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Gilgel Gibe III Dam. Community and Wildlife Crisis Management at Lake Turkana

Updated: Jan 19, 2020

There is a hydro scheme in Ethiopia called the Gilgel Gibe III dam. Like the Renaissance Dam, the impacts of this dam also reach across international borders. Lake Turkana in Kenya is a lake with a very hot and dry climate, 290km long and 32km at its widest part situated in the north of Kenya’s Rift Valley. It has an average depth of 30m. Geographically and politically, it stands close to the borders with Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. Turkana is the worlds largest desert lake and the fourth largest salt lake. The Omo, Turkwei and Kerio rivers flow into Turkana Lake carrying water from the Kenyan and Ethiopian Highlands. Turkana’s only ‘outflow’ is through evaporation, irrigation and brackish drinking water. Of the three rivers it is estimated that the Omo provides about 90% of the water for the Lake. Gilgel Gibe III dam in Ethiopia sits across the Omo River.

Environmental and Social Impact

In 2009, Africa Resources Working Group (ARWG), a cluster of eight scholars and consultants from the United States, Europe and eastern Africa, challenged findings of the original Environmental Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) commissioned by the Ethiopian Government (titled ‘The Downstream Environmental Impact Assessment for the GIBE III Hydroelectric Project’). Members of ARWG have extensive experience in large hydrodam and river basin development research and policy issues in the Horn and East Africa, including in Ethiopia. ARWG submitted that faulty assumptions and conclusions had been made and that the original report failed to take into account changes in the height of the lake or water quality.

In summary, ARWG’s document called ‘A Commentary on the Environmental, Socioeconomic and Human Rights Impacts of the Proposed Gibe III Dam
in the Lower Omo River Basin of Ethiopia 
JANUARY, 2009’, persuasively argued that real consequences would include:

  • A radical reduction in water flow into the Lake, causing a fall in the height of the Lake of between 10 - 22m

  • Increase in salinity. Impact on ‘drinkability' and fish stocks

  • Loss of water supplies for agriculture and pastoralist herds

  • Economic collapse for tens of thousands

  • Loss of resources for over 200,000 people dependent on the Omo River for survival

  • Elimination of riverine forest and woodland

  • Increased competition between Wildlife and local communities for access to water and food.

  • Major tri-country trans boundary economic, political and ecological repercussions, involving southwestern Ethiopia, northwestern Kenya and southeastern Sudan

  • Humanitarian disaster

  • And more ….potentially leading to intense physical armed conflict

Lake Turkana National Parks are now listed on the UNESCO World Heritage website on the List of World Heritage in Danger. It seems therefore that UNESCO are also of the opinion that ARWG’s forecast of environmental and social impact is more realistic. Turkana and its National Parks provide a home for a wide variety of fish and Nile crocodile. Terrestrial wildlife includes zebras, Grant gazelles, lions, leopards, stripped hyenas, Beisa Oryx, greater kudu, cheetahs and northern topi and over 350 species of aquatic and terrestrial bird. Sibiloi is surrounded by the Turkana, the Gabra and the Dassanach communities who have a very rich and unpolluted traditional cultures.

In its dash for energy, Ethiopia is reported to be planning two further dams on the River Omo (Gibe IV and Gibe V). These will clearly compound the situation. Impacts may take some time to materialise but the planet has just had the warmest decade ever recorded and they are likely to be accelerated by Climate Change. There have been big advances in wind and solar technology and the best result would surely be to find another solution, but this argument was lost a long time ago. Therefore the real impacts need to be understood, planned for and managed. It is very unfortunate that those making decisions about Dams, associated impacts and community engagement now, will have retired or disappeared into the woodwork, probably enjoying the fruits of bonuses earned for jobs ‘well done’ by the time calamity strikes (‘….. but it didn’t happen on my watch’).

The Gibe III dam started filling and producing electricity in 2015. It ended the twice yearly flooding that nourished river side agriculture and pastures; local agriculture is now struggling. The lack of rainfall has compounded problems and further threatened the water levels and fish stocks in Lake Turkana. The Ethiopian Government have now leased large areas of Tribal Lands to international companies to develop large sugar and cotton plantations, all irrigated from the Omo River further reducing water available for Turkana.

