(Apologies for x-postings)
The following is a new blog from National Geographic blogger Sandra
Postel, based on a new report that reveals how developments in
Ethiopia could turn Lake Turkana into "East Africa's Aral Sea." Read
about the report and download it here: http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/gibe-iii-s-impacts-on-lake-turkana-7773
Ethiopian Dam Threatens to Destroy Indigenous Livelihoods and the
Worldï¿½s Largest Desert Lake
Posted by Sandra Postel of National Geographic's Freshwater Initiative
in Water Currents on January 11, 2013
Over the last century, the construction of big dams to generate power,
supply water and control floods has unleashed a damaging cascade of
social and environmental consequences ï¿½ including the destruction of
fisheries, subsistence farmlands, homes and communities.
More than 470 million people around the world are estimated to be
suffering from these and other downsides of dams, often with little or
no compensation for their lost livelihoods.
Now, another big dam under construction ï¿½ on the Omo River in Ethiopia
ï¿½ threatens not only the ancient ways of living of some 500,000 tribal
peoples in Ethiopia and Kenya, but also Lake Turkana, the worldï¿½s
largest desert lake.
The Omo traverses the highlands of southern Ethiopia before it empties
into the lake in northern Kenya.
The Ethiopian Government views the Gibe III Dam, under construction
since 2006 and now about half complete, as essential to its drive for
economic development. In addition to generating electricity for
domestic use and export to neighboring Kenya, the dam will supply
water to vast agro-industrial schemes, including plantations of sugar
cane for biofuels production.
But without attention to the peoples, wildlife and ecosystems affected
by this massive project, the cost of progress may be far too great,
according to a study released this week by International Rivers, an
environmental and human rights organization based in Berkeley,
If Ethiopia completes the Gibe III Dam and moves ahead with large-
scale irrigation in the lower Omo Basin, ï¿½the result will be a cascade
of hydrological, ecological and socio-economic impacts that will
generate a region-wide crisis for indigenous livelihoods and
biodiversity and thoroughly destabilize the Ethiopia-Kenyan
borderlands around Lake Turkana,ï¿½ says the report, written by a
natural scientist with many years of field experience in the region
who wishes to remain anonymous.
Numerous indigenous peoples, including those of the Bodi, Karo, Kwegu,
and Mursi tribes, rely on the natural flood cycles of the Omo for
their sustainable practices of flood-recession farming, fishing and
livestock grazing. Like generations of their forebears, they plant
sorghum, maize and beans in the riverside soils after the yearly
flood, relying on the moisture and nutrient-rich sediment the Omo
deposits each year.
That cycle of flooding will disappear if the dam is completed, because
the riverï¿½s natural rhythms will be replaced by flows regulated to
optimize the production of hydropower and to deliver irrigation water
to industrial-scale farms.
ï¿½When we talk about the Omo River we are talking about our life,ï¿½ said
the chief of the Karo people to Mark Angelo, chair of the Rivers
Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. ï¿½The Omo
River is everything to us. But we donï¿½t have a say.ï¿½ (Read Angeloï¿½s
article and see the video here.)
The lower Omo Valley is also the last unspoiled biodiversity hot spot
in southwestern Ethiopia and an area crucial for elephant and other
large mammal migrations. Harm to wildlife from the dam-based schemes
could be substantial, since among the areas slated for large-scale
plantation-style agriculture is a sizeable portion of the Omo-Tama-
Mago complex of protected areas, Ethiopiaï¿½s most important wildlife
Lake Turkana, situated at the northern end of Kenyaï¿½s Great Rift
Valley and one of the oldest lakes on Earth, could shrink dramatically
if Gibe III is completed. The lake currently receives nearly 90
percent of its inflow from the Omo. Without the riverï¿½s yearly
supply, Lake Turkana would steadily lose water, because evaporation
would no longer be balanced by inflows. Each year, about 7 percent of
the lakeï¿½s total volume evaporates under the hot desert sun.
Between the Omo water stored in the Gibe III Damï¿½s reservoir and
diverted to the large irrigated plantation schemes now under
development in the lower Omo Valley, the level of Lake Turkana could
drop by as much as 22 meters (72 feet), according to the study. Given
that the lakeï¿½s average depth is 30 meters, such a drop would alter
its ecology, salinity and habitat immensely.
Indeed, the devastation to the lakeï¿½s ecology and fisheries could
rival that of Central Asiaï¿½s Aral Sea, which has lost more than 80
percent of its volume of water through excessive diversions of the two
rivers that flow into it.
Gibe III, expected to cost about $2 billion (which is likely an
underestimate, given the history of dam cost-overruns), is a publicï¿½
private partnership between the state-run Ethiopian Electric Power
Corporation and the Italian engineering firm Salini Costruttori.
International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana are calling for a
halt to construction until there is a thorough and scientifically
sound assessment of how the dam and irrigation projects will harm Lake
Turkana, as well as a plan to ensure the lake does not collapse
As for the Omo, the government earlier proposed to mitigate the
effects of the dam with a ï¿½controlledï¿½ flood, executed by releasing
water from the damï¿½s reservoir for ten days. The idea would be to
mimic the Omoï¿½s historic natural flood, which is so important to the
indigenous peoplesï¿½ livelihoods.
However, an independent review of the Gibe III project, commissioned
by the European Investment Bank, determined that the planned
artificial flood had not been adequately studied to determine its
effectiveness. But given the rapid growth of irrigation in the basin,
it is likely the dam would not be managed to maintain ecosystem
functions. As the new report states, ï¿½The designation of Omo riverbank
lands for industrial agriculture immediately makes clear that
artificial floods for ecological benefits will not be released as
proposed, since these would harm the estates.ï¿½
Ethiopia remains one of the worldï¿½s poorest nations. There is no
begrudging its quest for economic advancement.
But there are alternatives to grabbing land and water from indigenous
tribes who have lived and farmed sustainably in the region for
hundreds of years, and to destroying so much of the countryï¿½s natural
and cultural heritage for the sake of export-oriented agriculture that
will do little to improve the lives of the very poor.
The government should halt the development of Gibe III until its full
social, political and ecological ramifications are understood, and
until the principles set forth by the World Commission on Dams for dam
project assessment and compensation are fully taken into account.
*Note: I joined fifteen other scientists, including Richard Leakey of
the Turkana Basin Institute, David Turton of Oxford Universityï¿½s
African Studies Centre, Kate Showers of the University of Sussex, and
Eric Odada of the University of Nairobi, in endorsing this study.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and
Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is the
author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last
Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of
the ï¿½Scientific American 50.ï¿½
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