satellite imagery, approximately 19,500 hectares of land has been cleared on the east bank of the river for sugar plantation development.

An additional 10,500 hectares has been prepared for irrigation on the west bank. The sugar plantations are planned to be 100,000 hectares. According to the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation, the first of the four sugar processing factories should be ready to begin production in early 2017.

In Ethiopia, livelihoods of those living in the Omo Valley depend on cattle grazing and planting crops in the rich alluvial soil along the banks of the Omo River.

Lack of floods in 2015 and an inadequate artificial flood in 2016 are making it more difficult to grow food along the Omo River.

Some communities have also reported restricted access to the Omo River and food shortages in 2016.

Impacts of Climate Change

According to Kenya’s Drought Management Authority data from January 2017, the 2016 October-December rains were the shortest in recent years in Kenya, leaving 2.7 million people depending on relief assistance. Turkana was one of the counties most affected.

Traditionally, in times of drought, many pastoralist communities dig in dry riverbeds for water and turn to the lake for fishing.

However, Turkana County officials told Human Rights Watch that the combination of threats to the lake and climate change will make it very difficult for the Turkana people.

The Kenyan Climate Change Law passed in May 2016, if rigorously carried out, could improve coordination and governance of national and local policies related to climate change, and ensure that the rights of indigenous peoples are respected.

The law mandates the participation of a representative from a “marginalized community” who has “experience in matters relating to indigenous knowledge” as a member of the new National Climate Change Council.

Ethiopian Ambassador to Kenya Dina Mufti however on Friday said both countries have a team of officials from both sides that deals with possible environmental problems from the project.

“This is a baseless allegation concocted against the Gibe project that the Ethiopian government is undertaking for the only generation of hydropower. Ethiopia and Kenya have Joint mechanisms called Joint Ministerial Commission (JMC) and Joint Border,” he said.

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