Kenya: Death of Lake Turkana Near - New Report
BY JOHN MUCHANGI,
9 DECEMBER 2013
A section of women in the Elmolo and Rendile village that overlooks Lake Turkana having a chitchat as they embark on their chores. The lake provides a source of livelihood for the communities many of whom are fishermen
2013 could be the last year Kenyans have to see Lake Turkana in its natural state because beginning next year it will gradually reduce, and eventually reduce to two small lakes, after Ethiopia completes construction of the massive Gibe III dam
Lake Turkana may be reduced to two small lakes once Ethiopia completes its massive irrigation project and dams on River Omo, a new study says.
The lake receives 90 per cent of its water from River Omo but the Ethiopian government plans to divert up to 50 per cent of that water to irrigate sugarcane plantations near the Kenyan border.
"The lake level will inevitably drop 20 metres or more ," says the report, What Future for Lake Turkana?
It was released last week by the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.
Kenyans will start to feel the pinch next year when Ethiopia completes the massive Gibe III dam and begins to fill it up.
Experts say the dam's reservoir will take three to five years to fill. After that half of River Omo's water will go to irrigate plantations in the lower Omo valley.
This means 2013 could be the last year Kenyans have to see Lake Turkana in its natural state because beginning next year it will gradually reduce and will be regulated by Ethiopians.
Turkana is Kenya's largest lake and the world's largest desert lake.
"Ultimately, the lake could reduce to two small lakes, the northern one fed by the Omo, and the southern one by the Kerio and Turkwel rivers," says Sean Avery, the lead author of the report released last week.
Avery is a civil engineer and hydrologist who has lived in Kenya since 1979.
The report is the latest of similar studies that have been ignored by both Kenyan government and donors financing the controversial project.
Angry activists say more than 300,000 Kenyans who directly depend on Lake Turkana will lose their livelihood and may start to fight for scarce resources.
"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," said Ikal Angelei, founder of Friends of Lake Turkana.
Gibe III will be Africa's biggest hydro-electric power project and will produce the equivalent of the entire electricity generated in Kenya.
The government has agreed to purchase power from the dam beginning 2016 and has even secured a Sh37.5 billion World Bank loan to build a high-voltage power line from the controversial dam to Kenya.
The bank, when approving the loan last year, said it was convinced the project will not harm the environment.
"It will expand access and lower the cost of electricity supply to homes and businesses across Kenya and help to reduce thermal power emissions in Kenya, a clear benefit to the region's environment," said Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice President for the Africa Region in a statement.
The move has been heavily criticised by environmental groups across the world.
The Oxford reports says the World Bank has not carried out any study on the impact.
In 2004 the Bank had dismissed the Lake Turkana's importance, stating: "...While most of the lake lies within Kenyan territory, that is a sparsely inhabited semi-desert pastoralist region with no significant use of the lake's waters. It should therefore be relatively easy to negotiate 'no objection' from Kenya should that be required for multilateral/bilateral funding."
Avery says the Bank undertook no significant ecological and socio- economic studies of the lake before it made these pronouncements.
A separate report released in January by US-based environmental lobby International Rivers says it is difficult for Kenya to pull out of the electricity purchase deal.
"Many believe that official Kenyan government support has reflected an unfortunate combination of military/diplomatic pressure from Ethiopia, financial arrangements with key Kenyan leaders, and fear of the legal consequences of breaking electricity purchase contracts," says the paper titled East Africa's "Aral Sea" in the Making?
The Oxford report says hydroelectric dams do not consume water once in operation but they permanently regulate river flows.
"The filling of dam reservoirs will cause temporary drops in the water level of Lake Turkana and, once in operation, the dams will permanently regulate river flows," it says.
So what will deal Lake Turkana the mortal blow is the massive irrigation project that will follow Gibe III.
Ethiopia has already began evicting more than 250,000 of its own people to irrigate the 245,000 hectares of sugar plantations in the lower Oromo Valley near Kenya.
The country wants to become a sugar superpower but Angelei says it is "notoriously unsympathetic to its citizen concerns."
The eviction has attracted outcry and the government has reportedly drafted more than 2,000 soldiers downstream of the dam and most of the Omo valley is now off limits to foreigners.
"The Kuraz scheme alone will require over 30 per cent of the Omo flow as a minimum and this rises to nearer 40 per cent when the 'remaining' area is included," Avery says in the final report.
He adds that the total abstracted water could easily reach over 50 per cent of Omo River.
"The potential reduction of inflow to Lake Turkana is therefore huge, and far greater than previously reported," he says.
Veteran archaeologist Dr Richard Leakey says the project could easily kill the lake. "The only remaining thing is when. This is a global disaster in waiting. Lake Turkana is going to dry up," he said.
The dried up lake might have greater consequences than loss of livelihood by fishermen. "Lake Turkana's lake bed holds salts deposited over thousands of years. What will be the consequence when these are exposed by the receding lake, and then blown onto pastures and farms by the lake's strong winds? " says the report.
The Oxford study says the discovery of vast underground water in Turkana is not helping the dying lake.
"Recent reports by Unesco of vast underground aquifer finds west of Lake Turkana might be thought to diminish the importance of the potential demise of the lake," it says.
The aquifers have enough water to supply all Kenyan needs for the next 70 years, according to Radar Technologies International, the company that confirmed the water's existence.
One of the aquifers is to be the "new Lake Turkana" because its storage volume is equal to that of Lake Turkana ."
The Nairobi-based UN Environmental Program is currently trying to broker a deal between between Kenya and Ethiopia to save the lake.
Activists and researchers say the move is welcome but might be late because Gibe III is 75 per cent complete.
"It is a matter of the utmost urgency, " Avery says.