Lake Turkana stretches from southern Ethiopia deep into northern Kenya. It is the largest lake in an arid region. But there are fears that time is running out for the biotope on which hundreds of thousands rely for their water needs. The threat comes from Gibe III, a hydroelectric dam project in southern Ethiopia. The plan is to dam the Omo River which flows into Lake Turkana, in order to provide electricity for more than 200 million people in five countries. The dam project, the highest in Africa, has already been delayed and is now scheduled to start operating in 2014.
High demand for water
Samuel Maina doubts whether there will be enough water in the dam by then. He is a communications advisor with the Kenyan organization “Friends of Lake Turkana” which since 2008 has been working to protect the lake. As a result of climate change, rainfall in the region has decreased, Maina says. And if the water remains in the dam, then the level of Lake Turkana could fall.
“There is also the issue of sugar cane and cotton plantations down river which have been implemented by the government of Ethiopia and international farming companies,” he said.
The sugar cane and cotton plantations are monocultures which require large amounts of water. That means that less water remains for the river and environmentalists warn that many plants and animals could become extinct. There would also be insufficient water for the local population. An estimated 200,000 people would be affected by the dam. According to the “Friends of Lake Turkana”, people living in the Omo valley are being forcibly resettled. They say some have been arrested and even murdered for protesting. Many people are not satisfied with the land that is being offered as compensation.
Consequences for Kenya
The reduction in the amount of water flowing from the Omo River has severe consequences for people living alongside the Turkana Lake in Kenya. 90 percent of the lake lies on Kenyan territory.
Some people depend on fishing for their livelihood, others keep livestock and also depend on the grass that grows in the area, Samuel Maina says.
“Without the lake they are without any livelihood. There are also problems on the other side, in Ethiopia. People are being moved out of their ancestral land to pave the way for the sugar plantations. There is already a lot of conflict between Ethiopian communities and Kenyan communities, and within Ethiopian and Kenyan communities.”
World Bank involvement
Among the organizations funding Gibe III at the start of the project was the World Bank (WB). However, citing a lack of transparency, it withdrew its support.
In July 2012 the WB decided to finance a 1,000 km-long (621 miles) power cable from Ethiopia to Kenya. In a press release, it said the project would “connect Ethiopia’s electrical grid with Kenya’s, create power-sharing between the two countries, reduce energy costs, promote sustainable and renewable power generation, better protect the region’s environment, and pave the way for more dynamic regional cooperation between the countries of East Africa.”
For the critics, there’s no doubt that this cable would be used to transport power from the controversial dam. Lucio Monari is the sector manager of the World Bank’s Africa Energy Group, based in Washington. He regards the criticism of the planned power transmission line as unfounded, saying it is not dependent on the dam. He says 44 power plants feed the Ethiopian electricity network and, with it, the power line to Kenya. “There is no specific link to the Gibe III dam” Monari maintains, adding “we have also done analysis that even if Gibe III was not built, the interconnection would still be viable. There would still be power available for the national grid as well as for export to Kenya.”
NGOs and numerous environmental protection organizations disagree. Among the critics is Jessica Evans, senior researcher for international financial institutions with Human Rights Watch (HRW). She told DW that “HRW has been told by the World Bank that Gibe III would be one of the power sources. Unfortunately, even though the World Bank is recognizing that it will be one of the power sources, they are not willing to apply the safeguards, the policies that are meant to ensure against human rights abuses.”
The Ethiopian government and the World Bank argue that the new power transmission line will bring urgently needed power to countries in the region. But for opponents of the plan, the price is too high, if it includes driving people from their homes and damaging the environment.