The communities and wildlife carry the real cost and consequences of dams. Dams change culture, livelihoods, and ways of life that stretch back hundreds of years. Ethiopia is now forcibly resettling some Tribes and there are reports of communities being driven into villages where promises of benefits such as access to medical aid and education are not being met. This strategy and behaviour is creating a cauldron of discontent which could boil over at any time. There are already tensions and skirmishes between Turkana regional communities and armed pastoralists over access to land for grazing and water. These tensions will grow as the resources become scarcer and community wildlife conflicts increase. The risk of escalation into complex multi cross border violent conflict is very real. This could ultimately spill over to endanger strategic regional projects such as:

  • The development of oil and gas in blocks in the SW quadrant of Turkana led by Tullow Oil and its associated export pipeline to Lamu. A summary of the project can be seen here; and,

  • The Lake Turkana Wind Power project. 365 wind turbines, each with a capacity of 850kW, and a high voltage substation that has been connected to the Kenyan national grid through an associated Transmission Line; constructed by the Kenyan Government. A summary of this project can be viewed here

Industry today does typically strive to become a valued corporate citizen. Local NGO’s are often relied upon to manage delivery of community and social development programs. The value of industry's effort and investment can easily be lost on ineffective, under valued projects if engagement is not robust and respectful of local culture and leadership structures. Better value for money and community impact can be attained through collaborative programs with agreed common objectives. The deteriorating regional situation around Turkana will test the very best community and wildlife conservation programs.

So what?

A balanced, practical, common sense agreement must be in place between governments regarding the operation and filling of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam. The dam filling rate must take into consideration the new commercial agricultural demands for water created by the Ethiopian Government and safeguard water levels in Turkana.

Cross border local community engagement is urgently required to map livelihoods, land use, dependencies, model impacts and to determine what communities really need as opposed to what governments or other organisations think they should have.

Strategies need to be put in place to safeguard wildlife and manage the anticipated increase in community wildlife conflicts.

National and Regional Governments, need to have a deep understanding of the real forecast impacts and develop plans to manage them. This cannot happen fast enough, its already nearly too late to become proactive and to look at the detail to avoid crisis! Regional government should seek to collaborate closely with industry to integrate and maximise the impact of community development programs.

Owners and Operators of strategic projects in the Turkana region must recognise the risk to their business objectives and work together to make real positive value adding investment in communities in the region and around their operations. This will reduce through life project risk by developing an outer ring of resilience protecting people, the environment and property. In addition to sharing economies of scale and saving money, the longer term benefits include less unplanned downtime and early warning of trouble.

The Kenyan Government must recognise the risks to the Turkana region and should challenge (or better) veto the building of further dams on the Omo River. Indicators are that the current situation is already heading towards crisis. Kenya should commission its own ESIA and model the impacts of Gibe III and the additional dams in detail so it can negotiate from a position of strength. Kenya must not rely on Ethiopia's assessments and assurance as history has shown they lack the rigour required. Financiers should be lobbied to ensure they follow their own rules and guidelines for investment and that the consequences of these projects are understood, properly funded and managed.

…… and finally

There is no doubt that Africa needs power to support development and that there are some difficult decisions to be made. A balance must be struck between electrification, extraction of natural resources and impact on the livelihoods of (often impoverished) communities, wildlife and the regional ecosystems. These communities do not care about benefits to others in cities thousands of kilometres away. Communities must benefit materially, especially if their lives, land and traditional way of life are to be lost and turned upside down. It takes time to build confidence with and respect of communities. The work required does not generate short-term photogenic results required to influence elections or convince investors. Communities are the key to long term success, regional stability, prosperity, reducing environmental and social impact and protecting our wildlife.

We must get better at thinking and acting strategically and ‘out of the box’. We must work smarter, find better ways, be collaborative, inclusive and philanthropic.

‘We depend upon the natural world on every breath of air we take and everything that we eat.’ David Attenborough 16 Jan 20.

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