(April 25, 2014) Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, has held water for at least five million years and is also known as the cradle of mankind for its abundance of hominid fossils, but may now suffer the same dry fate as the Aral Sea in central Asia thanks to hydro-electric development that ties neighbours Ethiopia and Kenya together.
Writer Ben Rawlence looks here at how regional power plays can work against accountability and how the complexity of large projects, and the many actors involved with them, militates against holding anyone to account.
By Ben Rawlence for Good Governance Africa
In the middle of the arid red desert of Kenya’s far north-west is a miraculous band of green water: Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake. During calm weather, algae float on the surface and turn the lake green. This has given rise to the lake’s other name: the Jade Sea. It is also known as Anam Ka’alakol, meaning the “sea of many fish”, in the local Turkana language. Nearly 300,000 people living near the lake depend on it for fishing, farming, watering livestock and drinking water, according to US-based campaign groups International Rivers and the Oakland Institute.
This may end soon, however, if the predictions of a December 2013 report from Oxford University’s African Studies Centre hold true. The Lake Turkana area, also known as the cradle of mankind for its abundance of hominid fossils, has held water for at least 5m years. Evaporation rings at the water’s edge function like ice cores at the poles, providing an archive of climate information. It is why the lake is a UNESCO World Heritage site as well as an environmental wonder.
This year, however, may mark the beginning of Lake Turkana’s slow demise.
The lake’s northern tip touches Kenya’s border with Ethiopia. Its main source is the Omo river, which rises out of the green hills in southern Ethiopia, about 600km upstream of the lake, spilling out into a rich fertile delta before it meanders into Lake Turkana. But Ethiopia, in desperate need of foreign exchange and electricity, has plans to choke this vital artery. Many warn that Lake Turkana may suffer the same fate as the Aral Sea in central Asia, which was once one of the world’s largest lakes, but is now nearly bone dry because its waters were diverted for irrigation.
The Ethiopian government has built Africa’s tallest dam, the 243-metre high Gibe III, on the Omo river. It is the third in a cascading series of hydroelectric projects. Other dams, Gibe IV and V, will follow soon. When the rains begin falling in May they will also start filling the Gibe III dam. In addition, downstream of the barrage, an Ethiopian parastatal is digging canals in the Omo Valley to irrigate up to 375,000 hectares of sugar plantations. In the process, Human Rights Watch says, the Ethiopian military has been evicting indigenous agro-pastoral communities such as the Mursi, Bodi and Suri.
The Gibe hydroelectric and irrigation scheme has been mired in controversy from the start. The Ethiopian government never made an official announcement of this irrigation scheme before construction began. It never carried out proper environmental and social impact assessments. It never consulted the people living near the river, according to the US-based pressure groups Human Rights Watch, the Oakland Institute, International Rivers and the Oxford study.
In the absence of any official estimates, the Oxford University study is an attempt to predict Gibe III’s effects on Lake Turkana. The report’s author, hydrologist Sean Avery, forecasts that the water diverted to feed commercial agriculture could result in a 16- to 20-metre permanent drop in Lake Turkana’s levels. The lake could reduce to two puddles, he says. And with increased salinity and evaporation, it will no longer be able to support its fish stocks. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous people who rely on fishing as a way of life will need to find alternative livelihoods.
The Kenyan government and other Western donors have not protested or opposed the potential destruction of this unique ecosystem and irreplaceable natural jewel. The Gibe III hydroelectric plant, Africa’s biggest, will generate 1,860 megawatts (MW) of power. This electricity will surge into the Eastern Africa Power Pool, a regional market set up in 2005, for onward transmission to Kenya and the region.
Other major projects are planned near the lake that link Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan. Kenya is building sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest wind farm, the Lake Turkana Wind Power project, 9km from the lake, expected to produce 300MW. Oil has also been discovered in the Turkana region, 100km south-west of the lake. A massive underground aquifer estimated to hold 250 billion cubic metres of water—equal to Lake Turkana—was discovered last year. The government claims this artesian basin could fulfil Kenya’s needs for 70 years. In addition, a $21 billion road, rail and pipeline network linking a new deep-water port at Lamu on the Indian Ocean to landlocked southern Ethiopia and South Sudan is planned to include a new resort city on the shores of Lake Turkana—if there is any water left.
