By Peter Bosshard
July 22, 2011
[The full text of the following blog post, with images and links to all
background documents, is available at
Places like the Grand Canyon, Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China are of
such outstanding cultural or natural value that the world's governments
have committed to protect and preserve them for future generations. The
UN's World Heritage Committee recently called on the Ethiopian
government and Chinese financiers to suspend the Gibe III hydropower
project to fulfill their obligation for the protection of such a site.
Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya is the world's largest desert lake.
According to the World Heritage Committee, its unique ecosystem has made
it "an outstanding laboratory for the study of plant and animal
communities." The area's rich fossil finds have allowed reconstructing
the history of animal species and mankind over the past 2 million years.
Thanks to these unique properties, Lake Turkana was recognized and
protected as a World Heritage Site in 1997.
Lake Turkana's umbilical cord is the Omo River, on which it depends for
close to 90 percent of its water inflow. The Gibe III Dam, which is
currently under construction in Ethiopia, would disrupt this water
supply. It would store almost a full year's worth of the river's flow,
divert more water for the irrigation of sugar cane plantations, and
completely alter the river's natural cycle, on which the fragile
ecosystems of the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana have come to depend
over thousands of years. A study commissioned by the African Development
Bank found that the dam would likely cause a significant drop in the
lake's water level, increase its salinity, and threaten the unique
ecosystem for which the lake was recognized as a World Heritage Site in
the first place.
The Gibe III Dam is being built by an Italian company. ICBC, a Chinese
state-owned bank, has approved funding for the project, and China's
export credit agency is financing the transmission lines. The dam would
not only have devastating impacts on the Omo River and Lake Turkana, but
also on the 500,000 indigenous people who depend on the river and lake
for their livelihoods.
The threats posed to Lake Turkana spurred the World Heritage Centre,
which coordinates international efforts regarding World Heritage Sites
on a daily basis, into action. In March 2011, the Centre expressed
concern about the construction of the Gibe III Dam in a letter to the
Ethiopian government and requested additional information, including the
project's environmental impact assessment. The government claimed that
it had taken precautionary measures to protect Lake Turkana, but did not
provide any relevant documents to the Centre.
In June 2011 the World Heritage Committee, which oversees the protection
of World Heritage Sites around the globe, convened for its annual
meeting. The Committee took note of the threats and decided to take
action for the protection of Lake Turkana and a host of other sites. It
expressed "utmost concern" about the proposed construction of the Gibe
III Dam and urged the Ethiopian government to "immediately halt all
construction" on the project. It asked the governments of Kenya and
Ethiopia to invite a monitoring mission to review the dam's impacts on
Lake Turkana, and encouraged financial institutions "to put on hold
their financial support" until the Committee's next annual meeting in
June 2012. Interestingly, both China and Ethiopia are currently among
the 21 members of the World Heritage Committee.
Lake Turkana is not the only World Heritage Site which is threatened by
dam construction. In a report to the Committee, the World Heritage
Centre and the World Conservation Union IUCN proposed that "all major
dams affecting World Heritage properties (…) should undergo thorough
environmental and social impact assessments in line with the
international best practice principles, comply with the World Commission
on Dams (WCD) guidelines regarding options assessment, public
participation, environmental flows, compliance, and benefit sharing, and
be submitted to the World Heritage Committee for review and
consideration prior to granting of approval."
China and Ethiopia both have important World Heritage Sites, including
the Summer Palace, the Great Panda sanctuaries of Sichuan, and the Lower
Awash Valley where the remains of the famous Lucy were found within
their borders. When they signed the World Heritage Convention, the two
countries accepted an international legal responsibility to protect such
sites around the world. With the decision of the World Heritage
Committee, the Gibe III Dam is no longer a matter of debate between dam
builders, affected communities and environmental organizations. The
governments of Ethiopia and China now have a duty to act.
Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs
at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard and tweets
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