Chinese loans could fuel regional conflict in East Africa
chinadialogue, January 14, 2012
[Note: A Chinese version of this commentary appeared at
A full report on the topic appeared at
Dam and irrigation projects could spark "bloody and persistent"
conflict, suggests Peter Bosshard of International Rivers.
China has made great efforts to support poverty reduction in Africa, and
likes to present itself as a friend of the African people. But loans for
contentious dam and irrigation projects now threaten to pull China into
an explosive regional conflict between well-armed groups in Kenya,
Ethiopia and South Sudan.
The Lower Omo Valley in south-west Ethiopia and Lake Turkana in Northern
Kenya are marked by a harsh climate and unique, fragile ecosystems. They
are home to 12 indigenous peoples, one of the largest remaining wildlife
migrations, and some of the earliest remains of the human species.
The region is currently being transformed by one of Africa's biggest and
most controversial infrastructure ventures. Once completed, the Gibe III
hydropower project will dam the Omo River to generate electricity with a
capacity of 1,870 megawatts. It will also allow the irrigation of 2,450
square kilometres of sugar plantations, which are currently being
developed on indigenous lands and in national parks.
Scientific report documents looming environmental disaster
The dam and irrigation projects have been debated for many years.
Reports commissioned and prepared by the African Development Bank,
International Rivers, the World Heritage Committee and the Ethiopian
Wildlife Conservation Authority have documented their impacts on the
fragile ecosystems of the Lower Omo River and Lake Turkana, the 500,000
indigenous people who depend on them, and the unique cultural heritage
of this cradle of humankind.
A new scientific study published by the NGO International Rivers
explores the social and environmental impacts of the project in detail,
and examines the knock-on effects of the impending ecological crisis on
the security of the volatile border region of Ethiopia, Kenya and South
Sudan. The study confirms that Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert
lake, almost completely depends on the inflows from the Omo River, and
that the lake's unique ecosystems and fisheries are closely linked to
the river's annual flood cycle.
The dam and sugar plantations will affect this ecosystem in several
ways. The dam will interrupt the annual flood of the Omo River, which
sustains the agriculture, grazing lands and fisheries of the region. The
filling of the Gibe III reservoir will lower the water level of Lake
Turkana by two metres. The sugar plantations will divert at least 28% of
the Omo River's annual flow, and lower the lake's water level by at
least 13 metres.
With a more realistic assessment of the water demand of the plantations,
the report's author estimates that Lake Turkana will lose more than half
of its current volume, and its water level will drop by 22 metres. This
will split the lake in two, and likely turn the water in the southern
half so saline it will become undrinkable.
The new paper compares the forced modernisation of the Lower Omo Valley
to China's Great Leap Forward. It concludes that "the long-term effect
will parallel what has happened to the Aral Sea in Central Asia", which
was almost sucked dry by cotton plantations, turning the region into a
Will resource conflicts spiral out of control?
The indigenous peoples of the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana are
extremely poor, but well-armed. They have a long history of resource
conflicts over water, fisheries and grazing land. Chinese media have
already warned that the disputed Gibe III Dam "fuels Ethiopia-Kenya
border attacks". According to the new report, these conflicts will
escalate and may spiral out of control if the dam and irrigation
projects are completed.
The report warns: "Local groups displaced from their livelihoods and
homelands will seek out resources on the lands of their neighbors in the
Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands. Based on the recent history of
conflict among local communities in this region, they can be expected to
react largely through raids and warfare. 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. In fact they are already under way."
Once the projects are completed, the northern shore of Lake Turkana will
retreat from Ethiopia into Kenya. Peoples such as the Dassanech will
have to follow the shoreline into Kenya in order maintain their access
to the lake. The shrinking of Lake Turkana will also remove a buffer
between the peoples of the western shore, particularly the Turkana, and
inhabitants of the adjacent shore such as the Gabbra.
Such migrations and conflicts will likely push people into the disputed
Ilemi Triangle between Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia, across the
Ugandan border, and into the Borana region east of Lake Turkana. Groups
of displaced people will also seek refuge in urban slums and rural
famine camps, which will breed their own violence and despair. The
report's author, who has to remain anonymous, warns of "inflamed
cross-border tensions" between Kenya and Ethiopia at a time when oil has
been found near Lake Turkana, and when Ethiopia is looking for better
integration with Kenya for access to the sea.
The Ethiopian power utility promises that brief artificial floods will
help mitigate the environmental impacts of the project. It argues that
"the possibility to control flooding" through the Gibe III Dam will make
irrigated agriculture possible and prevent occasional destructive
floods. The Ethiopian government also points out that the Kenyan power
utility has agreed to import electricity from the Gibe III Project, even
though the Kenyan parliament passed a resolution against this.
Chinese support at the core of the conflict
In the years after 2006, the Ethiopian government tried to raise funds
for the multi-billion dollar projects on the Omo River from the World
Bank, the African Development Bank and other international financiers.
Due to the controversy over the social and environmental impacts, none
of these funders got involved. Only the Industrial and Commercial Bank
of China (ICBC) stepped forward and approved a loan for a US$500 million
turbine contract of Dongfang Electric for the Gibe III Dam in August
2010. In September 2012, the China Development Bank (CDB) signed a
memorandum of understanding with the Ethiopia Sugar Corporation for
another loan of US$500 million for the construction of sugar factories
in the Lower Omo Valley.
The Gibe III Dam and the sugar plantations will threaten World Heritage
Sites in the Lower Omo Valley and near Lake Turkana. In June 2011, the
UN World Heritage Committee called on the Ethiopian government to
"immediately halt all construction" on the dam, and encouraged the
Chinese financiers "to put on hold their financial support" until the
Committee's next annual meeting in June 2012. Neither the Ethiopian
government nor ICBC heeded this call.
Ethiopia is an important friend and partner of China - but so is Kenya.
Once the dam and irrigation projects are complete, China may find itself
at the centre of an escalating conflict, which does not serve its
interests in the region. "The destruction of Turkana, if it proceeds,
will become as notorious as that of the Aral Sea, tainting all those who
perpetuate it", the paper warns.
The completion of the multi-billion dollar project in the Lower Omo
Valley depends on international funding. Neither ICBC nor the CDB have
so far disbursed their loans. Now that the likely social, environmental
and security impacts of the projects are evident, the Chinese government
should reconsider its interests in the region, and ask its banks to
withdraw their support for a social and environmental disaster in the
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