Six firms bid for Lake Natron soda ash plant

Saturday January 26 2013

A soda ash mining plant. Photo/FILE

A soda ash mining plant. Photo/FILE 

By ADAM IHUCHA Special Correspondent

Six foreign firms have placed bids to set up a controversial soda ash plant on the shores of Tanzania’s Lake Natron.

According to the National Development Corporation (NDC), the firms are seeking to set up the $500 million factory to exploit a million metric tonnes of soda ash annually.

Lake Natron and Engaruka areas, nearly 220km from Arusha, have reserves of at least 4.7 billion cubic litres of soda ash.

However, the plan to mine the deposits has been strongly opposed by residents and conservationists who fear such a project would adversely affect the flamingo population in the area.

The mine is to be set up in the middle of a nesting ground for one-third of the world’s population of lesser flamingos.

A 2012 report by Birdlife International and Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania revealed widespread opposition among residents to the planned soda ash mine.

But a report seen by The EastAfrican in Arusha last week shows the government is determined to kickstart the project on Lake Natron.

The wetland management plan and environmental assessment study for the proposed project are set to be completed by June.

An August 2012 cost benefit analysis report showed that 75 per cent of local residents were opposed to the construction of the plant.

The report projected a loss on investment of between $44 million and $492 million over the next 50 years should the plan proceed.

It predicted earnings of between $1.28 billion and $1.57 billion over the same period if the government were to instead invest in local tourism and environmental protection in the area.

It is anticipated that the environmental assessment studies will also propose that environment-friendly technology be used to extract and process the soda ash for export, as the government seeks to sidestep the growing environmental concerns.

“This time, the government will do all it can to ensure the project is realised as planned,” said Gideon Nassari, the director general of NDC.

He would not divulge the names of the six companies, but said NDC was still scrutinising them to identify the most suitable one for a joint venture with the government.

Earlier plans for mining Lake Natron involved Indian firm Tata Chemicals and the NDC. But that deal collapsed.

Soda ash, known chemically as sodium carbonate, is a key raw material for glass, chemicals, soaps and detergents.

The NDC says the proposed plant could earn the country $300 million a year and create 500 jobs.

The government will hold a 46 per cent stake in the project through the NDC, once it reaches a consensus with any of the investors in ongoing negotiations.

For the past six years, the project has been facing opposition from environmentalists who argue that setting up the factory near Lake Natron would wipe out the breeding ground of the lesser flamingo thus putting at risk 75 per cent of the global population of this near threatened species.

President’s reaction

President Jakaya Kikwete has been pushing for the establishment of a factory, arguing the plant would be a boost to the economy.

“Experience elsewhere shows that the excavation can be done without any harm to the ecosystem,” he said recently, dismissing fears the plant will wipe out the flamingo population.

“What matters is the application of environmentally friendly technology to avoid disrupting the flamingos’ breeding sites. Sometimes, I doubt whether those who are opposing the plant are really patriotic, because it seems as if they are agents of some people we don’t know!” he said.