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KENYA: Construction of Dam Will Devastate Local Communities

Susan Anyangu-Amu

NAIROBI, Mar 23 2010 (IPS) - Gideon Lepalo describes growing up in Loiyangalani, 20 kilometres from Lake Turkana, as magical. However, he fears the building of Gilgel Gibe III dam in Ethiopia, upstream of the Omo River, will soon mean that his childhood memories of the lake will be exactly that – memories.

According to an independent environmental impact assessment (EIA) done by the Africa Resources Working Group (ARWG), a cluster of eight scholars and consultants from the United States, Europe and Eastern Africa, the building of Gibe III upstream of the Omo River will cause a radical reduction of inflow of water into Lake Turkana in Kenya.

This is because the Omo River provides up to 90 percent of the total water flowing into Lake Turkana. The assessment states that up to 500,000 people living around the lake will be adversely affected by the building of the dam.

The result of this will be increased salinity conditions in the lake waters, rendering them unfit for human and livestock consumption. Also facing risk of destruction will be hundreds of aquatic species, which are unique to Lake Turkana and which residents rely on for food.

“There will be a drop in the lake level of up to 10 to 12 metres. Even a slight drop of as little as five metres would cause cessation of flooding, leading to a reduction in the lake’s water which will result in rising salinity. This will cause a destruction of significant commercial interests around the lake which include fishery and tourism,” the ARWG report estimates.

“Residents of Kalokol town on the southern side neighbouring Lodwar area are already feeling the impact of the damming upstream, the lake has gone up to three kilometres inside. As for my ethnic group the El Molo, we used to be close to the lake but now the water is moving inside,” Lepalo the executive director of Save Lake Turkana Project says.


Lake Turkana is considered the largest desert lake in the world, measuring about 7,000 square kilometres and it is fed by three rivers; the Omo of Ethiopia, the Turkwel and the Kerio. The Turkwel and the Kerio are largely seasonal rivers and Lake Turkana almost entirely depends on water from the Omo River where construction of the Gibe III dam started in 2006. Almost 30 percent of the work is complete.

Despite the economic viability of building the dam for Ethiopia, with 500 MW (slightly over a fifth of the country’s electricity needs) expected to be sold to Kenya, critics of the dam including environmentalist Dr Richard Leakey argue the plan is flawed.

The Ethiopian government says they need the dam as it will provide 1,800 MW of electricity, which will provide more than double the country’s current electricity-generating capacity. It will solve the country’s energy crisis and allow a surplus for export. However, Leakey argues the dam will produce far more electricity than the country is capable of consuming, and most will be exported to neighbouring countries of Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti.

“I think that this project is fatally flawed in terms of its logic, in terms of its thoroughness and in terms of its conclusions. It looks to me like the EIA was an inside job that has come up with the results that they were looking for to get the initial funding for this dam,” Leakey states.

Critics of the Gibe III dam state the EIA commissioned by the Ethiopian Government and done by Agriconsulting of Italy, was released in April 2008, two years after work on the dam had already began. They argue that this clearly indicates due process was not followed as an assessment should have been conducted prior to any construction.

According to the EIA commissioned by the Ethiopian Government, the dam will not cause any significant harm. The report states that the dam is necessary in order to preserve Lake Turkana and restore the region’s biological integrity and diversity. The report further states there are no people or ethnic minorities around the dam and reservoir area whose traditional lifestyles could become compromised through the implementation of the project.

However, Leakey says the building of the dam will produce a broad range of negative effects, some of which will be catastrophic to both the environment and the indigenous communities living downstream of the Omo River. The immediate consequence he foresees will be the aggravation of armed conflict between communities over the shrinking natural resources (water and pasture).

Lepalo agrees: “Communities living along the Ethiopian, Kenyan and Sudan borders are armed and continuously fight during the dry spells. Should the reprieve offered by the lake be tampered with, this is bound to explode into serious inter-border conflict.”

Leakey argues that evidence from independent EIA reports by scientists disputing the building of the dam should be reason enough to stop the project.

In February during an African Union conference, Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi signed a deal for a power-grid connection that would enable Kenya to benefit from the surplus electricity generated by the Gibe III dam.

In December 2009, Kenya’s Minister of Energy, Kiraitu Murungi, said Kenya is willing to import between 200 to 400 MW of electricity from Ethiopia. He expressed government’s commitment to the completion of Gibe III project.

“We want a clear report from the government why they have silently approved this onslaught on Lake Turkana. Why has the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) not done an independent environmental impact assessment and choose to rely on a report produced by the Ethiopians?” Lepalo asked.

Speaking to IPS, the acting corporate communications manager of NEMA, Wangari Kihara said the authority plans to carry out an independent EIA on the building of Gibe III on Lake Turkana after realising that the initial report may have been flawed.

Lepalo sees the move by NEMA as coming too late when 30 percent of the work is complete and deals between the two countries have already been signed. He argues Kenya has other viable opportunities of generating electricity from wind power technology and this is where the government’s focus should be.

“The government should concentrate on expanding the Lake Turkana Wind Power project which on completion will produce a third of Kenya’s electricity. This project can be expanded to serve domestic users and even export power,” Lepalo says.

The Spanish government has recently offered to finance the 150 million dollar wind power project in Lake Turkana. Once completed the project will produce 300 MW (20 percent of the national power production), which will represent a fifth of Kenya’s power generation capacity.

Lepalo and others on the campaign to save Lake Turkana warn they will embark on a 75-day trek from Nairobi to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to petition the African Union to intervene on the issue to force the two governments to re-evaluate the environmental impact of building the dam.

 
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