Unesco: East Africa loses Selous and Turkana, wins Thimlich

Friday July 06 2018

Charles Otieno Polo, the site manager of the archaeological landmark Thimlich Ohinga, in Migori County, western Kenya. The site —similar to the stone walls of Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe— has been added to the World Heritage List. PHOTO | FRED OMONDI | NMG


Kenya and Tanzania host the most heritage sites and landscapes on the World Heritage List of any other country in East Africa.

However, these sites are increasingly threatened by infrastructure projects and could lose their outstanding universal value unless the two governments strike a balance between development and conservation.

This came out clearly at the recently concluded Unesco heritage conference in Manama, Bahrain, during which two sites — the Lake Turkana National Parks in Kenya and the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania — were downgraded to the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The silver lining was the inscribing of Thimlich Ohinga, in Migori County in western Kenya, on the World Heritage List for its outstanding universal value. It becomes the country’s eighth site on the list.

In danger

The List of World Heritage in Danger is designed to inform the international community of conditions threatening the very characteristics for which a property has been inscribed on the World Heritage List (i.e. armed conflicts, natural disasters, uncontrolled urbanisation, poaching, or pollution) and to encourage corrective measures by governments.


The World Heritage Committee downgraded the Lake Turkana National Parks — that had been listed in 1997 — citing disruptive effects of the development of Gibe III dam by Ethiopia on the flow and ecosystem of Lake Turkana downstream, and the Kuraz Sugar Development Project, which poses further threat to the site.

In Tanzania, the Selous Game Reserve — which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1982 in recognition of its outstanding value as one of the largest remaining wilderness areas in Africa — was downgraded to the endangered list because the government did not convince the committee that its plans to construct a hydropower dam at Stiegler Gorge, was not going to interfere with its outstanding universal value.

The committee expressed concern that the complete deforestation of a large area within the game reserve will lead to irreversible damage to its outstanding universal value, since the dam could threaten the long-term availability of water and have a detrimental impact on the downstream Rufiji–Mafia–Kilwa Marine Ramsar Site and the livelihoods of up to 200,000 people.

“We are concerned that a decision to go forward with the construction of the Stiegler’s dam is likely to have a devastating and irreversible impact on Selous’ unique ecosystem, and that it will jeopardise the potential of the site to contribute to sustainable development,” Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a letter to Tanzania’s President John Magufuli.

The Selous Game Reserve, covering 50,000 square kilometres of land, is amongst the largest protected areas in Africa and is relatively undisturbed by human impact.

The property harbours one of the most significant concentrations of elephant, black rhinoceros, cheetah, giraffe, hippopotamus and crocodile and other animal and bird species.

The reserve also has an exceptionally high variety of habitats including the Miombo woodlands, open grasslands, riverine forests and swamps, making it a valuable natural laboratory for on-going ecological and biological processes.

The committee directed the Tanzanian government to undertake a strategic environmental assessment to the highest international standards, and submit a new management plan and an updated report on the state of conservation of the property and the implementation by February 1, 2019.

It also wants the government to find alternative means to address increasing energy demands.

“The World Heritage Committee has decided that the five-year Action Plan to protect the Selous-Niassa corridor is still not approved, lacks funding and has not been submitted to the World Heritage Centre, and further urges the state party to take action to secure this important ecological corridor, and continue to report on progress made,” said the final decision.

Good news

Kenya’s Thimlich Ohinga site which made it to the World Heritage List, is a 14th century stone-walled structure similar to those found in ancient civilisations.

Thimlich Ohinga means “frightening, dense forest” in Dholuo, the language of the Luo people.

The site is a reminder of thriving trade around the Lake Victoria region that existed between the years 1700 and 1900. The settlement was a symbol of authority and centre of political and economic power.

The Unesco committee concluded that the 600-year old historical landmark situated in Nyatike sub-County, 180km southwest of Kisumu, is an outstanding example of local architecture characterised by a three-phase dry stone laying technology that is not known to exist anywhere else in the region.

A similar style of construction is found in Great Zimbabwe, a stone structure from which the Southern Africa country draws its name.

It can also be compared with the walled cities of the Middle East in Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the Surame Cultural Landscape in northern Nigeria.

Kenya now has the dual challenge of upgrading the infrastructure around the remote Thimlich Ohinga site to allow easy access for tourists and researchers alike, and persuade neighbouring Ethiopia to accept environmental impact assessment of its development projects upstream that are affecting the Lake Turkana ecosystem.


Tourists view fossils of ancient men at Koobi Fora camp at Sibiloi National Park in Marsabit County, Kenya, on November 3, 2013. FILE PHOTO | NMG

“We are sad and happy at the same time. While we are excited that Kenya joins the world as a home to globally recognised ancient stone-walled architecture, it is a sad situation that Lake Turkana waters are diminishing and endangering the unique ecosystem and the livelihoods of over 300,000 people,” said Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia, director of the National Museums of Kenya (NMK).

The Gibe III hydroelectric power project, located some 300km southwest of Addis Ababa on the Omo River — which contributes 80 per cent of Lake Turkana’s waters — has a dam and a power plant with an installed capacity of 1,870 MW.

Knock-on effects

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report says the Gibe III dam could permanently change the seasonal water flow into Lake Turkana with knock-on effects on wildlife and the fish stocks on which local communities depend.

It adds that the wetlands along the lake’s shore are also at risk.

Lake Turkana Conservation Area comprises three national parks that serve as a stopover for migrant waterfowl and are major breeding grounds for the Nile crocodile, hippopotamus and a variety of venomous snakes.

The lake is the most saline in East Africa and the largest desert lake in the world, surrounded by an arid landscape.

