A new report documents how a dam and series of irrigation projects being built in Ethiopia threaten the world's largest desert lake, and the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on it. It describes how hydrological changes from the Gibe III Dam and irrigation projects now under construction in the Omo River Basin could turn Lake Turkana in Kenya into East Africa's Aral Sea (the infamous Central Asia lake that almost disappeared after the diversion of rivers that fed it).
The environmental impacts, which include a huge drop in the lake's level, could lead to a collapse of local livelihoods, and foment insecurity in the already conflict-ridden Horn of Africa.
Lake Turkana gets 90% of its water from the Omo River. Filling the dam's reservoir will significantly reduce the lake's inflow for a number of years. The further impact of water diversions for large irrigated plantations being developed in the Lower Omo could lead to the lake level dropping by as much as 22 meters (the average depth is just 30 meters), the paper reports. The dam will also reduce the flow of sediments, which will "lead to the loss of the ecologically productive floodplain used by wild species, fish, domestic stock and agriculture," according to the report.
The report's author states that the impacts to regional peace and security are likely to be severe, and could have global consequences: "The disruptions to the lands, waters, ecology and livelihoods of the peoples in this region will have immediate and substantial political consequences. Local groups displaced from their livelihoods and homelands are likely to seek out resources on the neighbors' lands in the Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands ... Well armed, primed by past grudges, and often divided by support from different state and local governments, these conflicts can be expected to be bloody and persistent."
International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana are calling for a halt to construction until there is a complete accounting of how the dam and irrigation projects will harm Lake Turkana, and a plan to ensure the lake does not suffer a hydrological collapse.
Gibe III Dam is about half complete, and construction on the sugar plantations is just starting. Hydrologists are calling for a plan to ensure adequate river flows to support Lake Turkana (called "environmental flows"). Jackie King, professor emeritus of the Institute of Water Studies at the University of Western Cape, says: "It is not yet too late to complete a transboundary environmental flow assessment that will allow both countries to see the costs and benefits of a number of options for designing and operating this dam (including a no dam option). The two countries could then negotiate a future development pathway based on these options that both could accept. It would have to be done very soon, before the dam is completed."
The report describes political interventions that could change this tragedy in the making. For example, China could withdraw from the project to avoid driving a wedge between Kenya and Ethiopia. In July 2010, China's largest bank, ICBC, approved a loan of $500 million for Dongfang Electric Machinery Corp., a Chinese state-owned company, which intends to provide equipment for the Gibe III project. China Development Bank has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ethiopia Sugar Corporation for a loan of $500 million to finance two sugar factories in the South Omo region. The two Chinese banks are the only international financiers for the dam and sugar projects, which have stirred international condemnation.
Despite the impacts to its own people and the lake, Kenya has agreed to purchase power from the dam, and the World Bank and African Development Bank have both agreed to fund the transmission line that will bring the dam's electricity to Kenya.
Ikal Angelei, founder of Friends of Lake Turkana and a 2012 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, said: "We are calling on the government of Kenya to respect the rights of its people and halt its involvement in power purchases from Gibe III Dam. We call on the bilateral agencies to recognize the destruction that the dam and large plantations will bring on Lake Turkana, and withdraw budget support for Ethiopia that will underwrite destructive infrastructure."
Although not directly involved in funding these destructive projects, Western governments do support Ethiopia with aid (it is estimated to accounts for at least half of government spending).
Lori Pottinger, Africa campaigner for International Rivers, says: "Ethiopia could not have built the Gibe III Dam without the budget support it receives from Western governments and the World Bank. These donors have a responsibility to intervene, and help stop the unfolding disaster in the Omo river basin."
There are many "wild cards" in this saga (including the problem of climate change), but one thing is certain, says the author: "The destruction of Turkana, if it proceeds, will become as notorious as that of the Aral Sea, tainting all those who perpetuate it."