Ethiopia's Gibe III - A dam too far?
Published on : 20 December 2011 - 3:24pm | By RNW Africa Desk (Photo : RNW)
More about: Dasanech tribe Ethiopia dam Kenya Lake Turkana Turkana tribe
Michael Irgiena doubts if his ten children will ever be fishermen like him, or have any future living on the shores of the world’s largest desert lake Turkana in the barren border region of Ethiopia and Kenya.
By Luc van Kemenade, Addis Ababa
Lake Turkana, in the barren border region of Ethiopia and Kenya, is home to the Dasanech and Turkana tribes. Michael, a Dasanech tribesman living in a small village in northern Kenya, has been a fisherman for 26 years and, like his fellow tribesmen, he fully depends on the salty lake for his livelihood.
The semi-nomadic desert tribes often fight bloody battles over the region's scarce water and pasture which they use for fishing and cattle grazing. But the construction of an ambitious cascade of dams along Ethiopia's Omo river may pose a serious threat to the livelihood of nomads in the region, explains Michael.
“I was shocked when I heard the news about Ethiopia’s dam on the radio,” he says while sitting on his bed in his dusky dome-shaped hut at the shores of Turkana. “What came to mind very quickly was: what about the lake I am fishing in? What about my children?”
Gibe III is a two billion dollar dam funded by the Ethiopian government and one of Africa’s largest hydropower dams in the Omo River that flows into Lake Turkana. It provides 90 percent of the region's water and is said to have nearly doubled the power capacity of East African nations.
According to the Ethiopian government, the dam will develop the region and end a “backward lifestyle”, transforming its southern wilderness into highly productive cultivated farm land, irrigated by the dam’s regulated outflow. It is hoped that domestic and foreign investors will grow sugar cane and other cash crops on a large-scale in the south, an area known for its numerous indigenous tribes.
But Michael is more cautious. “The water will be too salty, so there will be no fish living in the lake,” he says. “And all the animals we have, all the cattle, will die. If there is no water, there will be no grass.”
He also fears the dam will lead to further bloodshed among tribes, as the Dasanech and Turkana will be forced to move into neighboring tribes’ territory in search of water and pasture.
While Ethiopia denies that its dam will reduce water levels, a group of scholars from the United States, Europe and East Africa shares Michael’s concerns.
In a 2009 study the Africa Resources Working Group estimated that water levels could drop ten to twelve meters drying up fish stocks and potable water. The United Nations subsequently called on Ethiopia to cease construction of the dam, fearing it would destroy Lake Turkana, listed as a UN world heritage.
But Ethiopia says there is “no way” that the project will be stopped, claiming its own studies show that Lake Turkana’s water levels would increase and the dam’s regulated flow would put an end to drought and floods.
Like other members of the Dasanech, Michael fears that Ethiopia’s decision to move forward with the project without informing its people will have a negative impact: “If you do something without informing people, you know it will have an effect,” he says. “It would be better if we all sit together and negotiate about what they are going to do for our people.”