Gibe III dam project to go on, Kenya, Ethiopia must save environs

Monday July 13 2015

The Gibe III dam under construction. PHOTO |

The Gibe III dam under construction. PHOTO | FILE | AFP 

By FRED OLUOCH

Kenya and Ethiopia have been told to jointly mitigate the negative impact of the execution of the Gibe III hydroelectric power project on the Lake Turkana National Parks — a World Heritage Site.

The World Heritage Committee directed the two countries to raise $200,000 for the exercise, when it met in Bonn, Germany from June 28 to July 8. The meeting was convened to discuss World Heritage Sites that are endangered by development projects.

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 — involves the construction of a dam and a power plant with an installed power of 1,870 MW. There are also plans to irrigate 111,650 hectares of sugarcane under the Kura Sugar Scheme. Currently, 6,000 hectares are under irrigation.

The World Heritage Committee noted that these projects are likely to impact negatively on the ecosystems of the three parks that form the Lake Turkana National Parks — the Sibiloi, Central Island and Southern Islands parks.

Dr Kibunjia Mzalendo, director-general of the National Museums of Kenya, who attended the World Heritage Committee conference, told The EastAfrican that it was, however, decided that the $1.8 billion Gibe III project proceed as scheduled, but the expansion of the sugar irrigation scheme be preceded by a thorough environmental impact assessment.

The two countries are expected to form a joint monitoring technical team comprising seven experts each to work under the Kenya-Ethiopia Joint Commission and come up with a report by February next year.

According to the latest report of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 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.

IUCN director-general Inger Andersen, said a total of 11 natural World Heritage sites are threatened by dam projects including the Lake Turkana National Parks.

Conservationists had earlier raised the red flag, saying that directing the waters of the Omo River to the dam reservoir at a rate of 10m3/sec — which began in January and is scheduled to continue for the next three years — is likely to reduce Lake Turkana by 10 metres.

Also of concern is that the flood plains of the Omo River are key to the survival of many wildlife species.

They say that these concerns, in effect, endanger the ecosystem and raise the risk of Lake Turkana National Parks being removed from the World Heritage List.

But Ikal Angelei, the director of the conservation lobby, Friends of Lake Turkana, who has been highlighting the likely negative impact of the dam since construction started in 2008, argues that IUCN is only looking at the effects on the heritage site but not the entire ecosystem.

She said that the Kenyan government needs to put in place the necessary mechanisms to mitigate the negative impact of the project, as Egypt has done with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

“Kenya seems not to place much value on the Lake Turkana waters and the human and animal life that depend on them,” said Ms Angelei. “The government must show that it is willing to protect its heritage even as it continues to focus on energy needs.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, dams can have a huge impact on World Heritage Sites, reducing precious natural wetland areas, changing river flows and impacting on local communities.

“It is essential to consider alternatives that avoid such construction where possible, and to properly assess how dams will affect our world heritage before they are built,” said Mr Badman. “Nature transcends national borders, and efforts to preserve what we recognise as our collective heritage must also look beyond national borders.”

For Ethiopia, the 150-kilometre-long dam is a key part of the country’s five-year growth and transformation plan to attain middle-income status by 2025. The Gibe III dam project, which is scheduled to be inaugurated in April next year, will be Africa’s second largest hydroelectric plant, reaching a height of 243 metres.

Power contract

On June 19, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPC) signed a contract with China Electric Power Equipment and Technology Ltd to construct the Ethiopia-Kenya transmission line at a cost of $119 million. The 433km line will stretch from Wolayita Sodo, in south-central Ethiopia to the Kenyan border, and is expected to be finalised in 26 months.

According to Azeb Asnake, the chief executive of EEPC, the project is also of interest to other East African countries — Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda — as it will assure them of green, sustainable and cheaper electrical energy to execute their development projects.

But the project has had its setbacks, especially from the Kenyan side. In 2011, for example, the Kenyan parliament passed a resolution urging the government to demand that the project be shelved pending investigations into its impact on the environment. In 2012, the World Bank approved a $684 million credit to finance the construction of transmission lines to Kenya, after initially withdrawing from the project following a series of protests by conservationists.

There are also unresolved issues surrounding the irrigation project.

In January, a joint mission met at the request of the World Heritage Committee and concluded that once completed, the project would have a significant long-term impact on the ecosystem.

But Ethiopian officials on the joint team maintained that the land that they plan to irrigate would not affect the lake, and that increased flooding around the banks of the Omo River would help local communities cultivate more land.

Dr Purity Kiura, National Museums of Kenya director of sites and monuments, who is part of the mission, said that the country lacks experts on the ground to monitor the impact on the environment.

The delegation from Kenya comprised six officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ministry of Sports Culture and the Arts, the National Museums of Kenya and Kenya Wildlife Service. The Ethiopian team included the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage.

The mission recommended that a joint strategic environmental assessment and a detailed hydrological baseline study be conducted and completed by December 2015.

Also, a joint expert panel for monitoring basin-wide natural resource management to work under the existing Ethiopia-Kenya Joint Ministerial Commission will be established to develop mitigation measures.

The Lake Turkana National Parks covers a total area of 161,485 hectares. It is home to a diverse habitat — fauna, desert lake ecosystems, an abundant birdlife — and is one of Africa’s most important breeding areas for the Nile crocodile.

The three parks that form the Lake Turkana National Parks are also breeding grounds for hippopotamus and a range of venomous snakes, and are one of Kenya’s Important Bird Areas, hosting the Palearctic migrant water birds.

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