Report: Damming of Lake Turkana Could Leave Thousands Without Water, Provoke Tribal ConflictFebruary 3, 2015 By Linnea Bennett
The damming of a river that feeds the world’s largest desert lake could lead not only to less drinking water for thousands of Kenyans, but international conflict between tribes for what little water remains.
A new film and report by International Rivers, Come and Count Our Bones, shares the perspectives of 100 people living in Kenya’s Turkana and Marsabit Counties who fear the repercussions of the Gibe III Dam, currently under construction in Ethiopia.
The depth of the lake may decrease by as much as 20 meters
Lake Turkana, a world heritage site, is fed almost exclusively by Ethiopia’s Omo River. After nearly nine years of construction, the Gibe III Dam is expected to start producing hydropower on the river by the middle of this year. Once in effect, the dam and associated agricultural projects may decrease the depth of the lake by as much as 20 meters (its average depth is approximately 30 meters), according to the report, removing a critical source of livelihood for many people living along its banks.
“There will be no fish, no farming, and low humidity,” says one community member. “The community will be finished.”
The lake is an integral resource for many of its residents, not just fishing communities. Pastoral communities rely on it for grass and some even use it as a water source despite its high salinity.
“When the lake’s waters recede, grass grows on the fertile land along the shores which feeds our animals,” Esther Epoet tells International Rivers. “And when there is drought, people go to the lake to fish for survival. If the lake disappears, people will really suffer.”
“This Is Disastrous”
Though Kenya plans to buy some of the hydropower produced by Gibe III, it will be of little use to the 300,000 people that depend on Lake Turkana’s waters for survival. It is one of the only sources of water, particularly for agriculture and fishing, in an otherwise blasted landscape. The report points out that the lake’s greatest depletion will come from new cotton and sugar plantations – both water intensive crops – that will be developed downstream.
“If it was just a dam we would have said, ‘OK, maybe there will still be some percentage coming into the lake,’” Peter Ekai Lokoel, the deputy governor of Turkana, says. “But with the addition of the plantations, this is disastrous.”
“If it was just a dam we would have said, ‘OK, maybe there will still be some…coming into the lake’”
Residents are worried that conflict will arise over what few resources remain, the survey reveals. Conflict already occurs when the lake runs low and fishermen are forced to parts of the lake outside their tribe’s territory.
On top of this, the lake serves as a physical barrier between tribes in Kenya and Ethiopia with a history of conflict – with one another and across the border. Many people worry about violence developing as the lake disappears and these groups come into contact with one another more often.
“All the tribes that are fed by the lake, we will come together and fight Ethiopia to death,” pastoralist Helen Alogita predicts in the film.
An Information Gap
The project highlights how little information local communities have received in regard to the dam’s development. Many of those interviewed express frustration at their government for not doing more to stop the dam’s construction or to alleviate its consequences. Fear of the unknown drives them to assume the worst.
The Kenyan government has remained relatively quiet on Gibe III’s development through the years, though it signed a 2012 power purchasing deal with Ethiopia outlining plans to purchase 400 MW of energy and paving the way for construction of an electric transmission line between the two countries. The UN Environment Program urged Kenya and Ethiopia to sign a transboundary water agreement in November 2013 to no avail. The agreement would have provided a forum for discussing water usage and governance of the Omo River and included a provision for regulating dams.
Fear of the unknown drives them to assume the worst
Though Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration has acknowledged the dam will have an environmental impact, the government has done little to advocate for Turkana and Marsabit or develop plans to mitigate the dam’s effects. A previous International Rivers report speculates the Kenyan government’s reluctance is due to military and diplomatic pressure from Ethiopia and fear of breaking the electricity purchasing contract. However, the government’s overall silence, even in the face of local opposition, remains mostly a mystery.
Christopher Eposon from the Kenyan Ministry of Pastoral Economy and Fisheries is one local official frustrated at his government’s lack of acknowledgement. “The Kenyan government should have actually involved the Turkana people before signing any agreement with the Ethiopian authorities,” he says.
“We Will Lose Our Heritage”
With the dam nearly 90 percent complete, stopping construction is unlikely. However, the International Rivers report ends with a series of recommendations for NGOs and policymakers to take into consideration as they shift their focus from fighting the dam’s development toward mitigating its impacts.
First, the report calls for a campaign to raise awareness about the dam’s impeding completion and outcomes so that Turkana residents can respond accordingly. Second, it calls for an assessment of compensation that communities should receive based on how the dam and plantations will affect their livelihoods. However, the recommendation does not detail who should be responsible for conducting the survey or how the compensation could be funded.
“Lake Turkana is not just an affair of the Turkana people, it is equally an affair of the national government and the Republic of Kenya,” Deputy Governor Lokoel says in the film.
“We will have to see how we can work together to mitigate the situation because as a county and as a country we will lose one of the largest desert lakes. We will lose a tourism site, we will lose our heritage, we will lose the source of livelihood for the people of this region.”
Sources: ESI-Africa, International Rivers, Presidency of the Republic of Kenya, UN Environment Program.
Video Credit: “Come and Count Our Bones,” courtesy of International Rivers.