Three months ago in this column, I warned that the completion of Ethiopia’s Gibe III dam on the Omo River could transform Lake Turkana, the world’s only desert lake, into Africa’s Aral Sea. Impassioned by China-style great leap forward philosophy, the Ethiopian government has pursued the development of the Gibe III dam in total disregard to the consequence associated with it.
The Ethiopian government and multilateral donor institutions present the Gibe III dam project as critical to national and regional energy security and contributing to poverty alleviation. A new report from the African Resource Working Group (ARWG) reveals that the completion of the Gibe III dam on the Omo River will touch off socio-economic, political and ecological collapse in the tri-state border region of the Great Horn of Africa.
According to the ARWG report, a major review by the African Development Bank of the hydrological impacts of the Gibe III dam on Lake Turkana omitted any assessment of the dependence of the livelihoods of local communities on the lake’s resources. Moreover, the assessment by the Ethiopian government shows no regard for Kenya’s sovereignty over Lake Turkana’s northern shoreline zone and a significant portion of the Omo Delta.
The author of the report, Claudia J. Carr, associate professor at University of California at Berkeley, argues that no credible assessments of the environmental and social cross-border impacts of the dam have been conducted. The report charges that the assessments of the dam’s impact were fragmentary and riddled with major omissions, inaccuracies and even fabrications.
For instance, the Ethiopian government and the dam proponents suggest that a 60-70% drop in inflows would only cause a 2m-drop in lake levels. The report suggests that the Ethiopian government, international development banks and global commercial investors have operated with the precondition despite glaringly inadequate appraisal of the impacts of Gibe III mega-dam project.
The Gibe III reservoir would be 150 km long, in a narrow gorge with covering an area of 211 square kilometers, with a storage volume of 11,750 million cubic meters; an amount equal to about two years of the Omo River’s flow causing a 60-70% reduction in the volume of the Omo River, which contributes 90% of inflow into Lake Turkana. This will reduce Lake Turkana’s volume by 58%, lower the lake level by10-22m while doubling its salinity and putting nearly 500,000 pastoralists and fisher folk at the risk of famine and conflict.
Gibe III dam will disrupt regular flood cycles of the Omo River destroying the network of swamps vital for 50 species of fish. Moreover, the networks of swamps also provide forage and browse for wildlife and livestock, support flood-retreat agriculture, and are valuable habitat for water birds that use the lake for their annual migrations between Eurasia and Eastern Africa. Lake Turkana is home Nile crocodile, bird species numbering in the hundreds, including charismatic birds like flamingos, cormorants, ibises, skimmers, and sandpipers, and amphibians like hippos and turtles.
The Gibe III dam will have irreversible consequences on vital ecosystem services and biodiversity. In turn this will impact hundreds of thousands of people in the Lower Omo Basin and Lake Turkana Basin whose livelihoods depend on a complex socio-ecological web of exchange of services and products. Completion of the dam will destroy the core of the region’s resilient indigenous economies, which are complex and delicately balanced livelihoods woven together by networks of reciprocity across Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan.
The report further warns that owing to its proximity to the Main Ethiopian Rift, there is a 50% likelihood of 7 or 8 intensity earthquakes occurring within 50 years, causing collapse of the dam, triggering unprecedented destruction of livelihoods and the ecological balance in the Lower Omo Basin and throughout Kenya’s Lake Turkana.
In July 2102, the World Bank voted to approve $684 million to build a 1000-kilometer long transmission major line to link Kenya to the controversial Gibe III dam. Clearly this demonstrates that both the World Bank and the Kenyan government failed to grasp the enormous and potentially catastrophic downstream socio-economic, ecological and political consequences of the Gibe III dam.
On the basis of the evidence advanced by the Africa Resource Working Group as well as other studies, Kenya’s complicity and tacit endorsement of the Gibe III dam is reckless, wrongheaded and unconstitutional. It is the duty of the government of Kenya to protect the rights and livelihoods of communities for whom the Turkana basin is home.
Dr. Awiti is an ecosystem ecologist based at Aga Khan University, Nairobi
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