It is Africa’s fourth largest lake, also called the “Jade Sea” because of its unique green colour.

But the biggest threat to the survival of Lake Turkana is the Kuraz Sugar Scheme that uses the Omo River waters to irrigate 111,650 hectares of sugarcane.


The Gibe III dam on the Omo River Valley. Environmentalists say it is a threat to the Unesco-listed Lake Turkana ecosystem in Kenya. FILE PHOTO | AFP

The committee now want Kenya and Ethiopia to agree on immediate mitigating measures to save not only the Lake Turkana region’s universal status but to save the livelihoods of thousands downstream.

Negotiations between Kenya and Ethiopia over the disruptive nature of the projects upstream have gone on for the past five years, and even the 2015 directive by the World Heritage Committee for the countries to jointly mitigate the negative impact has not borne fruit.

The two countries need to jointly raise $200,000 for a strategic environmental assessment, but Ethiopia wants to fund the assessment on its own, while Kenya has been citing lack of funds and is seeking the help pf the United Nations Environmental Programme.

The differences between the two countries have been a major hindrance.

Dr Mzalendo says that NMK through the Kenyan government will now use the three instruments available for negotiations with Ethiopia to address the issue.

They include the Joint Ministerial Commission; the summit between the Kenyan president and Ethiopian prime minister and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.


An aerial image shows a part of Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, in northern Kenya on June 28, 2018. The lake is the most saline lake in East Africa. AFP PHOTO | YASUYOSHI CHIBA

Universal value

Being on the World Heritage List means that a cultural site or landscape has been recognised for its unique universal value to humankind.

Once listed, sites cease to be the property of the host country and become a global property, benefiting from funding from Unesco and other donors.

But World Heritage Sites that are endangered by development projects that significantly change their authenticity and integrity, run the risk of being delisted for failing to keep its outstanding universal value as inscribed.

That is the challenge now facing the newly listed Thimlich Ohinga.

The committee said that it remains the largest and best preserved of these traditional enclosures, and an exceptional example of the tradition of massive dry-stone walled enclosures, typical of the first pastoral communities in the Lake Victoria Basin that existed till the 20th century.

Thimlich Ohinga and South Africa’s Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in Mpumalanga —with its volcanic rocks estimated to be between 3.2 and 3.6 million years old—were the only two sites from Africa that were inscribed this year, raising the total number of World Heritage sites in Africa to 95.

South Africa now has 10 sites on the World Heritage List while Kenya has eight and Tanzania seven.

Dr Mzalendo says Kenya will next year push for the inclusion of the Ruins of Gede Historical Town and Arabuko-Sokoke Forest in Coast region.

Other regional Unesco sites

  • Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

    The annual migration of large herds of wildebeest, gazelle and zebra in search of water and pastures in the 1.5 million hectare savannah makes for one of the most amazing natural spectacles in the world.

  • Aksum Ruins, Ethiopia

    The city of Aksum was the centre of ancient Ethiopia between the 1st and 13th centuries A.D.

  • Mount Kenya National Park/ Natural Forest, Kenya

    At 5,199 m (17057 ft), Mount Kenya is the second-highest peak in Africa.

    It is an extinct volcano that lies along the equator.

    The Kikuyu and Meru people who inhabit the foot of the mountain believe Ngai (God) and his wife, Mumbi, live on the peak of the mountain.

  • Kasubi Tombs, Uganda

    Built in 1882 and converted into the royal burial ground in 1884, the Kasubi tombs are a cultural site through which the Baganda preserve their traditions and communicate with the spirit world.

    The remains of four 19th and 20th century Kabakas (kings) are interred in the tombs.

    A 2010 fire partially destroyed the dome, but the remains of the Kabakas remained intact.

  • Fasil Ghebbi, Ethiopia

    Located in Gondar, this fortress was built by the emperor Fasilides in the 17th Century.

    It covers an area of about 70,000 square metres (753,000 sq ft), and is surrounded by a 900 metre long wall.

    The palaces, churches, monasteries and unique public and private buildings evoke Hindu, Arab and Baroque influences.

  • Fort Jesus, Kenya

    Built in the 16th century, the imposing structure of Fort Jesus, and its subsequent modifications, bears significant witness to the interchange of cultural values among peoples of African, Arab, Turkish, Persian and European origin.

    The fort reflects the Renaissance ideal whose architectural proportions and geometric harmony are to be found in the proportions of the human body.

  • Ruins of Songo Mnara, Tanzania

    Songo Mnara is located on the Kilwa archipelago off Tanzania’s southern coast.

    It was a central participant in Indian Ocean commerce during the 15th and 16th centuries AD, facilitating the exchange of goods from the African continent with traders from ports in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and Western India.

    The ruins consist of the remains of five mosques, a palace, and some thirty-three.

  • Lamu Old Town, Kenya
    Lamu Old Town is the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa, having been continually occupied for more than 700 years.

    It has preserved its quaint physical and social architecture, and displays its cultural significance especially during the Maulidi festival.

    The narrow winding streets are indicative of the long interaction between the town’s Islamic and Swahili culture.

  • Rock-hewn churches, Lalibela, Ethiopia
    These 11 medieval monolithic cave churches in the middle of Ethiopia were constructed in the 13th-century as pilgrimage sites for Christians after Muslim conquests prevented pilgrimage to the ‘Holy Land’.
  • Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania
    The Kilimanjaro is the largest free standing volcanic mass in the world and the highest mountain in Africa at 5,895 m (19,341 ft) above sea level.

    Human activity and global warming have led to an 82 per cent decline of the snow cap over the past 100 years.