Kenya is not alone in its silence on Ethiopia’s hydroelectric and irrigation scheme. International financial institutions are also complicit. The World Bank and the African Development Bank (ADB) withdrew from supporting the controversial dam project in 2009, but did not baulk at paying for the transmission line that will move the electricity across the border to Kenya. The World Bank approved the power line in late 2012, ignoring its own environmental safeguards that would have triggered a more thorough impact assessment, claiming instead that the line was simply connecting the national grids of the two countries.
Ties linking the three countries near the lake are proceeding at breakneck pace. But the building of the Gibe III dam and the irrigation scheme pose huge accountability questions. What happens when projects are conceived in secrecy, planned in violation of national and international standards, and executed at the barrel of a gun? Who takes the blame for international institutions that turn a blind eye to environmental risks and the lack of consultation?
By their nature, cross-border projects are harder to hold to account than purely national ones. Lobbying two or more governments as well as international financial institutions and their major shareholders (the United States, China, Europe and Japan) is tough and expensive. Vested interests are deep and strong and the argument is rarely clear. Critics claim, rightfully, that Ethiopia and Kenya should not be denied the right to exploit their natural resources; nor should they uphold ancient ways of life for their own sake. However, in solid democracies major infrastructure projects proceed in an open manner under proper scrutiny and without trampling the rights of the people whom they are intended to serve.
The lone Kenyan voice raised against the plans has been a small group called “The Friends of Lake Turkana”, led by charismatic activist Ikal Angelei. The Kenyan parliament, aside from asking a few questions, has been absent from the arena.
Silence reigns in Ethiopia, where the political environment is much harsher than in Kenya. The Omo Valley’s indigenous people, who are being evicted from their land to make way for the irrigated plantations, are unsophisticated in modern lobbying and almost completely disenfranchised in Ethiopia’s one-party state. Western NGOs, for the most part, have led the campaign to expose the lack of consultation, consent and social and environmental impact assessments as well as the human rights violations associated with the forced evictions and resettlement of the indigenous people.
The work of Human Rights Watch, UK-based Survival International and the Oakland Institute in publicising the expulsions prompted the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights last November to write to the Ethiopian government to stop the resettlement of the Omo Valley people while it investigates the allegations. The UK and US governments have suppressed information about human rights abuses connected with the irrigation schemes, according to a July 2013 report by the Oakland Institute. Another 2012 report by Human Rights Watch showed that the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) knowingly subsidised the resettlement of the indigenous peoples. DFID denied the claims but admitted its funds might have contributed “indirectly” to the activities of local governments, including resettlement.
The NGOs have made some positive impact. In January 2014 the US Congress ordered that American dollars “not be used to support activities that directly or indirectly involve forced evictions”, according to an appropriations bill. But, while important, these legal moves are likely to prove too little, too late. In Lake Turkana, regional power plays have worked against accountability. The complexity of such a large project and the many actors involved militates against holding anyone to account.
Ethiopia may have the right to develop the dam and the agriculture but not without reference to its own laws, which make very clear the rights of indigenous peoples to their own land, to consultation and to compensation in the event of eviction. Kenya, too, has the right to develop its resources but it also has a responsibility to protect its own citizens. Funders such as the World Bank, DFID, the US Agency for International Development, the ADB, and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China have a responsibility to follow their own procedures and abide by their own codes.
Bigger and more ambitious infrastructure projects can only proceed lawfully and benefit citizens if all the players involved are held to account, a painstaking process. Lake Turkana shows that without sustained democratic movements to keep governments in check, regional integration can easily be turned from a force for good to a torrent of tyranny.
Ben Rawlence is researching and writing a book about Somali refugees in Kenya with the support of the Open Society foundation. He is the author of “Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War”. Mr Rawlence received his master’s in international relations from the University of Chicago. He lives in London.