People living near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya have little understanding that the fresh water essential to their development is likely to dry up when a huge hydoelectric dam in neighbouring Ethiopia is completed.
Fishermen, farmers, teachers and others living near the world’s largest desert lake say Turkana’s volume has reduced significantly over the past 30 years because of higher temperatures and changing weather patterns.
But few of the 100 people interviewed by a Kenyan researcher for International Rivers watchdog said they had been consulted or warned what could happen when the reservoir of the Gibe III dam, one of Africa’s largest hydropower projects, is completely filled in about three years’ time. The $1.8bn construction project, which is 90% complete, will start limited power generation in June.
The downstream impact of the dam is hotly contested. Some hydrologists have predicted that Ethiopia’s expansion of water-intensive sugar and cotton plantations on the Omo river, which the Gibe 111 dam allows, could reduce flow to Lake Turkana by up to 70%. This would kill ecosystems and greatly reduce the water level of the lake.
This, says International Rivers, could make the difference between marginal livelihoods and famine for the tens of thousands of already vulnerable people who depend on the lake for their livelihoods.
When told of the possible impact of the project, ethnic groups and communities near the lake predicted widespread conflict, hunger and cultural devastation. “If the Gibe III dam is constructed, the lake will dry up and this will lead to desertification and there will be depletion of resources: there will be no fish, no farming, and low humidity [and less rain]. If that is the case, the community will be finished,” said Sylvester Ekariman, chairman of the council of elders in Kakalel pastoral village.
Currently, the lake, which could split into two if incoming water is restricted, helps to prevent conflict between communities in Ethiopia and Kenya, and locally between the Turkanas and the Rendille ethnic groups, who live on opposite sides of the lake. If the lake shrinks, conflict is much more likely, says the report.
“This place will turn into an endless, uncontrollable battlefield,” said Joseph Atach, an assistant chief at Kanamkuny village.
Helen Alogita, a seed seller, told researcher Narissa Allibhai that she feared the people living on the other side of the lake. “They will come and kill us and that will bring about enmity among us as we turn on each other due to hunger. Find the person [building the dam] and ask them where they expect our communities to go? Where are our Kenyan leaders? If famine and hunger will make us die of starvation, where will they get votes from?”
Fisherman Dennis Epem said: “When the lake goes back, our enemies, which are the people of Ethiopia, will be reaching here. They have weapons, but we don’t have weapons. How will we defend ourselves when the people of Ethiopia cross? This lake is our security.”
Many of the people interviewed in the 14 communities said they were angry that an Ethiopian dam should affect Kenyans. “Not a single country [should] harm the other one by taking its waters without discussing with the other countries, because water is life. It should not be decided by one country. Who is funding these Gibes? They should withdraw their assistance or the loans they are giving,” the researcher was told.
“Awareness of the dam’s impacts and development process is extremely low,” said Allibhai. “A majority of interviewees were extremely uninformed. Any consultations with local communities were either minimal or non-existent. People in the villages had either heard about the dam only through local NGO Friends of Lake Turkana’s awareness-raising or through rumours; misinformation was rampant.
“Those in the towns were slightly more informed, especially the few with access to the internet – but even so, not one interviewee was sure of the details of the upstream developments, agreements and progress,” she said.
“All community members are opposed to the dam and irrigated plantations, as it will deprive them of their livelihoods and lead to increased famine, conflict and death. Their messages to the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments and the international community reflect their despair, and feelings of helplessness, anger and betrayal.”
Many older people said the developments in Ethiopia could tip the region into a crisis because climate change had made them more vulnerable. The lake was already much smaller than it was 30 years ago and villages like Impressa Beach, Lokitoenyala and Nachukui used to be under water, said locals. Rains are unpredictable and temperatures and wind have increased.
“These water grabs will disrupt fisheries and destroy other ecosystems upon which local people depend,” said Lori Pottinger, International Rivers’ Africa campaigner. “Local people have not been consulted about the project nor informed about its impacts on their lives.”
Both the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments have strongly backed the dam, which they maintain will increase development by providing more electricity.
The World Bank, which has been strongly criticised for funding developments that force evictions, is supporting the transmission line from the dam to Kenyan cities.
The Ethiopian government this week strongly rejected claims that the dam would harm Lake Turkana. A spokeswoman said: “The dam will provide a regular flow of water to Lake Turkana, which gives the possibility of providing a water supply throughout the year, whereas the lake is currently short of water in the dry season. The regular flow of water will also improve the aquatic life of Lake Turkana, providing a better livelihood for people living round the lake.
“The project … is instrumental in forging regional integration – the Gibe III dam will have a role in the realisation of close economic cooperation between Ethiopia, Kenya and the countries beyond. Kenya [will] obtain more than 300MW of electricity from Ethiopia.
“Campaigners are consciously trying to distort all these positive developments … in order to incite misunderstanding between the fraternal countries of Ethiopia and Kenya.” she said.
The Kenyan government was invited to respond to the report but has so far declined.
Suggestions for action by the communities ranged from using force to stop the dam, persuading the the Kenyan government to stand up for the people of Turkana and Marsabit, pressing for donors to withdraw funding and requesting compensation.